Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990

By Erskine Clarke | Go to book overview

4
The Tradition Articulated A Carolina Accent

THE CHARACTER, AND values of a people are often most powerfully revealed not in the books a people write or even the deeds they do but in the buildings they build. Of course, to understand a community we need to listen to its words and see its deeds. But perhaps the most reliable door into a community's world view and ethos is through its art and most particularly its architecture. Through its visible language, the form of a building can reveal the content of a culture, the values and the shared meanings of a people as well as their technological development and economic condition. This is particularly true when a building is designed for important public rituals, when the rituals and architecture complement one another, and when together they present a coherent picture of a people's understanding of the world. The meetinghouses, the central public buildings of the Reformed community in the low country, together with the rituals performed there thus act as messengers revealing the spirit of the community, its imagination and world of thought. They provide insights into the ways in which the Reformed tradition, with its contradictory impulses, expressed itself in the low country context. The meetinghouses and their rituals are consequently a good beginning point for exploring the intellectual life of the community during the colonial period.1


Meetinghouses with Slave Balconies

The only Presbyterian or Congregational church building from the colonial period that is still standing in the low country is the Johns Island Presbyterian Church. This simple but elegant building, constructed in 1719, conveys the spirit of Geneva as it took root in the black soil of Carolina. Here, behind later additions, we see a meetinghouse similar to those that were built in New England in the seventeenth century: a wooden, square, two-story structure with a distinctive dual row of windows and entrances on three sides. In 1823 a twenty- foot addition changed it from square to oblong, a shape that had become popular in eighteenth-century meetinghouses.2

During the colonial period, similar meetinghouses were found wherever

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