Why Is Charleston Called the Holy City?
Charleston’s nickname is the Holy City. There are a lot of rumors as to how the city got its name. Legend has it that it was given the nickname by a fond admirer of the city. Regardless of the name’s origin, it stuck. Today, residents and visitors couldn’t imagine another nickname for the city — thanks to the many spires that dot its skyline.
Charleston: A Tolerant City
Charleston has been known for its religious tolerance since the 1700s. Not only does this city boast dozens of church steeples, but it’s also home to plenty of historic synagogues. People from all over the world flocked to Charleston for religious freedom, so you’ll find several different Protestant denominations in addition to Roman Catholic congregations here.
Tour Charleston’s Churches and Synagogues
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to see Charleston’s many churches. You can simply wander the city to see its many religious buildings. Or, you can expect to see a handful of churches on most historic walking tours of the city.
St. Michael’s is the oldest surviving religious building in Charleston. The current church was built in the 1750s. It sits on the corners of Meeting and Broad Street in Downtown Charleston; this intersection is often referred to as the “Four Corners of Law” because on each corner there is a building that represents federal, state, local and religious law (the U.S. Post office, the Federal Courthouse, the Charleston County Courthouse, Charleston City Hall and St. Michael’s).
The congregation at Charleston’s Circular Congregation Church formed back in 1681! This Greek Revival/Romanesque structure is possibly one of the most striking in the city — and it certainly doesn’t look like a church. The congregation was founded by English Congregationalists, Scots Presbyterians and French Huguenots. Talk about religious freedom!
The original building on the site was dubbed the ‘Meeting House’ and lent its name to Meeting Street.
This cathedral is the cathedral of the Diocese of South Carolina. It’s a great example of Greek Revival architecture — which was very common in America in the 1800s. Construction for this building began back in 1810.
You won’t see the ornate interiors you’re used to seeing if you’ve visited many European cathedrals here. Religious architecture in America in the 1800s could be very simple and lacked ornamentation.
The Emanuel African Methodist Church is a part of the American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion, which is the oldest black congregation in the U.S. The AME Zion has houses of worship all over the East Coast. This congregation in Charleston dates from 1815 to 1818.
This church was born out of necessity. African Americans in the 1800s had very little religious freedoms. If attending a white church, they sat in the segregated section of the church (usually in the back) and received church services, such as communion, only after the white congregants received theirs. It probably goes without saying that African Americans could not lead religious services in these churches, either.
Which meant that the beginnings of an all-black congregation were instrumental in religious freedom for many of Charleston’s African-American residents.
The first of the two synagogues on our list, the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was founded in 1749. It is one of the oldest Jewish congregations on the East Coast. Not only is it one of the oldest, but it is often referenced as the site of the founding of Reform Judaism.
The building was erected in 1840 and is another great example of Greek Revival architecture.
Brith Sholom Beth Israel
The second synagogue on our list was founded in 1854 and is the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the South. Its original congregation was formed by Prussian and Polish immigrants.
This church was the first Roman Catholic Church in the Carolinas. The original structure was built in 1798, and the current structure at 93 Hassell Street is the third structure to house the congregation. The second structure burned down in the 1838 Charleston fire.
The French Protestant Huguenot Church is housed in possibly one of the most visually stunning structures in Charleston. This Gothic Revival building has been painted a light pink and was built in 1844. It lays claim to being the only Huguenot church in the U.S. that is still independent.
The congregation was formed in Charleston by a group of 45 French Huguenots back in 1680. Many of Charleston’s high society families were early congregants. Today, church services are held in English — although the church offers one service in French in the spring.
This classic Greek Revival church is known for its interior architectural designs, including its bright blue knave and stained-glass windows, and was designed by E.B. White. The congregation originally hailed from Germany, and services were in German until 1910.
Charleston Houses of Worship by Land and Sea
If you check out the above churches, you’ll get a great little walking tour. Yet there’s another way to see Charleston’s churches and steeples — by boat.
Craning your neck as you’re walking around isn’t always the best way to see some of the most breathtaking steeples in the country. If you’re so inclined, you might want to take a boat tour of the Cooper or Ashley Rivers to see what these steeples may have looked like to the many mariners who docked here in the 1800s.
Though the history of Charleston’s nickname is hotly debated, one thing remains clear: it’s home to one of the largest concentrations of churches in the U.S. (including some of the country’s oldest congregations). Whether you decide to visit Charleston’s churches and synagogues by land or sea, you’ll still get a good feeling for the city’s history of religious tolerance.