old saint andrews (charleston) - destinyunknown

Reverend John Grimke' Drayton and Old St. Andrew's Episcopal Church


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 took to the pulpit to address his congregation, perhaps for the last time, or so he thought. He was an educated white man, they were black and impoverished slaves, but he didn’t care. He had ministered to his “black roses” since becoming rector in 1851. Reverend John Grimke’ Drayton later wrote in his diary:

“On the Sunday before the evacuation of Charleston, we gathered here for the last time, and when the end was reached I sorrowfully took up my pen and write in my record book, ‘My mission to Ethiopia is closed.’”

But it wasn’t. He would return to his “Ethiopian mission” and serve for many 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 non-descript building that hides behind stately oaks, Spanish moss, and the larger, more well-known churches of the Holy City’s downtown area. But when rice became less profitable white families left the area, leaving behind homes now listed on the National Register of Historic Places—Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place and Drayton Hall—and their slaves.

In 1860, the local census recorded 3,258 residents, of whom 2,940 were slaves and 318 free. Eight years later, the parish voter registration roll listed 548 names, 533 of whom were black. These destitute people were Reverend Drayton’s “Ethiopian Mission.” After the Civil War ended, he left the sanctity of his summer rectory in Flat Rock, North Carolina and returned to St. Andrews. 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. Andrews], 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. Andrews 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 Reverend Drayton’s Ethiopian flock: Please, sirs, do not burn our church. Porwoll further notes:

"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... John Grimke’ Drayton was a shining light among Episcopal ministers."

Grimke’s faithful flock would not leave St. Andrew’s to form an “African-Methodist-Episcopal” (AME) Church as so many other freed blacks did in the post Civil War era. This was their church.

After nearly four decades of service to Old St. Andrew’s, Reverend Drayton died in 1891. After his death the old church was abandoned and left dormant for 57 years. But our story has a satisfying conclusion. In 1948, a group of Episcopalians reopened the dilapidated church.  A parish house was eventually built, then expanded twice. Into the twenty-first century, the church undertook the most extensive restoration in its history and celebrated its tercentennial.

Millions of visitors have traveled up and down the historic Ashley River Road. Few, we can suppose, ever take note of the historic church; fewer yet will ever know that this ordinary looking building was one the spiritual home to one of our state’s greatest men, the most remarkable Reverend John Grimke’ Drayton, a minister to all of God’s children.


Bill Fitzpatrick is a South Carolina writer and photographer (destiny unknown.smugmug.com).