Old Sheldon Church, Then and Now

Still standing proud for 276 years.

The left image is from the Library of Congress from the 1940s. The image on the right shows the condition of the ruins today. Photo by Carmen Pinckney.

Formerly known as Prince William Parrish Church, Old Sheldon Church Ruins sit discreetly off Highway 17. This church is known to be the first attempt in America to create a Greek Temple style of architecture. The church was built sometime between 1745-1753. The church interior was completed, and the first services were held in 1757. The gable roof, pediment, windows, and interior have long been devastated, but the remaining brick shell and columns stand the test of time.

These architectural renderings give us a glimpse of what the original structure looked like. The three-and-a-half-foot thick brick walls are laid in a Flemish bond. All columns and walls have remained intact for 276 years.  The church was built along a row of seven Tuscan columns with tall, arched windows. A Palladian window was placed above the alter and flanked by arched windows. The front façade held a massive portico, topped by a triangular pediment complete with bull’s eye window and a cornice with dentil molding. The entranceway was topped with a tall fanlight and two arched windows are positioned on either side.

This grand chapel of ease stood as a symbol of the wealth that was being accumulated around the area. After completion it was thought of as the finest country church in America. This church is the first example of a temple-form neoclassical building in America. It became a prototype of Greek revival architecture that became characteristic throughout the antebellum south.

The church was a political and military center for the area during the Revolutionary War. Governor William Bull was a founding member here and his plantation bordered the church grounds. The Bull family vault in the church yard was used to conceal arms and ammunition. Continental troops drilled on the church grounds. The church was burned by General Augustine Prevost’s British troops in May 1779. The church was rebuilt from the remaining walls in 1825.

Traditionally, it was thought that the church was burned again during Sherman’s March to the Sea at the end of the Civil War. While the church was again destroyed, a letter dated February 3, 1866 by Milton Leverett states, “Sheldon Church not burnt. Just torn up in the inside but can be repaired.” It is now thought that the church was gutted by locals who were in search of building materials to rebuild their own war-devastated homes. (This information comes from the Leverett Letters, which was published by the University of South Carolina Press.) After this destruction, the church was abandoned and left to ruin.

Images show the interior view from the alter looking toward the front door, the view from the road and the interior view from the front entrance toward the alter. William Bull’s grave can be seen directly in front of the alter. Images by Carmen Pinckney.

The building was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places on October 22, 1970. The site is owned and maintained by the Parish Church of St. Helena in Beaufort. The ruins are a beautiful feature set amongst ancient live oaks, dripping in Spanish moss, and old graves of members past. Governor William Bull is buried here in a place of honor in front of the interior alter. Today the ruins are surrounded by fencing to protect the historic site. While visiting, please respect the property as hallowed ground. The Sheldon Church Ruins are located on Old Sheldon Church Road between Yemassee and Beaufort, just off Highway 17.

Information found on the National Register of Historic Places, S.C. Dept. of Archives and History, the Leverett Letters, and Historic Resources of the Lowcountry.

For more information on attractions in the South Carolina Lowcountry, visit southcarolinalowcountry.com.

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