The Beauty of Holiness: Angicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina

by Carroll William Westfall, appearing in Volume 17

This book sparkles with erudition and clarity worthy of its title. It reveals how South Carolina colonists made manifest in their religious buildings the beauty of holiness mentioned in Psalms (29:2; 90:9), I Chronicles (16:29), and II Chronicles (20:21) of their Bible and in their Book of Common Prayer. “The aesthetics of the Anglican church became both an agent of and evidence of the sacred in the lives of the congregation. Beauty was a Christian virtue, especially in a world so clearly ravaged by sin” (220). The beauty resided principally in “regularity, uniformity, and proportion” in the liturgy, the architecture, and the music, and it could reshape the moral sense as British moral thought of the period taught.

The book’s evidence, reaching beyond all of the colony’s churches and chapels into the West Indies and England, range from gravestone to belfry, from the exterior architectural orders to the Eucharistic plate, and through the smells, the sounds, and the feel of holiness.

The colony’s cultural basin lay in the West Indies and London more than with other American colonies. London was the ultimate source, and the colonial builders of churches, usually a group of vestrymen, religious and secular officials and commissioners, and builders, knew the latest thought and practice there through books and personal contacts; the role of the architect remained undefined throughout the colonial period.

Church of Saint Luke and Saint Paul, Charleston, 1811-16. Photo: The Beauty of Holiness

While the rural churches and chapels provide the background, the book’s stars are the three, and later four, great Charleston churches. Saint Phillip’s (1715-23) amalgamated recent discussions in London about the ancient Temple of Jerusalem and the new London churches, especially Nicholas Hawksmore’s, responding to Queen Anne’s 1711 edict. Saint Michael’s (1751-62) hews closer to James Gibbs’s example of Saint Martin in the Fields and used an innovative long-span truss to obviate interior columnar vault supports. With Prince William’s Parish Church (1751-53; burned 1779), possibly the first ancient temple descendent in the English-speaking world since Saint Paul’s Covent Garden, the colonists were “at the cusp of English church design practice” (53). Like others in the colony these churches were designed more as auditory than as liturgical spaces. They lacked important chancels and found convenient rather than liturgical locations for unremarkable baptism fonts and pulpits. The Eucharistic meal was offered with fine silver from a humble table, but taking it was rare.

The Word had displaced the Cross and was prominent in tablets, books, and pulpit. Anglicans found sacramental significance in the building and its fittings, seeing barrel vaults, often with painted cherubs, as the orb of heaven above the quadratic earth of box pews and nave. The scent of cedar, the sound of bells, and the Temple-veil chalice napkin stressed continuity between the old Church and the new.

The beauty was in the universe Ptolemy had described, and over the course of the eighteenth century, Descartes’s and Newton’s description would displace his as reason began to dispel the commingling of heaven and earth. Meanwhile, by mid century Anglicans accounted for only 40 percent of the colony’s white population, while Dissenters became increasingly prominent and enthusiastic. With the Anglican hegemony being eroded, links with London were strengthened, and construction of Saint Michael’s and the new Statehouse on Charleston’s central square was authorized on the same day. It and other new Anglican parish churches now enhanced their “regularity, uniformity, and proportion.” Box pews were made more uniform and were assigned according to the size of the family’s pew subscription, with the entire family using it without the gender segregation prevailing in Virginia. This made visible the movement of the colony’s affairs into the hands of a wealthy class and out of those of the less numerous planters. The lesser orders, including slaves in calm years, occupied aisle seats or benches at the back, in galleries, or in the vestibule.

The Revolution replaced the Anglican Church, established since 1706, with the disestablished Episcopal Church. War-ravished rural churches were rebuilt and improved. In 1803 the Charlestonian Robert Mills produced designs for a church (unbuilt) that provided “a brilliant look forward” to the classical American temple church. Inside the Episcopal churches equality was embraced as an ideal, but the continued selling of prominent pews belied it. Charleston’s third and largest major church, Saint Luke and Saint Paul, begun in 1811 as a quotation of St. Michaels, was built to stand out in size and finish among the now more visible dissenters’ churches that quoted Episcopal churches, finally reasserting the former role of the Anglican Church. By 1820 the Episcopal Church was visibly “a thriving institution.”

Louis Nelson, chairman of the Department of Architectural History at the University of Virginia, pulls off an impressive alchemical act of transforming vast and detailed information into an account of how buildings responded to the needs and desires of those who built and used them.