The Ruins of one of South Carolina’s Oldest Churches

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Sheldon Church Ruins | Beaufort County, SC | c. 1755

If you’ve ever driven into or out of Charleston, you’ve likely passed very close to this place without even knowing it. But just along your route was some incredible history that I would encourage you to visit on your next visit to the Low Country. As you approach the gates, take in the sounds, the air, the shadows from the trees, and the mysterious property before you. Grand columns bookend a hollow space that used to provide sanctuary to some of America’s earliest European settlers.

Charleston is Founded

Sometime in the 1670s, Stephen ‘The Immigrant’ Bull established a plantation called Ashley Hall and was granted 400 acres in what would become a city called Charlestown (Charleston) named after King Charles II.

Stephen would establish himself quickly as a prominent member of European-American society. He became Deputy to Lord Ashley, Surveyor General, Justice of the Peace, and Native Emissary.

Lord Ashley- King Charles’ Proprietor of Carolina

The Stephen Bull Family

The oldest of Stephen Bull’s 4 children, William, was born in 1683 at Ashley Hall in Charlestown. He would expand the family’s land holdings significantly and setup a plantation of his own west of town. Continuing in his father’s footsteps, William served this young territory as Lieutenant Governor and also served as special advisor to James Oglethorpe, helping to lay out the province of Georgia. William contributed substantially to the design of Savannah.

He would marry a woman named Mary with whom he raised 5 children in Prince William Parish until her death in 1745.

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Sheldon Church is Built

After her passing, he turned his focus to building a new church and thus was born the plans for Sheldon Church. The church was completed by 1757 and an inaugural Anglican service was held here. In these years before the American Revolution, this impressive brick structure, thought to be the first Greek Revival style church, served a congregation here before this was the United States.

Artist rendition of what Sheldon Church would’ve looked like before it was destroyed

But unfortunately, William wasn’t here to attend the first service, or any of the following ones, as he had passed away in 1755 after 6 years overseeing its construction. To honor him, and in the English Anglican tradition, William Bull was buried at the foot of the altar below the floorboards of the church he had envisioned in his mind, but never got to see.

And although its founder was gone, its place in American history was only just beginning.

William Bull is buried below this altar.

Revolution In America Arrives at Sheldon’s Doorstep

Revolution began to stir in the new world and during those times, churches were not only religious centers, but political and cultural ones too, serving local communities. In the case of Sheldon Church, local militia men used the property as a meeting place where they would gather to organize themselves during the American Revolution. According to local folklore, local patriots were storing gunpowder in the church to prepare themselves for what they saw as impending invasion from the British.

In 1779, the low country was invaded by General Augustine and Prince William Parish Church was lit aflame. Due to the gunpowder inside, the church was quickly destroyed, leaving only its brick columns and portions of its walls.

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Today we can only speculate on what life was like in America just after the Revolution but records from the Bull family give us some insight that is interesting and helpful in trying to understand what was happening in this young nation. According to Bull Family records, many of the Bull relatives returned to England as loyalists after the war, while many from the family stayed behind to build a nation state where there hadn’t been one before.

Sheldon Church during the Civil War

The remains of Prince William Parish Church stood there in the low country until 1826 when locals decided to restore the church. They renamed it Sheldon Church, after William Bull’s ancestral home in England and for a handful of years, the church would again minister to the local community.

But the young country wasn’t in the clear yet as war was again on the horizon. This time, it wasn’t a foreign war but a domestic one between North and South where Sheldon Church found itself at a historic crossroads.

Sheldon Church is Destroyed Again

For many years, it was believed that Sheldon Church was burned the second time in the 1860s by General Tecumsah Sherman’s troops on their March to the Sea. But recent documents have revealed a completely different chain of events for Sheldon Church.

Based and these documents and according to local historians, this church was actually dismantled by locals between 1865-67 and used to build shelters for newly freed people.

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Sheldon Church in Recent Years

Over the years, Sheldon Church Ruins has fallen victim to theft, vandalism, and damage from general disregard so the church ruins were enclosed with a gate in 2017. Many visitors lament about not being able to walk through the columns anymore, but we have thieves and criminals to thank.

In 2016, this confederate cross was stolen from one of the graves here as well as bricks and other details that have been stolen and damaged here over the years. Personally, I am thankful that someone out there is keeping an eye on a place this special and keeping it safe for many more generations to visit.

Each time I visit, I pause to consider what William might’ve envisioned for this place. I wonder if he ever considered that this place would still be standing, so many years later. I wonder if he imagined that an Easter service would still be held here yearly.

Or that some woman he would never meet would be taking photographs of his building and sharing them with thousands of people via computer, 250+ years later.

Please be respectful and do not climb the perimeter fence around the ruins.

The photos of mine you see here were taken before the fence was placed.

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  1. We married there 17 years ago this month. I have not seen it since the fence was placed around it. Thanks for sharing. It is a beautiful, special place!

  2. This is truly a treasure. Thank you for writing this article. I have heard of this church before but not about the dismantling of the church. I would think that both Mr. Stephen and William Bull would be happy that their work and vision has been preserved and shared with many generations after them.

  3. I absolutely LOVE your articles and your pictures! The detail you are able to find about the buildings and your beautiful, and well framed images, gives us such a clear vision of what life may have been like in these historical buildings. You truly are able to make me feel like I’m “right there” and walking back in time when they were in their glory.

    Thank you for all of the hard work you do on these projects from visiting the sites, researching the sites and providing us with beautiful images. There is no doubt it is very time consuming, but, you bring history to a new level of beauty and appreciation. Thank you!

  4. Oh My!!! Such a remarkable place and story!!! This is definitely on my calendar for future vacation sites to visit!!!

  5. Momma is from Beaufort and we have many relatives all through the low country up into the Aiken area since the early 1700’s. I’ve been to Sheldon Church so many times when we went to South Carolina to visit relatives and as a child momma would always stop for me to wander around. Then I started taking my children. I have many pictures pre-fence too. I just visited there last month which was the first time in years. I was so disappointed by the fence. All these years people have been free to wander the whole church and now in recent years people started vandalism on it. What a shame there are people who think it’s okay to do that. It looks so different now from when I was younger, trees grown, fenced, tombstones more decayed. It saddens me how time passes and these places are so often forgotten or uncared for. Luckily, Sheldon isn’t one that has forgotten but it is more and more deteriorating. I wish someone would use D2 and clean the tombstones though. I think that would help them last longer. Same goes for Beaufort’s old church cemeteries. In a terrible state of destruction because they aren’t cleaned properly with the correct cleaner. I cleaned old family tombstones while I was there in 3 family cemeteries that had tombstones never cared for properly. I just wish I were closer to keep an eye on them. I love your story’s and photos and breaks my heart so many beautiful old homes are left to rot and have never understood why they are left to get in that condition like they’ve never been lived in and loved.

  6. I discovered Sheldon Church about 40 years ago and never miss the chance to stop and wander there . At first the road was quiet . No traffic . Now it is busier and I , like othered regret the fencing but realize this is a must. I see damage to so many historic sites and it is ashamed. They steel a piece of history just to have it . They are not interested at all in history or saving it for the future.

  7. I worked in the area this time last year and discover this by accident . Beautiful place! If you get the chance don’t pass it up!!

  8. Great article. That area holds a special place in my heart. I live in Palm Bay, FL in the winter but two of my children lived in Charleston. My son was there for 12 years but my daughter only about 2 years until she became ill, returned back home to NY and passed away in 2014. The year she was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, I made the trip from Palm Bay to Charleston numerous times that winter. My exclusive route was I-95 north to 17N and directly into Charleston. I passed within a stones throw of that church and never knew it was there. I do remember the Carolina Cider Company, Beaufort, the African Village, the restored Plantation Welcome Center all of which I stopped to check out. Unfortunately, I never knew about the church. I do remember an old service station (gas station) closer to Charleston on the same road that I did stop and photograph because it was so cool. If I ever get that way again, I will be sure to check out the Sheldon Church ruins. Thanks again for the article.

  9. Thank you for all you do. I too love old buildings & history. The history of this church is amazing & more amazing is that much of it still stands. I hope that some group or organization sees fit to protect this beautiful piece of history.

  10. I remember a scene from the miniseries, North and South, that was filmed in church ruins like this. Was it the Sheldon Church ruins that they used or another site?

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