Church of the Week: Circular Congregational Church, Charleston, SC

Charleston, South Carolina, is filled with historic, distinctive, and vibrant churches, and this week's church of the week is one of them. This congregation was co-founded with the city of Charleston (or Charles Towne, as it was called then) in 1680-1685, by the English Congregationalists, Scots Presbyterians. and French Huguenots of the original settlement. In a spirit of diversity and liberality, these "dissenters" erected a Meeting House in the northwest comer of the walled city. The present church structure occupies that exact site. The street leading to it was called "Meeting House Street," later shortened to Meeting Street, which it remains to this day.

In 1804, the time had come to replace the Meeting Street house with a more commodious building. Martha Laurens Ramsay proposed a circular form and Robert Mills, Charleston's leading architect who also designed the Washington Monument in D.C., completed the plans. The church he designed was a Pantheon-type building 88 feet in diameter with seven great doors and 26 windows. On its main floor and in the gallery it was said to accommodate 2,000 worshippers! The first major domed building in North America, it was described by one observer in 1818 as "the most extraordinary building in the United States."

I had the opportunity to worship here on a July trip to Charleston. "Circular Church," as its members call it, was just across the street and a block away from my hotel, so I dropped in on their 10:15 a.m. service, which happened to be the installation service for an interim minister (their previous pastor had recently retired).

It seemed to be a friendly and thriving congregation (they are affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of very few churches in the South with a dual affiliation. By the time the service began (to the accompaniment of a pipe organ), the sanctuary was about 70% full.

I loved the woodwork in the place, and the semi-circular arrangement of the pews. I would have liked to have stayed for the "Jazz Vespers" they offer on Sunday evenings, but had to get on the road for our return trip home.


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