Our Living History
Second Presbyterian Church, founded in 1809, is blessed with one of the richest histories in the country, and as proud as we are of it, we know our past is not an anchor for maintaining the status quo, but instead provides roots for keeping us grounded to meet the challenges of the future. Our history is a living history, where we continue in a truly timeless tradition of creating a Christ-centered community.
Soon after the founding of Charleston, the community of Presbyterians, dissenters from the Church of England, worshiped together in the White Meeting House, a wooden edifice on Meeting Street. The congregation included English, Irish, Scottish, French Huguenots and Independent Presbyterians. In 1731, twelve families withdrew from the White Meeting House and established what is now the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, modeled strictly on the Church of Scotland. This church grew rapidly. By the end of the century, the building was inadequate to accommodate the worshipers and it became obvious that there was a need for a second Presbyterian church.
In 1809, fifteen men met and began planning for Second Presbyterian Church. The Reverend Andrew Flinn was called to organize the congregation. The church was built at the then substantial cost of $100,000, and on April 3, 1811, was dedicated with the corporate name of “The Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston and Its Suburbs.” Property for the church was obtained from the Wragg family, whose name was given to the area still known as Wraggborough. The impressive deed and documents of transfer of the property are displayed in the church narthex.
Today, Second Presbyterian Church is the oldest edifice of this denomination in Charleston, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1852 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States met in this building. Second Presbyterian Church’s minister, Reverend Thomas Smyth, proposed that the Presbyterian Church have a historical association to care for its artifacts and statements of faith. His resolution was passed, forming the Presbyterian Historical Society. The Presbyterian Church of the United States designated Second Presbyterian Church its “Historical Site Number One.”
The Classic Revival sanctuary is brick with stucco applied. The building features two tiers of windows, a square tower with an octagonal belfry, plastered walls and a tetra Tuscan portico. Architect’s plans called for a church spire, and though building costs were redeemed within a decade, the spire was never completed. This was due in part to the need to alter the original building.
The immensity of the sanctuary strained the voices of the ministers. In 1833 the floor was raised three feet, the ceiling lowered sixteen feet, and the rear wall of the nave moved to enlarge the vestibule. The north and south entrances were closed and pews were added. In 1849 the original box pews were replaced with the ones still in use. As was the custom in Charleston, church pews were rented with the rental fee also purchasing a graveyard plot. This custom was discontinued in 1924, but the numbers remain on the pew arms.
A number of natural disasters have damaged the sanctuary. The hurricane of 1813 inflicted great damage to the roof. The earthquake of 1886 resulted in about $6,000 in damage. Cracks in the stucco are still evident in the bell tower. Then, the hurricane of August 27, 1886 caused the greatest damage. The building was unroofed on its north side; the ceiling was so damaged as to necessitate its replacement, and the pews and organ were deluged.
In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo wrought similar damage to the sanctuary and set the stage for two more catastrophic events. During an unusual December freeze, water pipes ruptured and the sprinkler system flooded the vacated sanctuary. Soon after, the heating system, in operation to prevent freezing, ignited debris that the storm had deposited in the chimney. The resulting fire damaged one panel of the stained glass window.
While the 1989 disasters were devastating, they forced a complete refurbishing of the sanctuary and permitted restoration of the original elliptical ceiling. The lighting and the public address systems were modernized and the sprinkler and heating systems were repaired. The Education Building accommodated worship services during the year the sanctuary was out of service. In turn, the Education building was improved through the repair and upgrading of the Fellowship Hall, kitchen, classrooms, offices and storage areas.
The tablets similar to tombstones on the interior walls of the sanctuary are memorials to various pastors and members. The memorial to Rev. T. Charlton Henry ends with the word ‘triumphant.’ Generations of worshippers have at times played the “T-r-i-u-m-p-h-a-n-t Game” -- seeing how many words can be formed from the letters in the word. The Reverend Andrew Flinn, the first pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, and the Reverend Henry are interred beneath marble stones in the center aisle. In the peaceful old graveyard lie many of the founders and early members of this church. Family names recorded on gravestones can still be found on the church roster today.
The Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston and its Suburbs is an architectural symbol of the Reformed Faith and a witness to the glory of God.
The large and substantial sanctuary is a successor to the Presbyterian meeting houses of colonial days. In that era congregations built small, usually square, places of worship that exhibited certain standard features in the interior: a central and prominent pulpit, a bare communion table, a baptismal font located in front of the pulpit, clear windows and little ornamentation.
The Second Presbyterian Church, larger, of rectangular shape, and more ornate than the Meeting Houses, retains simplicity. The simplicity is in keeping with the Presbyterian emphasis on discipline of mind and will in the service of God. It encourages quiet reverence with little mysticism. The pulpit is prominent, emphasizing the proclamation and the hearing of the word of God as the central act of worship. This concentration on the sermon is a return to the exhibition and adoration of the Torah as the word of God in Jewish worship.
The location of the communion table in front of the pulpit, in space occupied by the congregation, is in keeping with a basic belief of the Reformed Churches – the priesthood of all believers. This is not an altar on which a priest enacts the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of the congregation. We have no altar. The bare table means that Jesus sacrificed himself once, and that his one sacrifice was effective for all time. For the same reason we invite all believers in Christ as savior to take communion with us. Our minister may say: “This is not an exclusive communion. It is open to all believers.”
The baptismal font is provided for the sacrament of Baptism. Infants or adults may be baptized by sprinkling. The font is located in the congregation because the members will vow to support the baptized person in his or her growth as a Christian.
Most likely burials were taking place on the high grounds at the future 2nd Presbyterian prior to the building or completion of the church. Where the Kindergarten wing stands today (built in the 1950's) stood a stone dated 1793. Today, a ramp covers the area. Another grave marked for a Charlestonian was for a party that died in the "Quasi French" war of 1798-1800. In all likelihood this is purely a memorial marker for a party that passed away elsewhere. We would, by the way, win that war and today another reminder of the war is Castle Pinckney, which since wars with France are never long, went uncompleted in our harbor.
In this graveyard are parties from every war including the Revolutionary War and perhaps the only grave to a Charlestonian that died in Charleston as a direct result of the War of 1812. Nine graves are for members of the Church that died fighting in the "Late Unpleasantness" (also called the "Civil War"). In the back southern portion of the graveyard is one of a young man named Buist who was a member of the Citadel Cadet Company fighting under Wade Hampton. Cavalry from the South were being slaughtered by the end of the war and it is believed that his body was returned after the war (if in fact it was returned).
College presidents and founders share this yard alongside ministers and leaders of this community including the famous Robinson clan that would build the nearby Aiken Rhett house and remained one of the greater families through the Civil War. Buried beside the patriarch of the family is his favorite grandson, one of the first casualties of the war. An unusual fact is that some Free Blacks who were members of the congregation were buried alongside some of the whites.
One of the striking sights is the exceedingly high child death evidenced here. More children, percentagewise, lie in this yard than any other Churchyard in Charleston. Many died from Yellow Fever and other mass disease, but even more died from malnutrition related problems after the Civil War. The Reconstruction Government would not provide any food for the widows and orphans of the South. Unfortunately, children still die today and a number of graves are for more modern children who died before their time.
As you wander down the rows, you are walking into a restoration in progress. The coping is being carefully raised. Stones are being recovered and repaired and a plan exists for the eventual restoration of the cast iron that was thoughtlessly destroyed during the wartime scrap drives. Bays including a Red Bay share the grounds alongside the tree most commonly called the Southern Live Oak (when the proper title using Virginia is ignored in SC). A few cedars still exist and even a thorny Crabapple or three defiantly stand. Flowers vary from roses of many varieties to camellias and the remains of the grand older azaleas that once graced the entire park to the front of the Church. Unfortunately a previous parks department destroyed the azaleas.
A high wall surrounds the Graveyard. Its placement was due to the removal of dirt from the highest land in the lower city to be placed over the brick of forts such as Fort Sumter. The Church itself was constructed in 1809 and finished in 1811. It is the 4th oldest standing original church in the City, following St. Michael's, what today is called the Unitarian Church and Old Bethel Methodist church, in that order. Alterations to the exterior and interior of the Unitarian Church might arguably disqualify its historical position.
It would be the 1st church in America to be incorporated and the Corporation exists to this day. The Church was modeled very closely on the Wren church "St. Martins in the Fields". An 1832 interior alteration radically changed this concept. The unfinished steeple was used as a lighthouse as the building families often owned shipping businesses. Building families would include the most trusted of Indian Agents and the founders of the 1st Lock Canal and railroad companies in America. Others were Factors or merchants and this has often been called the merchant church of Charleston. The Church still considers itself to be a mission church. Over the years some 40+ church were started by this church. Many would be in Charleston's immediate area but the reach would extend as far away as what is called North Korea. A particular point of reasonable pride for this church is the fact that they carefully cared for the Black Slave and Christian. Over the years some three churches (today called the three Zion's) would be built downtown prior to the Civil War and schools and material care would also be sponsored by the church. The former congregations retain close relations with the members of this church. Just this past year we celebrated our 200th anniversary. Please come and visit with us sometime!
Noel P. Mellen Elder Historian
The Hugo Cross, hanging in the foyer of the Education Building, is a rough wooden cross found amongst debris following Hurricane Hugo.
The wooden cross mounted on the wall of the narthex was made from materials salvaged during the restoration of the sanctuary following Hurricane Hugo. It was a gift of the men who worked here. The current members of the congregation are aware that this beautiful sanctuary is a gift of God and a testament to the dedication and perseverance of generations of Presbyterians.
As the sanctuary has survived hurricanes and an earthquake, so the congregation has endured, ready to work and worship into the new millennium and confident that God’s kingdom will be triumphant.
The stained glass window is Palladian in form. The term Palladian is taken from the name of the renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose writings greatly influence the classical revival under which our church was built. The Palladian motif is defined as an arched opening flanked by two square-headed openings.
Jesus Christ is the central figure in the entire window. He is superimposed on the cross, not hanging on it. This is the resurrected Christ with outstretched arms saying: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 12:28-30) The yoke is displayed below him. The people Christ welcomes are of all ages, genders and races. Some represent different professions and carry their tools. Some are scholars and laborers. Some are sick, blind or crippled. At the bottom is a family group. Jesus says: “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” (John 15:5) A vine ties all the people and all symbols of the outer panes to Jesus. At the ends of the cross are an Alpha and an Omega, indicating that Jesus is at the beginning and the end of our faith.
The beginning of Jesus’ life is depicted in the panel on the congregation’s left. He is shown as a baby in the manger with Mary and Joseph. The white pennant representing the body of Christ is attached to a cruciform staff, representing the cross on which the Lamb of God died and through which the risen Christ saves the world. The lying down lamb is the suffering and burden-bearing Christ on whom the Lord laid “the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). It is the lying down lamb that opens the Book of Seals (Revelation 5:9) and receives power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory and blessing (Revelation 5:12).
The dove at the top of the right panel is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
At the bottom of the side panels are symbols of the two sacraments we observe. On the left the anchor and the scallop shell represent baptism. The symbol of the anchor is drawn from Hebrews 6:19, which refers to “…a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” The scallop with water pouring from it refers to the baptism of Jesus by John (Matthew 3:13-17). On the right a chalice and a wafer plus grapes and wheat represent Holy Communion.
Bas-relief is a sculpture in which the projection above the surrounding surface is slight and no part is undercut. The bas-relief in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church was made in casts and bonded to the wall. Bas-relief was an original feature of the sanctuary. When the ceiling was lowered in 1833 the bas-relief below the ceiling was removed. The portion remaining in the attic was undisturbed but partly deteriorated with the passage of time. Few church members were aware of its presence.
Hurricane Hugo of September 1989 gave the members of Second Presbyterian Church the opportunity to return the ceiling to its original configuration. Interest in the restoration grew and the congregation voted to raise $55,000 to cover the expense not paid for by insurance. A generous contribution of $5,000 by a member started the effort and three ladies raised the money in less than a week. With funds available, the restoration committee decided to replace the weakened bas-relief. Architects from Pennsylvania, Virginia, England and Charleston worked on the project along with members who recalled seeing the bas-relief in the attic years earlier. Some pieces of the original bas-relief were still on the wall and lines marked places of some missing parts. Broken pieces found in the attic were studied. A plaster restoration expert planned the new bas-relief and cast many of the pieces. A local sculptor cast the angel and trumpet, the two large angels and the burning bush.
The Sunburst is rich in meaning for the Christian as it represents biblical teachings about the sun. The sun was fashioned on the fourth day of creating to light the earth and regulate the season. “God said, “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3) The sun is a symbol of Jesus Christ (Malachi 4:2), and spoke of the time when “…Sun of righteousness shall rise with healing on its wings." On the first day of the week the “son of righteous” arose from the dead. The sun represents permanence and life. Christians dwell perpetually in the light of the Son of God. The chrysanthemum figures along the eaves of the balcony also reveal the importance of the sun, and light, to our church. The golden flower is a symbol of light.
The Burning Bush is a symbol of the Church of Scotland. Yahweh chose to be manifest to Moses through the burning bush at Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:2-4). The bush that burned without being consumed is a symbol of God’s eternal presence. “Nec tamen consumabatur” – “and yet it was not consumed” is the motto of the Church of Scotland.
The Trumpet blown by the angel Gabriel calls the people of God to assembly. Moses made two of beaten silver and these were blown by priests to call the people to worship (Numbers 10:2). The angel blows the trumpet at God’s behest and we gather in response. A child in our congregation was the model for this angel.
The Garland symbolizes victory, worth, joy and gladness. The one in whom the trumpet call originated could rightly wear the royal garland.
The lily is mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 6:28. Generally flowers in scripture point to man’s ephemeral life. Flowers bloom for a few glorious weeks, then fade and wither.
The Lily of the Valley of the bas-relief forms a garland of permanent blossoms. In Scottish churches the bas-relief was used to show the allegiance of the congregation to the trinity of clan, country and Church of Scotland. Likewise, figures in our bas-relief indicate our devotion to our city, our state and our denomination. The Palmetto Branch honors the State of South Carolina. This portion of the original bas-relief was occupied by a replica of the pineapple, a symbol of hospitality. The Angel on the congregation’s left holds the seal of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In the original, the angel held the seal of the State of South Carolina. The angel on the right holds the seal of the City of Charleston. Angels figure prominently throughout the Bible. In the New Testament, angels as messengers foretell the births of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:11-20, Matthew 1:18-25) and herald Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8-15). They warn Joseph to flee with Mary and the Baby Jesus to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Angels ministered to Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11) and in the ordeal before the Crucifixion (Luke 22:43). An angel rolled away the stone from Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 28:2). Angels surround the throne of God and respond to those who acknowledge Jesus before men. The Cherubim in Mesopotamian or Egyptian mythology and in the Old Testament were winged bulls or lions with human faces, usually found guarding holy sites. Roman and Renaissance art re-mythologized them and placed them among the angels. They are generally shown as winged infants hovering above heavenly scenes.
Second Presbyterian Church was established in 1809 and celebrated its Bicentennial in 2009 with special events and worship services. It was a joyous celebration for the congregation as they continue their journey with Jesus Christ into the next 200 years.
The modern seal of the Presbyterian Church was not in the original bas-relief, but was included as a symbol of the present congregation’s stewardship of this important building. The basic symbols in the seal are the cross, scripture, the dove, and flames. The Cross, the universal and most ecumenical symbol of the Christian Church, represents the incarnate love of God in Jesus Christ, Jesus’ passion, and his resurrection. Scripture is represented by the two uppermost lines of the horizontal section, which form as open book. Supporting the book is a lectern or pulpit. The book motif highlights the emphasis which the reformed tradition has placed on the role of scripture as a means of knowing God’s word. The lectern shows the important role of preaching in Presbyterian worship. The Dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, is intimately tied to the symbol of the Bible, affirming the role of the Spirit in inspiring and interpreting scripture. The dove also symbolizes Christ’s baptism by John, and the peace and wholeness that his death and resurrection bring to a broken world. The Flames form an implied triangle, a symbol of the Trinity. The flames themselves convey a double meaning; of revelation in the Old Testament when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush and of revelation in the New Testament when at Pentecost the Holy Spirit appeared to the Apostles as tongues of fire.
For more information about the design of the seal, visit the PC(USA) Website