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Work by South Carolina Artists

Thresholds: Expressions of Art & Spiritual Life

Charleston as the Holy City - A Multi-Century Development
by Nina Bozicnik

Throughout its history, Charleston has been viewed as religiously tolerant, but the term "Holy City" is not necessarily related to an unusually devout population. The story of this unique moniker begins with the religious freedoms promoted by Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper in the early 17th century and culminates with the rise of 20th century cultural tourism.


During the 17th century, Charleston, a raucous port city, attracted religious dissenters from the European continent as well as New England. In 1669, John Locke drafted the Fundamental Carolina Constitution specifically acknowledging the religious tolerance to be adopted by the colony, which at this time included both North and South Carolina. Locke, a philosopher, served as secretary to Lord Ashley, a colonial proprietor under Charles II of England and a Charleston resident.


By 1740, religious dissenters, defined as those not faithful to the Anglican Church of England, comprised half of Charleston’s population. This group included Presbyterians, Congregationalists, French Huguenots, Baptists, and Quakers. As early as 1704, all of these denominations, excluding the Presbyterians, established their own parishes. Until 1731, these four churches and the Anglican Church, St. Phillip’s, were the only religious institutions on the Charleston peninsula.


The next twenty years saw the construction of three more religious institutions - Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Jewish - augmenting the already diverse religious climate. By 1751, St. Phillip’s congregation became so large that a new church, St. Michael’s, was built to house the growing number of Anglican worshipers. Charleston’s religious environment during the mid-18th century is best described as a collection of faiths, differing in religious principles, yet existing side by side.


Despite their differences, Charleston’s pious were, as William Gerard de Brahms, a successful colonial land surveyor in Charleston, recounted in 1772, "renound for concord, compleasance, courteousness, and tenderness towards each other, and more so towards foreigners, without regard or respect of nations or religion."(sic)1 Throughout the remainder of the 18th and through the 20th century more faiths established institutions, and numerous parishes grew so large they divided into subsidiary institutions.


In 1785, the Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury came to Charleston to reform what he saw as the city’s indulgent society. Bishop Asbury even labeled it the "Sodom of the South."2 Ultimately, Charleston’s religious tolerance during the 17th and 18th centuries may not have translated into a pious citizenry.


Today, Charleston’s landscape is dotted with religious edifices ranging from magnificent cathedrals to modest contemporary places of worship. The term "Holy City" came into regular, verbal use in the 20th century as the city’s unique architectural history was preserved through the historic preservation movement, and then commercialized to meet the demanding needs of the tourism industry. There are over sixty religious institutions on the southern peninsula, of which more than two thirds are Christian affiliated. The concentration of steeples inundates every approaching visitor’s line of sight.


Attitudes of religious tolerance and acceptance, instated since the Carolina colony’s birth continues today. One recent millennium goal adopted by the Charleston City Council desires to "create mutual understandings among people with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds."3


The history of Charleston as the "Holy City" may be viewed as one of speculation and deduction, and the term may be more abstract than concrete. It is clear that an environment of religious tolerance and the abundance of ecclesiastical architecture factored greatly into the coining of the phrase that now defines this magnificent city.


Nina Bozicnik, exhibition intern, is a double major in art history and arts management at the College of Charleston.


  1. Jacoby, Mary, ed., The Churches of Charleston and the Lowcountry (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), p.5
  2. Jacoby, Mary, ed., The Churches of Charleston and the Lowcountry (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), p.67.
  3. Charleston Millennium Celebration, December 31, 1999 - January 1, 2000

Traveling Exhibition
Inaugural Exhibition
Selection Process

For additional information, please contact Harriett Green (803-734-8762), Director of Visual Arts