Our Place in Charleston History
As a direct offshoot of the first Independent Church in Charleston, this church was built in 1772. Only the intrusions of the American Revolutionary War intervened. During the struggle for independence, both the British Army and the American patriots occupied the unfinished church; the British used it to quarter their troops and animals, and the American troops used it for their barracks.
After that insulting interval, when the church was reconvened, a certain number of the membership of the Independent Church in Charleston asserted their more liberal and tolerant views. This came under Rev. Forster who had been converted to an early form of Unitarian thought through his association with his new father in law, Joseph Priestley. Joseph Priestley was a Unitarian minister from England, and is best known as a man of science. As you all remember, he is the discoverer of oxygen!
In their dissent from Orthodox Christian teachings, this group eventually broke from the church on Meeting Street now known as the Circular Church, and began to hold their own services and to call themselves the Second Independent Church in Charleston. Only later, when their charter ran out, did they change their name. In 1839, this congregation became the Unitarian Church in Charleston, and still holds claim to being the oldest liberal church in the South.
Other highlights from our history include being the first church in the South to publish and distribute liberal or dissenting religious information. In 1821, Samuel Gillman founded the Charleston Unitarian Book and Tract Society and this became, historically, the first Unitarian bookstore. Later that year, Gilman stated that the congregation averaged 400 members.... Pews were sold to pay for the renovations, and remember, it was customary for a family to purchase a pew and keep it for generations!
From 1860 to 1870, the congregation endured what Caroline Gilman, when looking back, had called "The Years of Trial."... As the toll of strife from the Civil War mounted, the church was not spared its wrath. In an ironic and tragic twist, the members decided to send their valuable silver, records, organ and furniture up to Columbia for safe keeping...
Of course, Sherman's army came through and all was lost! Meanwhile, the city of Charleston was overlooked.
Slavery, or more specifically the owning of slaves by the Gilmans and other members was a central contentious issue. It was a moral low point as Unitarians from the rest of the country were nearly unanimous Abolitionists.
As the century turned, the winds of social change also blew through Charleston as the new century exerted its insights and marshaled its effects. In 1917, the Bylaws of the church were amended to allow women to serve on the Vestry, and the sewing Circle and the Alliance merged in 1921.
We have now arrived at the time of living history... So my story remains unfinished and of necessity, awaits its completion from among those who long standing memory and life experiences will personally fill in this script and add the personal details to bring the life story of our community up to date...
Our Gardens and Churchyard
Our churchyard is a unique and important home to many native SC flowers, trees, and shrubs. It is one of the nicest collections of plantings within the city limits.
The initial inspiration and design for our churchyard was created by Mrs. Caroline Gillman in 1800's. She based her tranquil design, and its more natural layout on the world famous Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Boston. In keeping with our religious outlook that is more free flowing, poetic, and spiritual, our Unitarian-Universalist approach to nature has inspired poets and writers such as Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Margaret Fuller. Most notably, Transcendentalist, and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke here in 1827.
There are legends and romantic embellishments associated with our churchyard. One of the most popular yet mistaken is the belief Edgar Allen Poe's heroine, Annabelle Lee is buried here. While Poe spent a brief time in the Charleston area, at Fort Moultrie, there is no record of an Annabelle Lee that can be found in Charleston.
Another favorite conjecture centers on one of the most dramatic monuments in our garden. It is the impressive marker of Mr. Strobel who, among his many worldly and diplo- matic accomplishments, also served our country as the ambassador to distant Siam (form- erly known as Burma, and now listed as Myanmar) Given the time and dates he was there, it was said that he was the first American to tell the King the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Through his writings and reflections on his experiences with the king and his court, (and maybe an English school teacher who arrives?) that he might be responsible for part of the story line that now comes down to us as the delightful Broadway play, The King and I.
More recent landscaping improvements have outlined the pathways, and have made access to wandering through the centuries much easier. Thanks to generous patronage, we have been busy laying our new brickwork, and will soon complete the far back section as a place for open, outdoor meditation, worship, and reflection. Over the decades and centuries, our grounds have been a place where Charlestonians and many visitors have leisurely strolled, and where, in the words of Walt Whitman you are encouraged to "to loaf, inviting your soul."
What Unitarian-Universalists Believe
The goal of a U-Uist church community is to provide a safe and sacred space.
In Charleston, we honor both the legacy of our building, and the spiritual potential found in one another when we give every person the freedom and the opportunity to engage actively in the personal search for truth, and to actively engage in the quest for greater meaning in their lives.
Our U-U churches do not ascribe to any restrictive doctrines or historical dogmas. We believe that both our history and our future are based on the search for one's own answers. Throughout this religious outlook, we see the idea of faith as a verb; as ever active, always changing, and that the development of a liberal faith is a dynamic, open minded, and openhearted process.
U-Uists prize the use of a reason and acknowledge the complex dimensions and possibilities of human intelligence. From a more poetic reference, we can quote R. W. Emerson who declared that we have to "pass our lives through the fire of thought". He also advised us "not to fence the Spirit", and be sure to maintain our congregation as one that desires to know, that seeks to discover together the greater insights and deeper truths and then practice or apply those conclusions with a larger, compassionate understanding.
U-Uism, its Principles and Purposes, are deeply concerned with human dignity, equality, inclusion, and justice. We follow the call of the prophet Micah who recommends that we love justice, seek mercy, and walk humbly with the God of our personal understanding. We come together freely, and we prize the depth and quality of friendships that can be found here. Through our shared experiences we can enrich and inform each other, furthering our personal search and honestly and empathetically sharing life's journey as a community of reason and faith.
Our Historic Building; its design and importance to Charleston
We can begin by understanding that behind any great community are the founding ideas and the guiding ideals that inspired them to come into being...
Our direct debt is to two thinkers of the Enlightenment. Principally, in 1669, we cite the writings of the English philosopher John Locke, and the aristocratic statesman, Lord Ashley Cooper. From the results of their efforts to craft the clauses of the Carolina Constitution, these men brought us the formative ideals of self governance, access to freedom of conscience, and sowed the brave and determined seeds of the democratic process that had its roots in Europe and that flowered in the New World.
In 1681, The Independent Church of Charleston was founded- dissenting from the Church of England, in search of a more egalitarian and democratic or participatory approach to church life. Later this institution became transformed over history and architecture to become The Circular Church.
In 1772, The Rev. William Tennant put forth a vision of a second church to address growth concerns. Construction began on Archdale Street, which occupied land at the end of what was to become the Gateway walk... Creating for posterity, a historical and spiritual pathway that later came to symbolize the move from traditional Protestant Christianity toward greater inclusiveness and diversity, establishing, early, its mission to become Charleston's home for dissenting ideas and creative religious thought.
The Revolutionary Wars years were ones of testing and travail for this young congregation. By 1778, and through to 1786, the church was literally occupied by American patriots and English soldiers, with both the Colonials and the Crown occupations having disastrous and damaging effects!
After the War, the new building on Archdale Street was restored and then formally dedicated as a house of worship by the Rev. Hollingshead on October 25th, 1787. (Please note: This year, 2009, our community will celebrate its 237th year of existence, and in 2022, at 250, we should throw ourselves a great party!)
By 1815, a difference of theology had arisen. With the liberalism of the North influencing the training of many of the clergy of that day, the church on Archdale began expressing its active disagreement and willingness to engage in religious dissent from its mother church, and its members began to shape and design its own path.
In 1817, The Rev. Forster, once a devout Trinitarian, converts to a Unitarian point of view, and within a year, is terminated! However, 75 brave dissenters left along with him, leaving only 69 at the Circular Church. After several months of debate and discussion about next steps, the churches decided to formally separate and dissolve their common ties of property, etc..
The dissenting group at Archdale did not, however, call themselves Unitarians. Instead, in a more modest assertion, they chose to call themselves the Second Independent Church of Charleston. This separation is what historians point back to as the time when an officially non-Trinitarian church came into existence, even though the name Unitarian was not used until some twenty years later, in 1839.
In 1818, Harvard College sent Samuel Gilman to replace the ailing Forster. Gilman was only 28 years old, and he was an "avowed Unitarian" who was elected unanimously. He returned briefly to Boston, to marry Caroline Howard that next spring, and then they returned to Charleston later that year, where he was installed as the minister on December 8th, 1819. He was greeted with hesitancy, since he brought with him new ideas, and an unpopular name that made the church stand out in the pious Holy City... However, Gilman persevered and through his intelligence, creativity and dedication won the respect and confidence of the congregation.
Under the Gilmans, the church enjoyed the apex of its ancient history, and together Samuel and Caroline brought lasting changes and improvements to the Unitarian Church. In 1821, he founded the Charleston Unitarian Book and Tract Society and this became, historically, the first Unitarian bookstore. Later, in 1827, Ralph Waldo Emerson arrived as a guest minister.
The years between 1830 and 1860 held social and intellectual advances that paralleled the flowering of literature and liberal religious thought across our country.
Under the pastoral leadership of Samuel and the artistry of Caroline Gilman, a beautiful rambling churchyard was first designed and constructed. She also organized the first Ladies Working Society and the first church bazaar in 1832. Later, in 1839, the original charter of the Independent Church expired, and they renewed their church charter as the Unitarian Church of Charleston.
In 1852, after the general agreement that repairs were necessary, there was a desire to modernize and remodel the existing, plain and functional building. Edward Jones and his student, Francis Lee, who was a church member and local architect, redesigned the basic structure into a church of grander proportions; choosing to redesign the church based on the grand English Perpendicular Gothic style. Later that year, Gilman stated that the congregation averaged 400 members.... Pews were sold to pay for the renovations, and remember, it was customary for a family to purchase a pew and keep it for generations!
From 1860 to 1870, the congregation endured what Caroline Gilman, when looking back, had called "The Years of Trial."... As the toll of strife from the Civil War mounted, the church was not spared its wrath. In an ironic and tragic twist, the members decided to send their valuable silver, records, organ and furniture up to Columbia for safe keeping... Of course, Sherman's army came through and all was lost! Meanwhile, the city of Charleston was overlooked and was left largely unharmed... Slavery, or more specifically the owning of slaves by the Gilmans and other members was a central contentious issue. It was a moral low point as Unitarians from the rest of the country were nearly unanimous Abolitionists. Because of fervor of this debate,
by 1865, the very existence of the church and its scattered membership was in serious question.
Being a coastal city and built on a susceptible land mass, natural disasters also wreaked havoc. During the 1880's, the community seemed to be in a constant state of recovery! First, there was the hurricane of 1885 that destroyed the sanctuary windows, and then there was the subsequent great earthquake of 1886 that collapsed the high tower into the center of the church, hurling it through the ceiling and forming a large pile of rubble in the sanctuary.
Only with the generous and sustaining help of the Northern Unitarians was money collected for all the various church repairs. Thomas Silloway, a Universalist minister and architect was then hired to oversee the process of turning ruins into restoration. This monumental effort included the rebuilding of the fan tracery ceiling.
To our knowledge, there are no other churches in this country that have such a magnificent ceiling design! By 1890, the efforts towards rebuilding and renovation were completed.
The last great addition came when Alva Gage became the most notable patron of the church, and he gave in substantial measure for the next 30 years. He bestowed the church with sufficient funds to build what was to become Gage Hall in 1892.
The Unitarian Church- Then and Now
While existing centuries before, and reaching back into the early contentious origins of Christianity, Unitarian-Universalism finds its most prominent threads in Reformation Protestantism, and the eventual spread of dissenting thought to the New World. Historically, Unitarians questioned the Trinity as a valid understanding of God- preferring that the unity of God as being more believable, rational, and consistent. In another expression of dissent, The Universalists attested to their belief in a loving God, and therefore rejected the awful judgments and the fears associated with beliefs about damnation, Heaven and Hell.
During the Age of Enlightenment, the emphasis on reason, science and common sense drew many scholars and statesmen to our collective points of view. This attraction has had a lasting impact on the shape of the guiding ideals of our country. Along with notables such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, There was a majority of Unitarians and Universalists who held prominent roles in the writing and defining of both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Four of the first seven Presidents held Unitarian or Universalist views.
With its historic emphasis on wisdom and compassion, scholarship and ethics, there is a general emphasis on holding to a bright and liberal faith. We prize personal freedom and we encourage social responsibility. While long considered to be heretical and impious, our more expansive and tolerant approach to beliefs and personal understanding has earned us the respect of all discerning people. In fact, it could be said that we value having doubts, and that to engage in an active, lifelong questioning process assists each member to create for themselves, a more open minded perspective on religion and ethics.
As an educational philosophy that guides our congregation, we have attested to the value and importance of lifelong learning. We have made it a priority to provide a curriculum that encourages our children to discover their own ideas and to learn from the great teachers of the world and to read many kinds of Scripture and then to contrast and compare them. Along with the insights from science and the encouragement of reason, we seek to provide each person, at every age, with opportunities for learning and self discovery. Additionally, we sponsor public forums, adult discussion circles, and religious education studies that often cover a broad area of interest and a wide variety of religious understandings.
The Unitarian Church in Charleston values its noble and long standing presence on the religious landscape of greater Charleston. Designated as a historical treasure during the USA Centennial, we have struggled and we have celebrated our existence for these past 237 years. Our role in the city is to be an active progressive witness, and we function effectively by providing our citizens with an alternative non dogmatic religious community. As the most inclusive and diverse congregation in the city, we welcome all responsible expressions of religion among us. We are, from our earliest inceptions, an independent community of seekers that welcomes all who are in search of a new spiritual home.
A Theology of Place: A brief overview of the symbolism and meaning of the windows and décor within The Unitarian Church in Charleston
The heavy, black, front doors create a stately and somber entryway, one that is reinforced by the immediate view of the large stone plaques that honor deceased founders, early tragic deaths, and the abiding loyalties of its members and friends. Remembering that this building has a long history grounded in dissenting Christianity, it is an influence that remains strong and ever present in the language and sentiments carved on those plaques. The entryway itself is short and narrow, and it makes the eye focus on what lies up and ahead of any visitor, the long center aisle leading to the pulpit and lectern, all of which is overshadowed by the dramatic, imposing and colorful Altar window.
As one steps up the two risers inside, there is a palpable feeling that transports even the most hesitant yet curious visitors into becoming reverent! As they stare almost incredulously up at the unusual fan pattern that is made of hand-shaped wood and intricate molded plaster, there is a marvelous hush. And, sometimes, people looking up will gasp, and exclaim at how beautiful this place is!
Stained Glass Side Windows
Looking left and right, the visitor is greeted by large stained glass panels whose designs surround the church. These panels are comprised of an array of abstract shapes that are highlighted and made translucent by colorful shafts of light. While there is a developed theology and symbolism of light in our Western theology, we will say here that it promotes an expansion of thought and feeling, and it encourages a paradoxical sense of intimacy within a larger cathedral-like setting.
The most important symbols on the stained glass side windows occur at the bottom panels and to a lesser, yet still relevant and important extent, the highest panels. The two bottom panels speak directly to the inspirational and more abstract notions of God that find their roots in Judaism, and in early Greek translations of the Holy Bible. On one hand, the Hebrew lettering on the bottom panels comes directly from the Torah, and is a phrase that declares the singularity or unity of God which is a non-Trinitarian understanding. It is an abbreviated version of the foundational thought from Deuteronomy -- The Shema Israel -- that is clearly proclaimed by Jews, Unitarians, and Moslems: "God is One" On the opposing panel is the Biblical Greek phrase that refers to an inclusive, spiritual, more metaphysically based theology and a more expansive idea of God. This phrase comes directly from the 8th chapter of St. John's Gospel", God is a Spirit" (the whole phrase is this: "God is a Spirit; and Let us worship God in spirit and in truth").
The upper panels are comprised of three reoccurring floral cross designs, and two sets of the Alpha and Omega, from the Book of Revelations. The floral crosses are all equilateral and interlocking which makes them more universal or cross-cultural. The cross is a symbol older than Christianity, and its meanings include balance, relationship and symmetry. Because of the importance of nature, these floral crosses serve to remind us of how Nature informs and inspires us. However, the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, are more exclusively Christian, symbolizing the assertion that Jesus as the Christ is the first and the last: The beginning and the end of faith and revelation. This is a position rarely held by U-Us today, but one which, nevertheless, points to the strong Biblical origins of this dissenting and open faith.
Use or the Purpose of Plaques
As a commemoration of founding ministers and the other most influential members of the church, the presence of plaques denotes the importance that these individuals had in the establishment of liberal religion in Charleston. They serve to honor and uplift their memory, describe their timeless ideals, and outline their accomplishments among us. Created in a proper, formal chiseled English script (often in a Spencerian hand or a Copperplate design) the words seem awkward to us today, both theologically and because of the use of florid praise and assertions of piety. Yet they remind us of how those past generations valued their faith, and how they took the time to honor those who gave so much to its existence. We read these plaques to remind us of what devotion to their own religious principles can hold for anyone.
Main Altar Window
The centerpiece of magnificent color is the German styled paint on glass. An art technique that is not very common, it was employed as an alternative to stained glass. First installed in 1852-54, when the church was remodeled in the English Perpendicular Gothic Revival style, it maintains a magnificent ability to broadcast light from its Eastern wall perch. It was repaired and some elements were substantially changed in 1914.
There are eight Biblical figures depicted with careful attention to detail and in accord with the historical traditions and religious lore that surround the characters themselves. From left to right, we find portrayals of the Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew is given the color blue, Mark is in red, Luke in purple and gold, and John in red and green. Signifying themselves as The Four Evangelists, in their hands they carry quills and parchment or books, all in white, the "color" of light and standing for enlightenment. They are, of course, the four central or accepted sources, or the historical editors who compiled the life of Jesus.
Below these figures stand three other painted images from our Hebrew ancestry which are central images and people of Judaism and our larger Judeo-Christian heritage. The figure on the left is the Hebrew priest, Aaron, and on the right, his younger brother, the most important Jewish prophet and chief guide, Moses. Between them is the glorious Ark of the Covenant, attended by two angels with outstretched wings. Aaron is shown in his full regalia, with the bejeweled breastplate and scepter, a sure sign of his office as chief priest. (Aaron served as spokesperson for Moses who had a speech impediment.) Opposite him, Moses is carrying and displaying the Ten Commandments, also in white, which were to become the basis of Western law and Biblically based ethics for centuries. In the center, uncharacteristically open for all to see, is the Ark, that which holds or contains "God", and houses the holiest of Holy images, scrolls. When open it speaks of the promise of inspiration and insight being available to those who seek its wisdom and understanding. The angels are both protective and declarative. They declare that the Ark is the golden repository or sacred container of the highest and holiest of religious treasures.
Thanks to Rev. Peter Lanzilotta for this information