Research says ‘Holy City’ term not church-based

Members of St. Philip’s Church head to Sunday School. The phrase “Holy City” may not have been referring to the large number of churches in the city.

Most people probably find explanations as to how Charleston got the moniker “Holy City” unsatisfying — most churches per capita, most visible steeples and so forth. There has to be more to it than that.

And indeed there is. Van Sturgeon, a certified tour guide with Palmetto Carriage, went to the County Library and researched the matter, concluding that the term was probably coined by native Charlestonian Yates Snowden (1858-1933) and later revived by various staff members of The News and Courier. What follows is a condensed synopsis of Mr. Sturgeon’s research:

It appears that the earliest references to the phrase “Holy City” were in private correspondence between Snowden, a noted USC history professor and former News and Courier editorialist, and Charleston Renaissance author John Bennett (1865-1956).

The first was in a letter from Bennett to Snowden written in 1913. Bennett actually refers to Boston — not Charleston — as the Holy City, and writes in a manner that appears to mock Snowden for having previously called Charleston the Holy City. In two later letters, from 1917 and 1918, Snowden used the term.

On Feb. 22, 1922, a News and Courier editorial actually referred to Greenville in that manner, because its baseball fans went “so far as to have prayer meetings on the ballfield when a close decision went the other way.”

An editorial dated Feb. 15, 1932, shortly after Snowden had retired from USC and returned to Charleston, contained the following: “…the waters of the two rivers that lave the shores of what Mr. Snowden is wont to describe as the Holy City.”

The News and Courier extolled Professor Snowden on Feb. 25 of the following year shortly after he passed. “His love of Charleston was a charming attribute,” the editorial said. “He always said he was a missionary from ‘The Holy City.’”

On Sept 6, 1934, Snowden’s old friend John Bennett wrote an amusing letter to the editor lamenting the loss of a favorite bumbershoot. “But what has left me more aghast than the loss of my beloved umbrella,” he wrote (in part), “is the seeming fact that some lady, born and reared in this, as Yates Snowden called it, Holy City, borrowed my umbrella to save her and her companion a drenching; and like the Aesopian viper, has stung her benefactor by keeping said umbrella.”

Columnist Ashley Cooper, from a “Doing the Charleston” piece that appeared March 9, 1953, reprinted an old and unattributed bit of doggerel about the city. “Dear Lord look down on those in pity,” it read (in part), “Who dwell outside the Holy City.”

Cooper (aka Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.) would use the term countless times over the years. A reader asked in letter form the “who, why and wherefore.” In an Aug. 31, 1955 column Cooper replied, “I can’t say who originated the phrase Holy City. I do know, though, that about 50 years ago Mr. Yates Snowden of the N&C staff used to employ the phrase… As to why and wherefore, I’d say the answer is pretty obvious. Any city that is full of sacred cows, worshipped by its inhabitants and envied by the rest of the world, would inevitably become known — I should think — as the Holy City.”

This sentiment was corroborated by former N&C editor Tom Waring (1907-1993) who, in a 1983 taped interview with the SC Historical Society said, “Some people credit Yates Snowden with the introduction of the expression…not so much because it is holy in the religious sense or even because there are so many churches, as people nowadays say, but simply as a somewhat droll description of how Charlestonians feel about their city.”

True dat. We may not know for sure that Professor Snowden thought of the term, but he can certainly be credited for putting it to good use—a term that has been around for nearly a century and is here to stay.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.