St. Philip’s Church was founded in 1680 as the first Anglican congregation south of Virginia. Built of local cypress in the northwest corner of the Walled City, their first church was damaged in a 1710 hurricane.

Because of that and their growing congregation, they built a larger church on Church Street. Its first service was on Easter 1723. This second St. Philip’s, partially funded through duties on rum and enslaved people, was widely acclaimed. English statesman Edmund Burke wrote in 1777: “St. Philip’s is spacious, and executed in a very handsome taste, exceeding everything of that kind which we have in America,” and architect Robert Mills said “the effect produced upon the mind in viewing the edifice is that of solemnity and awe.”

This church was saved during a 1796 fire by an enslaved man named Will. As sparking embers threatened its roof, according to historian Charles Fraser, Will “at the risk of his life, climbed to the very summit of the belfry, and tore off the burning shingles.” Afterward, the vestry Will’s owner $707.14 for his freedom. He spent the rest of his life as the church sexton. 

Unfortunately, Will was not around in 1835, when St. Philip’s burned to the ground in another fire. A new church was erected by 1838 with the capacity to seat 800, though not without controversy. By then, the Market had moved north of the church, which had been the terminus of Church Street. While some wanted to maintain the church as the street’s visual apex, others thought it commercially expedient to extend Church Street to the Market.

A compromise sited the new church 22 feet east of its original foundation, bringing its porticos in line with Church Street’s north/south axis. A new, wider street wrapped around the proticos to access the Market. 

St. Philip’s has changed little since 1838. In 2012 it hosted the convention whereby the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina broke from the Episcopal Church over theological differences. Lawsuits regarding which diocese owned the church ensued. In 2022 the S.C. Supreme Court confirmed St. Philip’s congregants’ right to continue worshiping in their historic sanctuary.

The view of St. Philip’s porticos and steeple rising above Church Street is one of the most photographed images of the city. On any given evening, one can hear tour guides entertaining visitors with stories of how Will’s ghost and others haunt the graveyard.

Church Street looking north, c. 1910s (Image: Library of Congress)
Same view, c. 1920-1926 (Photo: Library of Congress)
Little has changed architecturally in this 2022 image.