Note on name: The historic building shown below originally belonged to the Edisto Island Baptist Church, and because of this, many still call it by that name. However it is actually owned by New First Missionary Baptist Church. Confusing matters further, New Missionary Baptist does not use the historic building but a newer building located behind this one. The congregation of the Episcopal Church on Edisto uses the historic building instead. You can find full details below.
Ownership: From Edisto Island Baptist to New Missionary Baptist
When the Union army overtook Edisto during the Civil War, most white residents fled. Black slaves, who had nowhere to go and were in general safer in the presence of United States soldiers, remained on the island.
After the war, many planters failed to return, and the church was transferred to another congregation: New First Missionary Baptist Church. It is unclear who transferred the deed. The National Register states that the church’s white trustees transferred the deed to loyal ex-slaves whose families had faithfully accompanied their owners to the church for generations. Other sources provide a more plausible explanation: The federal government took possession of the building and gave it to the local black community.
Regardless, New First Missionary’s African-American congregation remains active here today, although they hold services in a 1982 concrete-block building located behind this historic edifice. New Missionary Baptist Church generously allows Edisto’s displaced Episcopal congregation to use the original sanctuary. This group of Episcopalians is the third congregation to use the venerated structure.
Edisto Island Baptist Church: Historical Overview
Originally home to Edisto Island Baptist Church, this stately sanctuary was constructed in 1818. Today the historic structure houses a branch of the original congregation. Now owned by New First Missionary Baptist Church, many of its African-American members are descendants of slaves who once attended Edisto Island Baptist Church with their owners. In fact, the slave gallery – a balcony set apart from pews owned or rented by white members – remains in tact.
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.
Note that an earlier Baptist congregation on Edisto Island predated this one. Established in 1686, it also served as a mission of First Baptist Church in Charleston. It was not known to have a formal sanctuary; members likely worshiped in private homes instead. In 1745 a faction broke away to became an independent church. These members formed Euhaw Baptist Church in the Grahamville community of Jasper County.
During the Civil War, Federal troops overtook Edisto, causing most white landowners to flee. Most former slaves remained, and in 1865 the church was deeded 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.
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.
Twentieth-century modifications include the addition of two bathrooms in the rear of the church and a major restoration project in 1982.
New First Missionary Baptist Church: 1982 Sanctuary
A new sanctuary, shown here, is the result of a 1982 construction project. This is where New First Missionary Baptist Church now meets. 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, as seen below.
Edisto Island Baptist Church: National Register
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.