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  • Writer's pictureSusannah Blount

The Complex Identity of the Holy City

By Susannah Blount

Charleston wears the moniker of the "Holy City" like a cloak, draped in a rich tapestry of religious history. 

But beneath the surface of its quaint alleys and storied churches, is a complex interplay of faith, politics, and the legacy of a painful past. 

With over 400 church steeples gracing its skyline and a rich religious heritage, Charleston has long been celebrated for its historical connection to faith. 

But the Southern city’s deep ties to slavery and racism have diminished its image as a truly holy city.

The 2015 shooting by a white supremacist of nine members at Mother Emanuel AME church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South and the first independent Black church in the nation, is a stark reminder of the city's troubled racial history. 

Born out of the necessity for freed slaves to gather, Mother Emanuel became not just a place of worship but a hub for political leaders to gather and plot their strategies.

The racially motivated tragedy eight years ago is a reminder of  the intertwined nature between faith and politics. 

Charleston historian Leah Worthington doesn’t believe Charleston deserves the holy nickname. 

“Why does Charleston have the title when we certainly don't deserve it?” she asks. “Ironically, until the early 1800s this was a major port for slavery, talking about things

America has done wrong. This is the largest slave port in North America.”

Charleston, a port city that was a major thoroughfare for the slave trade,  also bears witness to a complex religious history, marked by the struggles of colonialists for religious and political freedom. 

But as the sun sets on Charleston, the city comes alive with the sound of bells from nearby cathedrals. 

"Bells symbolize a call to prayer, the noise in Charleston resembles religion," says Chandler Bryant, a religion major at the College of Charleston who is primarily interested in the religious influence of city development.  

The bells have become a metaphor for the spiritual resonance embedded in the city's fabric.

But does being an old city in the United States correlate with why it's called the Holy City? 

Bryant still finds a connection between the two.

"A lot of American history itself is correlated with religious history," Bryant says, linking the city's nomenclature to the broader narrative of America's religious journey.

Charleston's haunting beauty extends beyond its historic facades. The Circular Congregational Church, home to some of the oldest graves in the country represents the connection the city has to spirituality, explains Bryant. 

Gravestones adorned with symbols, skulls, and dates tracing back to 1681 hint at a connection between the faithful and the haunted.

But Worthington argues that this title has nothing to do with Charleston’s haunting history.

“It's very unholy on how it's making its money,” Bryant said. “And then this basic fact since the colonial period Charleston people love to drink, thriving brothels.” 

But Charleston kept the name, Bryant adds, to keep the tourists coming.

“It's a pretty debauched city at the same time by a very good storytelling historian coining this term Holy City in letters to his friends,” She claims only became popular in the 20th century as tourism began to increase.

The origins of the "Holy City" nickname trace back to the mid-20th century. A columnist, adopting the pen name "Ashley Cooper," coined the term, steering the city toward a rebranding effort. The juxtaposition of an allegedly holy city with a history steeped in sin adds an ironic twist to Charleston's identity.

Ghost tour guide, Adam Moore agrees with Worthington, explaining from the roots of the AME church to the Methodist preacher's damning characterization of Charleston as "the seat of Satan itself.” 

Brennan Keegan, a College of Charleston religion professor, emphasizes the city's religious roots and the ironic discrepancy between its label and historical realities. 

She challenges the notion that Charleston truly deserves the title of the Holy City. 

Keegan explains that religious diversity thrives in Charleston today, with Christian denominations, historic Anglican communities, and Jewish and Baha’i congregations coexisting. 

Charleston's cemeteries and burial traditions contribute to its reputation as the "Holy City." Different religions bring unique practices, fostering historical tolerance. Ghost stories and legends are further entwined with religious buildings, creating an atmosphere where the spiritual and supernatural intersect.

As the city continues to evolve, the question lingers: Is Charleston drifting away from being a holy city? The answers vary, with some citing the persistence of religious identification, while others highlight the paradox of a supposedly holy city with an unholy past.

“Old cities tend to often be ghost cities,” Worthington notes, “especially with a city that has a skeleton hanging in the closet for the unholiness.”

In the labyrinth of Charleston's streets, where history whispers through the aged bricks, the concept of a holy city unravels. The narrative, woven with threads of faith, struggle, and contradiction, leaves us with a city that is more than the sum of its pious facades—a city where the sacred and the spectral coexist, challenging preconceived notions of holiness.

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