A Brief History of the Circular Church
- Charles Towne's original settlers founded this protestant, or dissenting, church about 1681.
- The graveyard is the city's oldest burial grounds with monuments dating from 1695.
- The first meeting house on this site gave Meeting Street its name.
- The third structure here, a vast, circular hall built in 1804, burned in 1861. Bricks from "Old Circular" were used in building the present sanctuary, completed in 1892.
- Historically Independent: the congregation is now related to the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
From its beginning more than 300 years ago to the present day, the story of Circular Church has been attached by muscle and sinew to the history of the city around it. The beauty and cultural vigor of antebellum Charleston were intensified in this church. Likewise the calamities and dogged endurance of this church put the trials of the city into high relief.
Colonial Origins and Epitaphs This congregation was co-founded with Charles Towne, 1680-1685, by the English Congregationalists, Scots Presbyterians. and French Huguenots of the original settlement. In a spirit of diversity and liberality, these "dissenters" erected a Meeting House in the northwest comer of the walled city. The present sanctuary occupies that exact site. The street leading to it was called "Meeting House Street," later shortened to Meeting Street.
The earliest records of the church were lost when a violent hurricane swept them from the manse, located at White Point (the Battery), in 1713. The only artifact remaining from the 17th century is the brick grave structure of the Simonds family, dating from 1695, found on the south side of the sanctuary. With its large concentration of 18th-century gravestones, the churchyard rewards exploration with rare glimpses into the religious and artistic history of the young, struggling colony. The slates of the Peronneau family, for example, comprise a graphic history of changing portrayals of death in colonial America. The skull and crossbones of the earliest slates evolve into the skull with wings, the angel's head with wings, and then portrait busts, first primitive and then classical. A British cannonball burst in the graveyard during Sunday services in 1780, and earthquake, fire, and vandalism have taken their toll. Nevertheless, the recently restored graveyard (a project shared with the Historic Charleston Foundation) is unmatched in the South as a repository of distinguished funerary art. During the colonial period, this unusual church had no official name, but "suffered itself to be called either Presbyterian, Congregational, or Independent: sometimes by one of the names, sometimes by two of them, and at other times by all the three. We do not find that this church is either Presbyterian, Congregational, or Independent, but somewhat distinct and singular from them all." (Church records, February 5, 1775)
Many of the early ministers hailed from Scotland, England, Wales, and New England. The "old White Meeting House" was enlarged in 1732, only a year after 12 Scots families had moved down the street to start a church with stricter Presbyterian government and doctrine. While many Presbyterians remained, the policy of this church "was not so much to define exactly the particular mode of their discipline, and to bind their hands up to any one stiff form adopted either by Presbyterians, Congregationalists, or Independents, as to be upon a broad dissenting bottom, and to leave ourselves as free as possible from any foreign shackles, that no moderate persons of either denomination might be afraid to join them." (Ibid.)
Shaped by its independent mind and goaded by a colonial government that treated "dissenters" (non-Anglicans) with contempt, this church became a greenhouse for revolutionary sentiment in the colony. Prominent members of the Meeting House, and its distinguished minister, William Tennent (1772-1777), were frequently heard speaking for political and religious freedom. Tennent took his life in his hands when he made a wide tour of the Carolina backcountry in 1775 to gain subscribers for the cause of independence. When the British captured Charleston in 1780, this church was bitterly rewarded for its love of freedom by the illegal exile of 38 heads of families to St. Augustine (in Spanish territory) and then to Philadelphia. Their families were left destitute in an occupied city. The Meeting House, vacant since the cannonball episode, was used as a British hospital and left a shell.
Yet these years of suffering were a furnace that forged the Independent Church into an Instrument that would exert great influence on the political, religious, and cultural renaissance of its city after independence. In 1782, acting in astonishing faith, the church-in-exile held a congregational meeting in Philadelphia where they made arrangements to call a minister to Charleston "as soon as may be feasible." (Tennent had died in 1777.) Members remaining in Charleston began the week of British evacuation to rebuild the Meeting House.
By 1787, the vigorous congregation had built a second meeting house on Archdale Street to accommodate their growing number. For 25 years, Drs. William Hollinshead and Isacc Keith, co-pastors of the church, preached one sermon in both houses each Sunday, alternating morning and afternoon services. In 1804, the time had come to replace the Meeting Street house with a more commodious building. Martha Laurens Ramsay proposed a circular form and Robert Mills, Charleston's leading architect who also designed the Washington Monument in D.C., completed the plans. The church he designed was a Pantheon-type building 88 feet in diameter with seven great doors and 26 windows. On its main floor and in the gallery it was said to accommodate 2,000 worshippers! The first major domed building in North America, it was described by one observer in 1818 as "the most extraordinary building in the United States." However, people made fun of the fact that the church lacked a steeple and for years laughed at the rhyme:
Charleston is a pious place
And full of pious people
They built a church on Meeting Street
But could not raise the steeple.
The pious (and somewhat proud) people of Circular Church, as it was now popularly called, stopped the laughter in 1838 by raising a New England-style steeple that towered 182 feet above Meeting Street.The Archdale Street Meeting House separated in 1817 as the Second Independent Church, and in the 1830's it adopted the name Unitarian. The congregation of Circular Church remained trinitarian under the pastoral leadership of the Rev. Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1813-1835). Noteworthy is the fact that Palmer was a special son of this church, born in Philadelphia just two weeks after his parents had been driven into exile there in 1781.
During the "glory days" of 1820-1860, Circular Church had a large congregation of white and black members. The first Sunday School for religious education in South Carolina was started here in 1816, and members founded the Charleston Bible Society, a prototype to the later American Bible Society. The membership included two governors of the state, prominent senators, the editor of the Courier, and many others whose voices made Charleston eloquent and who extended the influence of their church far beyond its walls. It also included many slaves and poor whose names were unknown to anyone beyond its walls.
Those walls of the splendid Circular Church were not long to stand. On December 11, 1861, a great fire started near the Cooper River. During the night, a "hurricane of fire" swept all the way across the city, leaving in its wake the ruins of Old Circular. The Civil War soon followed with its devastating effect. The black members of the church withdrew in 1867 to form the Plymouth Congregational Church.
The psychology of defeat continued to demoralize the church for more than a decade, and it was a chastened and much reduced congregation that gathered the brick from the overgrown ruins of the great 1804 meeting house and began erecting a new sanctuary in 1890. Once again Circular Church raised the eyebrows of the establishment. The building they created from the ruins - our present meeting house - was a radical departure from traditional Charleston architecture. Its Romanesque style, quite modern in 1890, was inspired by Henry Hobart Richardson and designed by Stephenson and Greene of New York City. It bespeaks a spirit of nonconformity and high adventure in a church that was breathing life again.
The building combines two powerful forms: the circle (the exterior plan), reminiscent of the former church and universal symbol of eternity and wholeness, and the Greek Cross (the interior plan), the Christian symbol of death and resurrection. For more than a century this worship space has moved the congregation gathered here to seek the wholeness and integrity of individuals, of the community of faith, and of civic life. The Independent or Circular Church joined the Congregational Association in 1882 and continued its membership when this organization became the United Church of Christ in 1957. Circular also joined the Atlantic Presbytery of the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1968. It is one of the few congregations in the South that expresses its ecumenical commitment by belonging to two denominations, the U.C.C. and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Circular Church fosters active interdependence in the local community as well, trying to be aware of the needs of people on the margins of society. In recent years, this church was instrumental in founding the city's first marriage and family counseling center, Charleston's crisis intervention service (Hotline), Hospice of Charleston, and the Elder Shelter. Space and leadership were provided to the Charleston Interfaith Crisis Ministry, Amnesty International, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Charleston PEACE, and other community organizations.
The congregation, international and multiracial, has been served for over 30 years by "tent-making" (part-time) clergy, a reminder to the congregation that every member is called to priesthood and ministry.
Worship at Circular is enhanced by an exceptional tracker organ built for a church in Boston in 1890 by George S. Hutchings. The organ was moved here and restored in our loft in 1987 by Circular's then organist and choir director, Vernon S. Elliott. Restoration of the sanctuary was achieved in 1987, also largely by members of the congregation.Circular Church draws strength from its 325-year memory and looks forward in hope as it continues the adventure of God in our day. May others be led to join that adventure!
For additional information about the history of Circular Church, access our records which are housed at the South Carolina Historical Society. Another source is Joanne Calhoun's book, The Circular Church, Three Centuries of Charleston History, published by www.historypress.net in 2008. More pictures of Circular may be viewed at http://circular.smugmug.com and www.thechurchesofamerica.com