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.
If you’re at all like me, You might consider who had stood in the very spot where you are today. You might wonder what stories there were from the events that transpired here. Or how many had been baptized here? How many married? And how many buried?
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.
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 in named Mary with whom he raised 5 children in Prince William Parish until her death in 1745. 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 inagurral 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 shelter for newly freed people.
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 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 online with thousands of people,
250+ years later.
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, a 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.
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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