GILBRETH COLUMN: Is Old Sheldon Church best left alone?
My favorite ruin in the state of South Carolina is the Old Sheldon Church in Yemassee on the way down to Beaufort. It's a preferred site for artists and photographers as well, but nothing beats seeing it in person. Lord have mercy, if those beautiful walls and columns could speak, what a story they would tell.
Even though the church is in “ruins,” much of it is actually still standing, bloodied up to be sure, but not broken — or at least not entirely. It pulsates with atmosphere and almost seems more alive in its current state than it might intact. How is that possible? I don't know, but it bares its soul and yearns to reveal secrets.
I'm not too familiar with the history, but fortunately Ruth B. Guy bails me out with an old newspaper clipping from her files that goes into some detail, the highlights of which follow. (This is the history as told by one Francis M. Hutson and it appeared in The State newspaper in 1957.)
Sheldon Church, formerly known as Prince William's Parish Church, was built between 1745 and 1757, the year of its consecration. The parish was carved out of a part of St. Helena's Parish and named in honor of Prince William of Orange, son of George II. The Yemassee Indians had inhabited this area until 1715, when they were driven out as a result of the Yemassee Indian War.
The early history of the church is closely allied with the Bull family of South Carolina. It is from the Bulls' nearby family seat, Sheldon, that the church acquired its name. That seat, in turn, had assumed its name from the ancestral seat, Sheldon Hall, in Warwickshire, England. It is generally believed that William Bull gave the land upon which the church was built and who later, as lieutenant governor, presented the church with a complete set of Communion silver.
The masonry structure was designed by an unknown architect in the Greek Revival style with what is thought to have been a fine portico. It didn't last long. During the Revolutionary War, the British destroyed it under the command of Gen. Augustine Prevost while on march against Charles Town in May 1779. According to local tradition, the captain of the company who burned the church was Andrew DeVeaux, a cousin of Stephen DeVeaux of the S.C. Militia, who was wounded in the Battle of Beaufort on Feb. 2, 1799.
Only the walls were left standing, records were destroyed or otherwise lost and no activity is accounted for until 1825, when fundraising efforts were initiated to restore the building. A year later, the church was consecrated a second time and officially became part of the Episcopal Church of the United States. So impressed was noted architect Robert Mills that he considered it the handsomest rural parish sanctuary in South Carolina.
Twenty years later, conflagration was visited upon the church once more at the hands of federal troops under the ultimate command of Gen. William T. Sherman, who burned practically all the residences of neighboring plantations following the evacuation of Pocataligo by the Confederates, Jan. 14, 1865.
A movement was set afoot shortly after 1900 for the U.S. government to reimburse various denominations in the South whose churches were destroyed by Sherman's Army.
Nothing much came of it, and the Old Sheldon Church looks much the same today as it did the morning of Jan. 15, 1865, although now surrounded by old-growth forestry and hanging boughs of Spanish moss.
The building and surroundings are so beautiful that I find it surprising serious efforts have not been undertaken to restore the church yet again.
Perhaps it would be prohibitively expensive, or perhaps the battered look uniquely represents certain aspects of the history of this great state that best be left alone.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.