Attending church back in the day at St Philip’s in Charleston, you wouldn’t sit just anywhere. You would sit in your box pew—you and your family. Nobody else would ever sit in your pew. It was yours. Once a year you paid a fee for that pew. The closer it was to the front, the more expensive it was. Your name was in brass on the door to your pew, and the door, like all walls, extended completely to the floor, so as to eliminate drafts in the unheated hall of worship.*
The church has pewter silver utensils donated by King George II—not King George III, who lost the colonies to independence, but his father. It was founded in 1681, the structure relocated and rebuilt 42 years later after a hurricane damaged it, (later-mentioned St Michael’s was built on that original site), destroyed again, this time by fire, in 1835, and built again the next year. The present-day congregation has 2,000 members, but with about 500 actually in attendance on any given Sunday. It gets a fair number of visitors and one suspects a sense of historical preservation drives many of them, besides a sense of worship.
If you missed church on any given Sunday back then, everyone at once knew it because there was zero chance that you were sitting anywhere other than your box pew. Surely, this bit of social peer pressure to “control” people would send the anti-cultists of today into conniptions. However, if you told John C. Calhoun, the congregation’s most famous member, that he belonged to a ‘controlling cult,’ as might be spun today, he might just run you through with a sword. His road to Vice President began with a stint as War Secretary under President Monroe, and he later served as Vice President to, not one, but two presidents, Andrew Jackson and John Quincey Adams. He vehemently argued for slavery as an institution beneficial to both races, in contrast to some, like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that it was destructive to both.
Calhoun’s tomb is in the cemetery across the road from the St Phillip’s church. Whenever possible, however, deceased members were buried immediately outside the main building, as here at St Michael’s, just a block or two away, built on the original St Phillip’s site.
*Congregation members also owned pews to the south in Mickve Israel Temple, founded in 1733, the oldest group of reformed Jews in Georgia. They had arrived by ship in Savannah just 5 months after the founding of that original planned city. They would have found little welcome—Jews were not to be allowed in James Oglethorpe’s outpost colony, along with Catholics, lawyers, and slaves, but for the fact that the colonist’s original doctor had been the first to die of a yellow fever epidemic. The Jews came with a doctor to take his place. Dr Rubiero treated the colonists, stopped the epidemic, and became Georgia’s first pubic hero. Note the grateful letter from Oglethorpe acknowledging good doctor’s care, on display in the synagogue’s museum. (‘Temple’ and ‘synagogue’ are synonymous in the parlance of reformed Jews, the docent told me.)
Pew owners held deeds that could be passed on to future generations, and the docent told us of a modern-day member carrying on about how it is the only inheritance of his that costs him money, since annual fees are also assessed. See, by the way, use of the Divine Name, on the historical sign just outside the building.
30% of Charleston is land reclaimed from the sea. The entire region, stretching all the way to Savannah, is called the ‘lowcountry.’ During our stay, the Charleston mayor was talking up his plans to stop the sea from again encroaching, citing research from someone that sea level was to rise two feet by 2050. That is a threat unlike those that faced the old churches. An earthquake of 1886 (in Charleston!) destroyed the vestibule of St Michael’s and severely damaged yet another ancient church, the 1731 First Presbyterian Church. See placard below:
Owning your own pew. It is not as good as owning your own house, vine and fig tree, with no one to make you worry about keeping them, as in Isaiah 65:21-23, but it is something. And it could be passed down to your kids:
“They will build houses and live in them, And they will plant vineyards and eat their fruitage. They will not build for someone else to inhabit, Nor will they plant for others to eat....They will not toil for nothing, Nor will they bear children for distress, Because they are the offspring made up of those blessed by Jehovah. They will not build for someone else to inhabit, Nor will they plant for others to eat. For the days of my people will be like the days of a tree, And the work of their hands my chosen ones will enjoy to the full.”