“Draw, preachuh, draw/ Draw roun’ duh haltuh/ Draw preachuh, draw/Draw til the break ob day.” – Draw Lebel, Shouting Spiritual Lyric sung on Edisto Island. (published in the book, The Carolina Low-Country, 1932)
Charleston is nicknamed the Holy City. That is a pretty hefty responsibility. But honestly, the city is one of few that I know of in the United States that is defined by a low lying city skyline that boasts more church steeples than tall banks, or business structures. Joseph Campbell teaches that one can tell what runs a city (what is the city’s mythology?) by looking at its tallest buildings.
Charleston began as a city of tolerance. It was one of the few cities in the original thirteen colonies to provide religious tolerance, albeit restricted to non-catholics, embracing the Dissenters who rebelled against the Church of England, French Huguenots, Quakers, Baptists and Jews, who were allowed to practice their faith without restriction. And in 1690, Charleston (then called Charles Town) was the fifth largest city in North America. It remained among the ten largest cities in the United States through the 1840 census. I like to think that her tolerance had something to do with her early strength. Maybe that thought and those ideals can continue our current renaissance as one of the best cities to visit, with some of the best food in the country.
Last weekend my kind neighbor, Mr. Morrison, the preacher’s brother, invited me to one of the historic black churches on Edisto Island. It was their 182nd year anniversary celebration, and there would be praisin’ and fried chicken. Believe me. They are experts at both. And if you need a little rockin’ and swayin’ they’ve got that, too.The New First Baptist Church on Edisto Island was built in 1818 through the efforts of one woman, Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend, wife of Daniel Townsend a large plantation owner. She and her ex-slave, Bella, baked cakes in tabby ovens, to raise enough money to build the Baptist Church. It is especially significant in the Black History, because it has operated continuously as a black church since the trustees turned the church over to the faithful black members just after the Civil War. Mrs. Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend, whose monument stands behind the church, deeded the property to the Baptist Church on March 28, 1828. Historical elements include the tabby church foundation, and a recessed panel slave gallery, which lines both sides of the nave of the church.
Edisto Island is defined by her breathtakingly beautiful natural landscape, and by the winding two lane Highway 174, now a designated National Scenic Byway. One is seduced by creek vistas and the many small wooden churches on this path to the sea. There are two historically significant white churches on the island, The Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island, and Trinity Episcopal, both charming structures, right on 174.
There is simply something in the air, and in the land, that is holy here on Edisto Island – something not settled in a church building, historic as they are. I can feel the voice of people like Susan Rhodes, who was a former slave. “We used to steal off to de woods and have church, like de spirit moved us — sing and pray to our own liking and soul satisfaction — and we sure did have some good meetings, honey — baptize in the river, like God said. We had dem spirit-filled meetings at night on de bank of de river, and God met us dere. We was quiet ‘nuf so de white folks didn’t know we was dere, and what a glorious time we did have in de Lord. ”