The arms of congregation members at two West Ashley churches have gotten longer in recent years. They now reach as far as a half-mile along Ashley River Road and into the sanctuaries of their sister churches.
As a consequence of this outreach, the two groups, which share a patron saint and a troubled history, eventually could forge ties that bind.
This troubled past has been known for a long time, but a recent discovery by Paul Porwoll, the official historian of Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church, has shed new light on the injuries perpetrated by slavery and discrimination, and it has prompted Porwoll to pen a book that corrects the record, confronts some of the demons of racism and celebrates the potential for a better future.
That book, “ ‘In My Trials, Lord, Walk With Me’: What an Antebellum Parish Register Reveals about Race and Reconciliation,” recognizes hundreds of slaves whose names were omitted from copies of the church registry.
Porwoll’s discovery of the original handwritten registry two years ago — a book dating to 1830-1859 whose cover is torn off, binding damaged and pages yellowed and chipping away — revealed a disturbing discrepancy. The historian’s obligation to reckon with the truth has not only resulted in this new volume but a determination by members of both Old St. Andrews and St. Andrew’s Mission to embrace one another.
“The relationship that has been built between these two churches is intentional,” Porwoll said.
A troubled past
He thought he knew everything there was to know about his church, and that he had recorded most of it in his 2014 book “Against All Odds: History of St. Andrew’s Parish Church, Charleston, 1706-2013.” But the South is a complicated place that hasn’t revealed all its secrets or come to terms with its racist past, Porwoll was forced to admit.
Old St. Andrew’s was erected after the South Carolina Colonial Assembly, seeking to mimic the Church of England’s Anglican structure and hierarchy, established 10 Lowcountry parishes, such as St. Andrew's, St. Paul's, St. Bartholomew's, St. Philip's and St. James' — essentially swaths of territory each with a parish church at its heart.
Between its founding in 1706 and the start of the Civil War in 1860, the sanctuary of the parish church was shared by blacks and whites, though they remained segregated within. The church registry recorded weddings, funerals and baptisms, and it included everyone, slave and free, black and white.
In 1845, Magwood’s Chapel was founded to accommodate slaves. In the 1890s, at the start of the Jim Crow period of institutionalized segregation, the chapel became St. Andrew’s Mission. Today, it remains predominantly black.
The Rev. John Grimke Drayton, who was associated with Old St. Andrew’s from 1851 until his death in 1891, and served as rector twice, was no fan of slavery and led an effort to minister to blacks before and after the war.
After emancipation in 1865, churches throughout the South abandoned any remnants of integrated services. Blacks affiliated with new church institutions, started their own congregations and built their own sanctuaries, often just up the road from their white counterparts.
Old St. Andrew’s, located in the midst of post-war devastation, was an odd exception; it did not lose its black worshippers altogether, but the building was uninhabitable and remained dormant for 11 years.
By the time it was open again in March 1876, the congregation was severely diminished. A new era of rebuilding commenced.
What the register reveals
The fragile register became available to Porwoll in 2016 when the South Carolina Historical Society released a collection of materials on Old St. Andrew's.
“I doubted I’d find anything new,” he wrote in an email. “Was I wrong.”
Sitting with the register before him, Porwoll naturally compared the original with the copy, dated circa 1897. Scanning the typed copy, he came across a strange entry: “Mary Catherine daughter.” It was crossed out with typed dashes.
In the original handwritten version, the line reads: “(Mary Catherine) daughter of Lindey & Cato, negroes, both belonging to...” The entry goes on to note a baptism.
Porwoll concluded that the register’s transcriber, when he came upon the word “negro,” refused to continue with the entry and thereafter paid closer attention to the document to avoid further references to black people in the copy.
And this raised a question: How many African Americans have been left out?
“As I carefully turned the pages of the fragile original, I saw entry after entry of slave baptisms, slave marriages, slave confirmations, and slave burials,” Porwoll wrote in his email. “Instead of the register being 100 percent white-focused, it was almost 83 percent black.”
The value of the register extends beyond the parish church; it could be a boon to genealogists seeking to extend the branches of their family tree, according to Wevoneeda Minis, a Lowcountry-based family researcher.
"It’s important because in a period of time where there’s a dearth of records for blacks who do want to trace back that far, it’s another kind of record," Minis said. "You’ll probably find information that you won't find anywhere else."
The Rev. Jimmy Gallant has been vicar of St. Andrew’s Mission Church for five years, and he has welcomed the chance to forge stronger bonds with the mostly white congregation up the street, an opportunity Porwoll's research has enhanced, he said.
“This church,” he said, referring to Old St. Andrew’s, “has embraced me.”
Gallant and his counterpart at the parish church, the Rev. Marshall Huey, often bring their congregations together for Wednesday services, especially during the Lenten season. Worshippers black and white gather for supper, for teachings, for fellowship. And they convene each year for a sunrise Easter service on the grounds of Magnolia Plantation, an event that draws hundreds from the area.
Huey said the two churches now are planning to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day together at the end of November, marking the moment in 1706 when the 10 early South Carolina parishes were established.
Another idea is to start a joint Watchnight service, perhaps at Magnolia Plantation (which once was part of the Drayton family holdings). Watchnight is an African-American ritual that marks the turn of the New Year.
The congregation of Old St. Andrew’s increasingly is learning about the cultural traditions of their black brothers and sisters. When Huey was married on Dec. 29 last year, he and his wife Barbara “jumped the broom.”
This practice was common among slaves, who were forbidden lawful civil marriages. Jumping the broom at the end of a makeshift wedding ceremony helped formalize the union within the community.
The Hueys’ broom was hand-decorated by a member of St. Andrew’s Mission Church.
“It’s important to me that (Barbara) knows and embraces not only my ministry but all that it encompasses,” he said.
At Gallant’s church, the congregation now includes a number of white worshippers from the adjacent Charleston Rehab Center, which helps people with alcohol and drug addictions.
“We want to send the signal that this corridor is God’s corridor,” he said.
Except during the few years of the war, the churches of the diocese were a part of The Episcopal Church, but in 2012 many congregations in the area cut ties with The Episcopal Church because of theological and organizational differences.
A protracted legal battle ensued involving acrimonious disputes over church property. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider a petition from the disaffiliated Diocese of South Carolina, to which Old St. Andrew’s and St. Andrew’s Mission Church belong, thereby putting an end to the legal process. Many congregations that left The Episcopal Church now must return the property, according to a S.C. Supreme Court ruling, and this is causing concern among parishioners disinclined to give up their sanctuaries.
It remains uncertain just how the situation will resolve — what properties will be returned, when and how. But the strengthened bond between Old St. Andrew’s and St. Andrew’s Mission surely will make things a little easier, according to Francis Seabrook.
He has been a member of St. Andrew’s Mission Church for 48 years. The congregation always has emphasized the “mission” in its name, reaching out to widows, orphans and people in distress, Seabrook said. In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the church was the only building in the area with power and its members coordinated a water and food distribution drive.
Several extended families comprise the bulk of its modest membership, so fellowship with Old St. Andrew’s has presented new opportunities to share blessings, Seabrook said.
“Hopefully we’ll get to a point where there won’t be a difference between Old St. Andrew’s and the mission church,” especially in light of the property dispute, he said.
Interaction leads to deeper relationships which, in turn, can sometimes lead to difficult conversations about race and the troubled history of the parish, Seabrook said.
“I think we’re moving in that direction now,” he said. “The basic, fundamental principal of Christianity is openness and forgiveness. If we can’t get to the point of doing that we’re playing church and actually not living out the Gospel.”
Roxanne Erskine, a member of Old St. Andrew’s for the past 3½ years, echoed Seabrook’s sentiments, saying many would welcome that kind of dialogue.
“If we do come together as congregations, we’re going to have to talk about those kinds of things,” Erskine said. “We can’t become unified if we ignore the elephant in the room.” Porwoll’s book, she said, is “a start with coming to grips with this.”
And the two priests are good shepherds, strengthened by their collaboration, she said.
“Marshall and Jimmy are such dynamic leaders, and have such an authentic regard for one another as people and fellow priests, they are a tremendous example to the congregation,” Erskine said.
Porwoll said he has created digital images of the fragile register to ensure its survival and enable others to access its contents. He hopes his book can help fuel more and more fellowship and dialogue.
“Hopefully, one of the things this book does is throw it all out there, the good, the bad, the ugly,” he said.
That can create opportunity. And it can send a message to the community at large that “we are one church,” Porwoll said.
“What makes this relationship so extraordinary is we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t see it as extraordinary.”