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Church on John's Island

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Church on John's Island

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This 1797 watercolor painting by artist Charles Fraser shows St. John's Church, located on John's Island in Charleston, South Carolina. Fraser, a native of Charleston, painted the scene when he was fifteen years old. It is one of forty of his early drawings "of the city and surrounding country, including plantations and parish churches" included in a collection entitled A Charleston Sketchbook, 1796-1806, published in 1854.

Since house slaves and those who lived near cities often attended church with their white masters, blacks attended or became members of many of the white churches surrounding Charleston. Near the end of the 18th century, a few independent black congregations were allowed to form.

Fraser described the impact on Charleston when in 1793 "he awful tragedy of St. Domingo, as is well known, threw upon our shores a crowd of miserable and destitute French," to whom the city responded "readily and cheerfully to the extent of their means." Fraser recalls being employed "upon errands of charity to those unfortunate beings. Although white refugees were greeted with compassion and material aid, state and local ordinances were passed to the restrict the entry and movement of French-speaking blacks.

Three years after Fraser painted St. John's Church, Gabriel's Rebellion was discovered in nearby Virginia, and South Carolina passed a law forbidding Negroes to assemble "for the purpose of mental instruction or religious worship" between sunset and sunrise, even with a majority of whites present. The law was amended in 1803, and again in 1819 so that the presence of one white person made the gathering lawful.

Black Methodist congregations were numerous in the Charleston area, operating semi-autonomously with a white "Preacher in Charge," even holding their own quarterly conference and maintaining charge of their own financial and disciplinary affairs until 1815. In 1817, when the white trustees of the Charleston Bethel Church attempted to erect a hearse house on the black burial lot, the 4,367 black members withdrew. They formed the African Church of Charleston. Morris Brown, who had been ordained by Bishop Richard Allen earlier that year, became the African Church's first pastor.

Image Credit: The Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association

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