Church of the Week Old St. David’s Church
By Bill Segars
Today’s featured church is entitled “Old St. David’s Church” for the simple reason that in the Colonial Town of Cheraw there are two St. David’s church buildings. This one, which is 241 years old, and the “new one”, which is 99 years old. Imagine a congregation worshiping in a 99 year old “new building” – that’s a congregation with deep roots.
Those deep roots date back to the early Colonial Anglican Parish System. When Carolina was first settled in 1670 under English rule, the coastal area was divided up into 10 parishes by The Church Act of 1706. The boundary lines for these parishes were drawn from the cost towards the unsettled western part of Carolina based on population. These boundary lines not only designated which church the citizens attended, they were also the governmental boundary lines. The Vestry Men were not just the “Deacons” of the church, they were also the forerunners of our “politicians” – they controlled the parish. As Carolina’s population grew, those 10 parishes were subdivided into 21 parishes. Each of these parishes had a Parish Church, and many had multiple Chapels of Ease, depending on land size.
Why is this information important to St. David’s, you may ask? When St. David’s was established on April 12, 1768, it became the last parish to be established by the Anglican Church of England in South Carolina. The good historian that you are, you certainly know the significances of July 4, 1776, and the subsequent Revolutionary War that followed that. The dots that you may not have connected with this is when the colonies won their independence from England in 1783, it also dissolved the connection that the Colonial Anglican Churches had with The Church of England. Those Anglican Churches, including St. David’s, automatically became Protestant Episcopal Churches.
Another visual effect of American’s independence was that the Parish system was abolished and their boundary lines became known as districts in 1785. Between 1785 and 1868, South Carolina did have a mixture of parish, district and county names; districts were the true judicial order. After The War Between The States, South Carolina adopted the county system with 31 counties at that time, and later subdivided into the 46 counties that we know today.
That’s enough of that; let’s get back to the beautiful 1774 St. David’s building. The first contract was signed between the Vestry and a carpenter by the name of Thomas Bingham to build a Meeting House style building with a jerkinhead roof line. If that’s a new word for you, look it up, or we will talk more about it later on other church buildings; its origin is interesting. The building was to be a simple building 30 feet wide by 43 feet long and was to cost £2,600. I can tell you what 2,600 pounds sterling is worth today, $4,011, but I don’t have a clue as to what it was worth in 1774. At any rate the original church building was not a fancy Anglican church building typically seen in the low country, remember this area is in the poorer back woods portion of the colony. The building is located on the west side of the Pee Dee River on land that was owned by Ely Kershaw, who owned most of the land in the present day Cheraw. The building was used in 1772, but not finished until 1774.
The interior is also simple, but having all the elements of an Anglican Church building. Box pews for the congregants, a wine glass pulpit with a sounding board off to the side and a fitting alter at the head of the isle in the center of the building. Mr. Neil Meetze was commissioned to build the black walnut wine glass pulpit. He was given explicate instructions to go to Georgetown, make a drawing of Prince George Winyah’s pulpit, return and build it. Which he did, he built an exact copy. As fate would have it in 1782 the interior of Prince George Winyah was completely burned by the British as they retreated. When the congregation began restoring the interior of their church what did they do? They sent a carpenter to Cheraw to copy St. David’s pulpit. Both are very similar today.
The S.C. militia and Lord Cornwallis’ army used St. David’s building during the Revolution as quarters and a hospital. A number of militia troops and British troops that died while encamped here are buried side by side in the large graveyard at St. David’s. After the Revolutionary War the people of the area became disinterested in anything British, including the Anglican Church, so St. David’s closed as a Anglican or Episcopal Church. For decades Baptists and Presbyterians used the building for their services. It is written that the two preachers would race to the pulpit on Sundays to see who could use it first. On February 17, 1785, circuit riding Methodist preacher Francis Asbury preached his first service in South Carolina here.
In 1819 The Episcopal Church regained control of the building for their own services and by 1826 the membership had increased enough to make improvements and enlarge their beloved little meeting house. They added the present vestibule with steps going up to the balcony and the three-tiered steeple. Like the Revolutionary War, The War Between The States brought changes to the building. Confederate and Union troops used the church as a hospital. 1883 brought more renovations and the addition of the Vestry Room on the rear of the building and the cross was placed on the steeple giving us the present configuration of the building.
The Episcopal faith saw tremendous growth in the Cheraw area due to a couple of rectors that served St. David’s and went on to become Episcopal Bishops. The Right Rev. Alexander Gregg went on to serve as the first Episcopal Bishop of Texas and The Right Rev. Albert Thomas as Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. The Rev. Thomas was the last rector to serve at the Old St. David’s. Along with his pulpit preaching talents, he also designed the present brick Gothic St. David’s Episcopal Church Building at 412 Market St. in Cheraw.
Since the congregation moved out of the original building in 1916, several interested groups have maintained and restored the wonderful building for us to enjoy today. The present owner of the building is the Chesterfield County Historical Preservation Commission who restored it to its present splendor in the 1970s. Most of my information was obtained from research that this commission has done and published in a pamphlet about St. David’s.
One of the many fine attributes of the South is our willingness to share and our trusting nature. If you would like to visit Old St. David’s at 91 Church St. in downtown Cheraw to see and experience what you have just read about; stop by the Cheraw Visitors Bureau at 221 Market St. or call 843-537-8425. There they will give you a key to the church, how much more trusting can that be? If you’re real lucky, Mrs. Sara Spruill may be there and she can tell you much more about her favorite topic, St. David’s Episcopal Church. Enjoy your trip to Cheraw.
Bill Segars has a strong love and appreciation for history, having grown up on a farm in Kelleytown on land that has been in the family since 1821 . He uses his 40-year building career to combine with his love of history to develop a passion for historical restoration. Segars was able to find, photograph and research more than 750 religious edifices throughout the state. If you have comments, please feel free to contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.