I visited Charleston with intent to find religion. I wasn’t seeking salvation of my soul. I was trying to figure out if the town lived up to its moniker, the Holy City. Frankly, I was dubious. Jerusalem, maybe. Rome, maybe. But Charleston?
The first thing I noticed upon arrival in the historic district is all the steeples. Apparently, the Preservation Society, which proudly proclaims that “Preservation is Progress”, feels nothing should be built in Charleston which is higher than the church steeples. Scanning the skyline, it appeared the Preservation Society ruled with an iron hand.
Indeed, I learned that the compact historic district of Charleston has eighty-five churches. In colonial times, Charleston was apparently the religious equivalent of Woodstock, where everyone was welcome, including Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Huguenots, Jews, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Unitarians and Lutherans. Only Catholics were given the cold shoulder, but that was mostly because of fear of Spanish colonialism.
So if an open mind was the inception, what sustained Charleston’s religious fervor through the years? Perhaps Charlestonians clung to their bibles because of death and destruction. You see, Charleston has suffered great adversity at the hands of pirates, wars, plagues, fires, earthquakes and hurricanes. Maybe all those routine visits by the grim reaper made the residents a little more resolute in their absolutions.
As I walked down East Bay Street at mid-day on Tuesday, I thought I had stumbled upon the perfect proof of Charleston’s spiritual fervor. Peering through a window, I spotted a rapt audience of acolytes listening to an animated speaker at a podium. It was only upon closer scrutiny that I realized it was not a church, but a Charleston Cooks’ classroom. The attendees were paying homage to Charleston’s other God, Lowcountry cooking.
I strolled down to the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets, known as the Four Corners of Law. At this crossroads you have the St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, the County Courthouse, the Federal Courthouse and City Hall, all in one place. Certainly there was no shortage of institutions in a position to tell you what to do at this junction.
After a walk-about in the graveyard of St. Michael’s, I was greeted by Marilyn Dingle, who was minding a kind of street-side retail display in front of the church. She welcomed me with a huge smile and proudly told me about her handmade baskets woven from sweetgrass, bulrush, and palmetto palms. Occasionally, she interrupted our chat to exchange friendly banter with a competitor across the street. Marilyn showed me a display of intricately crafted crucifixes fashioned by her daughter, and earnestly told me the design came to her daughter in a vision. It was infinitely clear she considered the crosses to be the handiwork of God.
That evening, I found myself sitting in a pew of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. In conjunction with the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, an annual celebration of the performing arts in Charleston, the Church was hosting a performance of the Mount Zion Spiritual Singers. The troop recreates the old fashioned prayer meetings of their ancestors. Apparently, very few of the old timers could read. As a consequence, hymns were learned by rote, often resulting in humorous butchery of the lyrics. For example, in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘lead us not’ became ‘need us snot’. While the words might have been lost in translation, the passion was not. The performance was rousing and inspirational.