Roots of the Spirit, Charleston and Edisto Island

“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.

The Circular Church, founded 1681

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.

New First Missionary Baptist, Edisto Island, SC ©'10 Charlotte Hutson-Wrenn

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. ”


I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in architecture, art, Arts & Culture, beauty, Charleston South Carolina, Food, Gullah, religion, South Carolina History, spirituality, travel, Writing
10 comments on “Roots of the Spirit, Charleston and Edisto Island
  1. Cork Hutson says:

    Acts 2:1-4 Gullah Nyew Testament:

    Wen de day ob Pentecost come, all de people dat bleebe pon Jedus been geda togeda een one place.

    All ob a sudden dey yeh a nise dat sound like a haad wind da blow. Dat nise come fom de eliment, an e been dey all roun eenside de house weh dey been seddown.

    Dey see sompin een dat place dat look like fire dat been shape op like tongue dem. Dem tongue ob fire spread out, one ta ebry poson dey. A tongue ob fire beena stay dey pontop ob ebry one ob um.

    De Holy Sperit come pon all dem people dey an full um op. E mek um all staat fa taak diffunt language dem dat dey ain neba laan. Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.

    – Gullah is one of the most descriptive languages on Earth. I am glad to have grown up hearing it.

    • Cork, this is a fabulous addition to this piece. I am going out to Edisto Bookstore tomorrow to get my copy of the Gullah Bible! Thank you, my spirited friend and cousin. May dat haad wind of love keep you wrapped up tight. Always. Love, Charlotte

  2. Draw “Lebel” is supposed to have been originated to accompany the motion of leveling the rice measure. This spiritual was sung on Beaufort and Edisto Island, SC.

  3. Reblogged this on Charleston Through an Artist's eye and commented:

    Happy Easter, 2016

  4. as you no doubt know our mutual ancestor was an early preacher in the Charleston area,and great-grandpa spoke Gullah at the dinner table which got him in trouble!Happy Easter!

  5. Les says:

    This is a beautifully written post, I guess made more so because i know of where you speak. As a decidedly non-religious, but somewhat spiritual person, I spent many of my wanderings through Charleston ducking into churches just to see the architecture, admire the glass, and to breathe the air.

  6. Kim in Fiji says:

    I’m so glad you re-posted this because I wasn’t following your blog the first time around. How happy I am to think about the existence of a city where the church steeples are taller than the buildings for trade. Also, Gullah shares a lot of similarities with Hawaiian pidgin. I don’t really understand pidgin, but I do have the translation of the New Testament in it: Da Jesus Book. The meanings pop out in pidgin that are less obvious in standard English, just as they do in Gullah. Lots of love and a happy Easter season to you all.

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Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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