Edisto Island Baptist Church — Edisto Island, South Carolina
SC Picture Project | Charleston County | Edisto Island Baptist Church
Edisto Island Baptist Church was founded in 1818; today it is known as New First Missionary Baptist Church. Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend, wife of planter Daniel Townsend of Bleak Hall Plantation (now part of Botany Bay), became a Baptist in 1807. Following her conversion, she organized a Baptist mission society in 1811 which paved the way for the first Baptist church on the island. While her husband approved of her work on behalf of the Baptist denomination, he, a Presbyterian, did not change faiths along with his wife.
An independent woman, Hephzibah moved out of her spacious plantation home due to a disagreement with her husband over the future of their estate. She wished to divide their property among their 14 children, while he wanted to leave it all to the first-born son. In response, she took an ex-slave, Bella (other accounts say she took a slave or slaves), with her to live on a parcel of land, now the site of Wilkinson’s Landing. At her new home, Hephzibah built tabby ovens, which she and Bella used to make baked goods to sell in Charleston.
With the proceeds of the pastries, Hephzibah was able to build Edisto Island’s first Baptist sanctuary in 1818. (Some accounts claim that Daniel Townsend eventually helped with the cost; we are unsure which is true.) The Reverend Richard Furman – minister of First Baptist Church in Charleston, namesake of Furman University in Greenville, and a driving influence in the life of Hephzibah – presided over the dedication ceremony. The tabby oven ruins remain standing on the island.
The church initially operated as a mission of the First Baptist Church in Charleston. In 1822 the Townsends conveyed 14 acres on Edisto Island to First Baptist in Charleston in a trust to “provide and for the Support and maintenance forever hereafter of a Clergyman of the Baptist Denomination on Edisto Island to officiate regularly in the Baptist Church on the Said Island.” By 1829 Edisto Island Baptist Church was operating independently of its mother church.
During the Civil War Federal troops overtook Edisto, causing most white landowners to flee. Many former slaves remained, and in 1865 the United States deeded the church to a black congregation. That year, an addition to the front of the church doubled its size; the facade was removed and reattached to the church during this project. The two-story pedimented portico was added in 1880.
Twentieth century modifications include the addition of two bathrooms in the rear of the church and a major restoration project in 1982. The name of the church was changed after it changed hands. The African-American congregation remains active today, and the church now shares its sanctuary with the Episcopal Church on Edisto, a newly-formed congregation that continues to adhere to national Episcopal policy. A monument to Hephzibah Townsend stands behind the church.
Below is the result of the 1982 construction project. A new sanctuary, which is where the congregation now meets, was built adjacent to the historic church. The words above the entrance read, “Enter to worship, depart to serve.” The aforementioned Episcopal Church on Edisto now uses the historic sanctuary; prior to that the Baptist congregation utilized the space for storage and a ceramics shop. The interior of the new sanctuary displays religious artwork.
The historic sanctuary of Edisto Island Baptist Church is listed in the National Register:
Edisto Island Baptist Church was built in 1818 through the efforts of one woman, Hepzibah Jenkins Townsend. The church is also architecturally significant because the 1818 church core with its tabby foundation and recessed panel slave gallery is still intact. In addition, it is significant in African American history because it has operated continuously as a black church since the trustees turned the church over to the faithful black members after the Civil War. The original portion of the church was square in plan and supported by a tabby foundation. The two-story church is sheathed in beaded weatherboard and had a medium pitched gable roof whose ridge ran longitudinally, perpendicular to the façade. Pedimented gable ends graced the façade (southwest) and the rear elevation (northwest). The original façade, which was removed and re-erected as the façade of the ca. 1865 addition, which doubled its size, had three bays. Around 1880 a two-story pedimented portico was added to the façade. In the first quarter of the twentieth century two small, one-story, gable roofed restrooms sheathed in shiplap siding were added to the rear of the church. Adjacent to the church is a baptismal pool, also of tabby construction. The pool might date as early as the construction of the church, although this has not been documented.
Edisto Island Baptist Church Info
Address: 1644 South Carolina Highway 174, Edisto Island, SC 29438
GPS Coordinates: 32.572751,-80.284230
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