South Carolina Picture Project

St. Michael’s Church – Charleston, South Carolina

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The white spire of St. Michael’s Church is one of the most iconic images of Charleston. Built in the mid eighteenth century, this historic church is the oldest church structure in the city and continues hosting services every Sunday and throughout the week. It is located at the Four Corners of Law, on the southeast corner of Broad and Meeting streets.

St. Michael's

John Diskes of Summerville, 2010 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

In the 1680s, the Holy City’s first church, St. Philip’s, was erected on the same corner where St. Michael’s now stands. At that time, St. Philip’s was a small, simple wooden structure. By 1727, St. Philip’s congregation had outgrown its space and a larger church was built a few blocks away (on the aptly-named Church Street). The population of Charleston continued to grow and in less than 25 years, the city was too large for just one Anglican church. In 1751, St. Michael’s was built on the property of the original St. Philip’s, and the first services were conducted there in 1761. Except for the addition of the sacristy in 1883, the structure of the building has remained largely unchanged.

St Michael's Steeple

E. Karl Braun of North Charleston, 2012 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

The architect of St. Michael’s is unknown. The design, however, is described in the Book of Common Prayer and is intended to allow all worshipers to hear and participate. The alter is located in a shallow recess close to the congregation, and pews on three sides allow more people to be near the center of worship.


E. Karl Braun of North Charleston, 2012 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

Remarkable features of the church include the steeple, which is 186 feet high, a long center pew where both George Washington and Robert E. Lee sat to worship, and a Tiffany stained glass window in the chancel. The clock and eight bells were imported from England in 1764. Each of the bells has been recast at least once, and the clock was restored in 1993.

Gary DeBose of Seneca, 2010 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

As noted above, St. Michael’s stands at the intersection of Meeting Street and Broad Street, known as the Four Corners of Law. The US Post Office (seen on the right in the photo below) on the southwest corner represents federal law. The Charleston County Courthouse represents county law on the northwest corner. Municipal law is represented by City Hall on the northeast corner, and St. Michael’s, on the southeast corner, represents God’s law.

St. Michael's Church

Henryk Sadura of Chicago, IL, 2011 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

St. Michael’s is listed in the National Register:

St. Michael’s Church graphically illustrates the great increase in wealth and power in the Southern American colonies by the middle of the eighteenth century. Although possibly designed by an unknown architect and built by Samuel Cardy between 1752 and 1761, St. Michael’s shows a keen awareness of its architectural prototype by the English architect, James Gibbs’ Saint Martin-in-the-Fields (1726). The two-story structure of Saint Michael’s is of brick, stuccoed over, and radiating its brilliant white paint skin in the sub-tropical Carolina sun.

The classical portico dominates tremendously the Broad Street front, and together with the steeple, dominates the whole exterior. It is a giant two-story portico with Tuscan columns, the first American colonial church to have the giant portico. The columns are of stuccoed pie shaped brick, the roof of slate, with a slight outward bend near the eaves, and the roof of the steeple of cypress sheathed in copper. The balustrade at the arcade level of the steeple was carved by one of Charleston’s foremost colonial woodworkers, Thomas Elfe. The two-story seating arrangement of the interior is articulated at the exterior, by the rows of round arched windows. Each window is surrounded by the Renaissance rustication that came to be known in England as the Gibbs surround, in France as Serlions. Pairs of windows are visually separated from others by a two-story pilaster, supporting the undecorated entablature.

Pews at St. Michael’s

Brandon Coffey, who took the photo of St. Michael’s box pews below, notes that the church originally “seated 1,527 people. There were 553 free seats, but the seats closest to the pulpit were the most coveted and came at a premium. Families could apply for their pew and pay a rent to sit there. The money from these rents was used to pay the salary of the vicar and church expenses. When George Washington visited during his tour, he sat and worshiped from pew 43.”

Charleston Church Pews

Brandon Coffey of Charleston, 2015 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

This long, central pew, number 43, also served General Robert E. Lee when he worshiped at St. Micahel’s.

In an interesting conversation on our SC Picture Project Facebook group, Brandon and Michelle Godkin List discuss seating in South Carolina’s early church history – an accommodation we now take quite for granted.

Michelle states that in “some older churches, the well-to-do provided their own pews,” and Brandon adds, “I was coming across conflicting things on the subject. I see registers where it says that rent was collected. But then I also see accounts where purchases were made. While researching I did come across a layout of a church in Virginia that mentions it sold the pews and then collected an annual rent.”

Sound a bit like double-dipping? Michelle likens these old pews to a mobile home in a trailer park, where “the walls may be owned but the real estate must be leased.” She further explains that the money collected was used to fund the ministry and support staff. “Upkeep had to come from someone. This was just another way of apportioning the expenses among the wealthy.”

St. Michael’s Church Info

Address: 80 Meeting Street, SC 29401
GPS Coordinates: 32.775848,-79.930612

St. Michael’s Church Map

St. Michael’s Church – Add Info and More Photos

The purpose of the South Carolina Picture Project is to celebrate the beauty of the Palmetto State and create a permanent digital repository for our cultural landmarks and natural landscapes. We invite you to add additional pictures (paintings, photos, etc) of St. Michael’s Church, and we also invite you to add info, history, stories, and travel tips. Together, we hope to build one of the best and most loved SC resources in the world!

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The South Carolina Picture Project is a volunteer project which earns no profit. We work hard to ensure its accuracy, but if you see a mistake, please know that it is not intentional and that we are more than happy to update our information if it is incorrect. That said, our goal is to create something positive for our state, so please make your comments constructive if you would like them to be published. Thank you!

4 Comments about St. Michael’s Church

SCIWAYNo Gravatar says:
October 13th, 2016 at 6:21 am

Thank you for your concern! St. Michael’s survived the storm intact and even held worship service on Sunday, October 9!

Carlyn FredenburgNo Gravatar says:
October 12th, 2016 at 9:02 pm

My husband and I attended Easter service at your beautiful church 10 years ago. I have been concerned about how it fared after Hurricane Matthew.

Edwin C. Coleman says:
February 10th, 2015 at 12:54 pm

I was number Rector 19 (XIX) from '65-'85. Most then walked to church. Many happy memories and friends

Jasmine RoseNo Gravatar says:
February 23rd, 2012 at 10:49 am

This is so great — I love to visit because my grandpa is buried there.

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