A daytime shot of St. Andrew's Old Episcopal Church.

photo by: Bill Fitzpatrick

February 24, 2016

Old St. Andrew's Parish Church

Spiritual Home of Rev. John Grimke Drayton

On the evening of February 12, 1865, Union troops had gathered near Charleston and the city was being evacuated. Several miles from the downtown area, a minister—an educated white man—took to the pulpit to address his congregation—impoverished and enslaved African-Americans—for what he thought might be the last time.

But it wasn’t. Reverend John Grimke Drayton—minister, plantation owner, and horticulturalist—would return to his parish and serve for forty more years. But I am getting ahead of myself. There are other reasons that this church was listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Built in 1706, “Old St. Andrew’s” is the oldest surviving structure that is used for worship south of Virginia. It is also South Carolina’s only remaining colonial cruciform church. For much of its early years, some of Charleston’s richest families attended the otherwise nondescript building that hides behind stately oaks, Spanish moss, and the larger, better-known churches of the Holy City’s downtown area. But when rice became less profitable, white families left the area, leaving behind homes—Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place, and Drayton Hall—and their enslaved laborers.

In 1860, the local census recorded 3,258 residents, of whom 2,940 were enslaved and 318 free. Eight years later, the parish voter registration roll listed 548 names, 533 of whom were black. These people were referred to as Reverend Grimke Drayton’s “Ethiopian Mission.”
A shot of the interior of St. Andrew's Old Episcopal Church.

photo by: Bill Fitzpatrick

A group of Episcopalians reopened the church in 1948 after it had been abandoned for 47 years.

After the Civil War ended, Drayton left his summer rectory in Flat Rock, North Carolina, and returned to St. Andrew’s. In 1866 he wrote: “The ravages of war have left St. Andrew’s a desolation. But one dwelling has survived [Drayton Hall], exclusive of the parsonage. All are in ashes.”

A diocesan report on the destruction of the Low Country’s churches provides a fuller picture:

“This venerable church [St. Andrew’s], built in 1706, survives—but in the midst of a desert. Every residence but one, on the west bank of the Ashley River, was burnt simultaneously with the evacuation of Charleston, by the besieging forces from James Island. Many of those were historical homes in South Carolina; the abodes of refinement and hospitality for more than a century past. The residence of the Rector was embowered in one of the most beautiful gardens which nature and art can create—more than two hundred varieties of camellias, combined with stately avenues of magnolia, to delight the eye of even European visitors. But not a vestige remains, save the ruins of his ancestral home [Magnolia-on-the-Ashley].

So we wonder: Why was this one church spared? Paul Porwoll writes in “Against All Odds: History of Saint Andrew’s Parish Church, 1706-2013” that there is no extant evidence that tells us why the Union troops spared Old St. Andrew’s on their way from Charleston to Columbia, even as all else was destroyed. Ask him what he believes and he will pause for a moment, then tell you that Union soldiers honored the request of the congregation: “Please, sirs, do not burn our church.”

Interestingly, the congregation did not leave St. Andrew’s to form an “African-Methodist-Episcopal” (AME) Church as many other freed blacks did in the post-Civil War era. Porwoll writes: "Unlike the rest of the diocese, there was no black exodus from the Episcopal Church in St. Andrew’s Parish. Reverend Drayton came home to find his 'black roses' eagerly awaiting their Episcopal ties. Their religious life was one of the few things that remained familiar and comforting in this time of uncertainty, as he returned to his own burned out home..."

(It’s worth noting that with many enslaved people of this period rejecting their ministers’ religious interpretations, we cannot assume that the Old St. Andrew’s congregation’s ties to their church necessarily mirrored ties to their leader, before or after emancipation.)

After Reverend Drayton’s death in 1891, the old church was abandoned and left dormant for 57 years. In 1948, a group of Episcopalians reopened the dilapidated church. A parish house was eventually built, then expanded twice. Into the 21st century, the church undertook the most extensive restoration in its history and celebrated its tercentennial—a testament to the complex memories and history one structure can hold.

Special thanks to Shelia E. Harrell-Roye, Curator of Education and Public Engagement at Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, for her editorial support.

Bill Fitzpatrick is a South Carolina writer and photographer.

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