Charleston, with its abundance of churches, is rightfully called the “Holy City.” Many of its places of worship are architecturally noteworthy. The Unitarian Church is of these places; it is the second oldest church on the city peninsula and the English Perpendicular Gothic Revival style building is designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 1772, the Society of Dissenters, known today as the Circular Congregational Church, was experiencing growing pains. Their congregation needed more room than the Meeting Street location could accommodate, so they decided to expand with a second building on Archdale Street. Construction of the new church was nearly complete when the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776, and American militia, sent to protect the city, used the church for a barracks and destroyed the pews. In 1780, the British occupied Charleston and continued using the church to quarter troops, further damaging the interior. After the war ended and prosperity returned, the Archdale Street church was repaired and was formally dedicated in 1787.
For the next 30 years, the Meeting Street and Archdale Street churches acted as one corporate entity, sharing not only the same two ministers, but also the same sermon each Sunday. In 1817, one of those ministers, Anthony Forster, and several church members became Unitarians. More than half the congregation, 75 members, left Meeting Street and moved to Archdale, founding the Second Independent Church in Charleston.
The next year, illness caused Forster to leave the ministry and, in the spring of 1819, Harvard College sent 28-year-old Samuel Gilman as a candidate for minister. He preached on four Sundays, was was unanimously elected pastor and then returned to Boston to marry Caroline Howard. The couple moved to Charleston that autumn where Gilman was ordained on December 8, 1819. Although Samuel Gilman was “an avowed Unitarian,” the church hesitated to use that name formally until 1839 when it was finally rechartered as The Unitarian Church.
In 1852, Francis D. Lee, a Charleston architect and church member, was hired to modernize the building. Lee, inspired by the Chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, wrapped the old walls in the English Perpendicular Gothic Revival style. Joining forces with his former mentor, Edward C. Jones, the pair completed their project two years later. The fan-vaulted ceiling in the nave and chancel, and the painted glass window, are considered among the finest in the country.
The Great Charleston Fire of 1861 swept through the city, charring 560 acres of buildings. Included in that total were the Circular Congregational Church and the nearby Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar. The fire had been stopped at the church property line and Caroline Gilman wrote, “Our fences burnt down and nothing was visible but burnt arches…but there stood our Church in all its beauty & our Cemetery with not a rose-bud crushed.”
Just 25 years later, the Charleston Earthquake of 1886 struck, shearing off the entire top of the church’s tower, with its high pinnacles and medieval-style finials. Falling masonry left a gaping hole in the church roof and a pile of rubble in the church nave, destroying most of the fan-vaulted ceiling. A Boston architect, Thomas Silloway, came to Charleston after the earthquake to redesign and repair the damage. With funds raised by Unitarian churches throughout the country, he restored the interior to Francis Lee’s original design. The tower, however, was rebuilt in a slightly less elaborate form; the pinnacles and parapet were lowered and simplified for greater stability. It is Silloway’s restoration that you see today.
Over 100 years passed before Charleston faced another natural disaster. Hurricane Hugo blew into the Holy City in 1989, causing massive damage in the historic district. Fortunately, the church was spared extensive damage, but falling trees in the churchyard scarred many of the monuments.
During its long history, the Unitarian Church in Charleston has survived wars, earthquakes, fires and hurricanes. With continued support of the congregation, community, and visitors who revere this Gothic architectural treasure, it is currently being restored to a new prime.