"If you are walking in Charleston, you are walking on someone's grave."--Sue Bennett, Charleston tour guide

Friday, February 23, 2018

Small Church Graveyard Big in Charleston History

Such a gentleman letting his back be used for a classmate's notetaking!

Bethel United Methodist Church, just a stone's throw from CofC's Addlestone Library at the corner of Calhoun and Pitt streets, has been a regular stop in my "Beyond the Grave" course.

But during our Feb. 19 visit was taken to the next level thanks to the expert tour given by church administrator Sue Bennett.

Sue Bennett talking tombstones and other gravemarkers

Along with working at the beautiful old church, Bennett is a longtime Charleston tour guide, operating her own service called Walk Charleston With Sue Bennett.

If her knowledge about the rest of Charleston is anything like that of this church and graveyard that is a tour I must take!

Broken but preserved gravestones remind of 1886's earthquake

Bethel UMC dates to the late 18th century. Its first burial was in 1795.

The many broken headstones seen in this photograph can be attributed to Union shelling (1863-65) and the Great Charleston Earthquake in 1886, Bennett said.

According to findagrave.com, 537 people have been buried here. That seems a high number when seeing how small the graveyard is.

More displaced gravemarkers at the back of the parking lot

But Bennett explained how the graveyard used to be much larger.Years ago, construction of a new church building and parking lot covered a large part of the graveyard including a section where black church members were interred.

Stones from a separate small African American grave site next to church property line a back wall (shown right). Bennett says the church "rescued" these when some new development took place there.

Old Bethel Church is a national landmark

Bennett also took us across Calhoun Street to see what today is called Old Bethel United Methodist Church.

This impressive structure, the first Bethel UMC, was completed in 1807. Today, it is Charleston's third oldest church building, behind only St. Michael's (Anglican/today Episcopal) Church and Circular Congregational Church.

I was impressed with how solid this old church appears to be
This Bethel Church has twice been physically moved, first in the 1850s to make way for the church we see today, then across the street in 1880 when "it was given to the black congregation," according to Old Bethel's website.

Old Bethel has its own cemetery near Magnolia Cemetery
Like other Charleston churches, 18th and 19th century white and black Methodists at Bethel would worship together on Sundays. But the blacks would have to sit in the back or the balcony.

There were also segregated burial areas.

Old Bethel's website says the church was founded and paid for by both black and white citizens. "However, in 1834 a schism developed over whether blacks were to be restricted to sitting in the galleries," according to the website. "By 1840 the black members seceded to form their own congregation."

The races would eventually separate: blacks would worship at Old Bethel, whites at "new" Bethel.

What a treat to actually go inside Bethel UMC

Back at that church, Bennett opened the sanctuary to us, and what a treat it was to see such a beautiful place of God.

A "fun fact" she shared was about how Methodists would not drink communion wine (as say Catholics did and do). Instead, grape juice would be used. That drink was introduced by none other than a Methodist named Welch, hence the Welch's grape juice that would become so popular, according to Bennett.

Crude Yankee soldier drawing 

Another interesting tidbit is how during Reconstruction, Union forces occupied the city and proof of their presence inside Bethel Church is evident on the walls.

In recent years during some repair work, some drawings by and handwritten names of several Yankees were found inside a wall leading up to the balcony.

Today, a clear window protects the unique writings, which are visible for display and viewing.  Way cool!

View from the heavens? Not quite, but very lovely.

Amid Union bombardment, Bethel managed to have Sunday services continuously throughout the war.

I remarked to some of the students that we were truly given the "rock star" treatment at Bethel! That included being able to go upstairs to take in this view of the magnificent church.

Bennett had many interesting stories to share

Sue Bennett was so gracious and generous with her time. I hope the students appreciated this as much as I.

History galore upstairs in this room

At the end our visit, Bennett took us up to the church's archives room.

The small space was full of old books, directories, records, clothing and other diverse items from long ago.

Bennett shows students original church records

Bethel UMC has a treasure trove of information and artifacts that help bring alive its rich history.

Thank you again Sue Bennett. It is nice that the College of Charleston has such a friendly and open neighbor in terms of you (her daughter is a CofC graduate BTW) and your beautiful and historic church.

A few other takeaways from our tour:

  • "People in this city are buried everywhere," Bennett said. This is easier to believe having seen a map showing more than 100 graveyards and cemetery locations on the Charleston peninsula dating to the late 1600s. 
  • George Washington's death in 1799 inspired Americans to "get away from the skull and crossbones" headstone carvings that were commonplace, Bennett said. "People began trying to out-mourn each other." 
  • She also told us that headstones were put in the ground deeper than I would have imagined. "One-third is above ground, two-thirds is below ground," she said. 
  • Bennett said it's a challenge at the church to keep the gravemarkers clean, but efforts are made to do so using careful methods that will not damage them. 

No comments:

Post a Comment