"Old" is a relative term.
Your child might think 40 is old. Tell that to your grandmother and surely she will reply: "Ha! I wish I were so young."
Like people, each place has its particular history, and historical perspective. A European or Chinese friend might not be very impressed by the centennial celebration you're attending, but your suburban neighbor might marvel at any institution that survives a whole century.
In the Charleston area, where history runs deep, a church has to be pretty old to register on the "Wow Meter."
Johns Island Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest in the Lowcountry, established 57 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 13 years before George Washington was born.
This year, the congregation marks its 300th anniversary. Amazingly, the original church building, a simple, white, wooden building in the Colonial meeting house style, still stands. It has no steeple or bell tower, no stained glass, no fancy organ, no ornate columns or interior art.
It was not destroyed by the British, though they occupied it during the Revolutionary War.
It was not taken down by numerous hurricanes that spun through the Lowcountry over the years.
It was not burned to the ground during the Civil War.
It did not collapse during the great earthquake of 1886 (though the plaster ceiling fell in).
It stands there in its aloof solitude by Bohicket Creek, satisfied in its old age, confident of its future, unperturbed by any natural, cultural or theological storm that might blow through.
The congregation was formed in 1710 by the Rev. Archibald Stobo, a severe Scottish missionary who was stranded in Charleston after a hurricane sunk his ship, crew and library of religious texts, according to Mary Hills, honorary chairwoman of the anniversary celebrations and the congregation's in-house historian.
Stobo, who landed in Charleston to stock up on supplies for the trans-Atlantic crossing back to the Old World after an aborted mission trip to Central America, first preached at what was then called the Independent Church on Meeting Place Street, which later became Circular Congregational Church.
He had been invited to address the ecumenical congregation made up of those local worshippers who were not Anglican because church members heard there was a Presbyterian in town, Hills said.
When the great storm sunk his ship, Stobo attributed the disaster to God's wrath, said the Rev. Jon Van Deventer, minister of Johns Island Presbyterian Church since 2003. Hard work glorified God, and the colonists were not industrious enough, Stobo complained.
The good people of Independent Church, wary of Stobo's attempts to purify the place too thoroughly and, frankly, a little bored with sermons that extended well into the afternoon dinner hour, politely reprimanded the vociferous man of God. Stobo responded by preaching still longer.
Solomon Legare, a member of the congregation, complained.
Stobo dismissed him. "Little pitchers are soon filled," he said contemptuously.
But Legare had the last laugh. "And you have said enough, sir, to fill every cistern in Charleston."
Stobo left, established First Scots Presbyterian Church, then five others -- on James Island, Johns Island, Edisto, in Cainhoy and Pon Pon (Old Jacksonborough).
"Presbyterians really loved him because he was so successful at upsetting the established church," Van Deventer said, referring to the dominant Anglican parishes of the day.
Johns Island Presbyterian added a gallery and extended the length of its sanctuary in 1823.
Oral history holds that Bugsby Bridge Road, the thoroughfare between Johns and Wadmalaw islands, ran behind the church, so the main entrance was on the creek side while the pulpit stood at the other end. But that was turned around in 1823, Van Deventer said.
Before the Civil War and after the balcony was added, slaves were permitted to sit upstairs. One of the original slave benches still is at the front right of the gallery.
In those years, more slaves attended services than whites, Hills said. After the war, blacks dispersed to form their own congregations.
The tercentennial year will see the publication of "A Story of Johns Island Presbyterian Church" by Charles Raynal; a newly composed anthem by former music director Eric Johnson, commissioned for the occasion; lectures on Presbyterianism in the Lowcountry by theologian Erskin Clark on May 21 and 22; and an October "homecoming" event.
It is a year to remember an important part of Charleston's history and to celebrate the longevity of one of the area's remarkable church buildings.
Van Deventer said the structure was made with great care by people who took pride in their work, and this accounts in part for its long survival.
On Sundays when the old pews fill up with the faithful, standing collectively to pray then sitting down again, Van Deventer can feel the wood floor flex, he can feel the building breathe.
"You can hear the creaks and pops and cracks and just imagine generations and generations and generations worshipping in here," he said.
On Sunday mornings, history comes alive at Johns Island Presbyterian Church. On Sunday mornings, the old church claims its rightful place in the long continuum of Lowcountry life.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charleston's oldest churches
The interior of the wood-framed Johns Island Presbyterian Church includes original pews and other appointments. An old slave bench sits in the gallery. The sanctuary was extended and the balcony added in 1823.×
St. Philip's Church (downtown; originally at Meeting and Broad streets, where St. Michael's now stands), established in 1670.×
Circular Congregational Church (downtown; originally the Independent Church of Charles Towne), established in 1681.×
Old St. Andrew's Parish Church (West Ashley), established in 1706.×
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