Old Sheldon Church Ruins
It was a quick jaunt off of our planned route and as we neared I almost couldn’t explain why I hadn’t been sooner to visit this place that had been on my list for longer than I could remember. The first photo I saw a few years ago of it grasped me in such a way that I have never been able to completely shake it from my mind. The grandness of the columns, the hollowness where a sanctuary once stood, the beautiful gaping spaces where windows were, and the remarkable shadows cast by trees painted a scene that almost didn’t seem real.
The 260 mile drive had kept me away from this place for far too long and the day had finally come. A winding back road, sweeping trees, and a looming Spring storm welcomed us to this hallowed site in typical Low Country fashion. As I got out of the car and as I neared the site, I couldn’t tell if the air was actually heavy or if it was just the energy on such historic grounds. I stopped. I stared. I wondered how I could ever capture this place well enough to do it justice.
Who had stood in this very spot?
What events had transpired here over time?
How many were baptized and married here?
And how many have found their final resting spot here?
My time spent there that day was solemn but beautiful; awe-inspiring and humbling; intriguing and peculiar all at once. The history I found was even more incredible.
In August of 1669, a fleet of three ships set sail from England filled with passengers to establish a new colony in Carolina. One of these ships was the Carolina, which left from Downs carrying about 100 souls, two of which were Lord Ashley, Proprietor of Carolina, and Stephen Bull, an attorney from Sheldon. The fleet was tormented by storms in Barbados and Bermuda, leaving the Carolina as the only ship to make it to shore, landing near present-day Beaufort, SC in March of 1670.
[Lord Ashley– Proprietor of Carolina to King Charles II]
(photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Stephen ‘The Immigrant’ Bull would become Lord Ashley’s Deputy to South Carolina and with his education and experience as a counselor, he quickly began establishing a legacy that his family would carry on for generations. Stephen established Ashley Hall Plantation in 1671 and in 1676, he was given a 400 acre land grant in the new city center which he had helped to designate and build, called Charles Town, after King Charles II. He would become Surveyor General, Justice of the Peace and Native emissary, being the first to make peace with the Indians of the Carolina coast on behalf of England.
Stephen would have four children at Ashley Hall in Charles Town, of whom the eldest was William Bull, born 1683, said to be the first white person born in the Carolinas. By 1707, William had enlarged his fathers land tract significantly and had established Newberry Plantation, west of the city in Prince William Parish.
William served as Lieutenant Governor and special advisor to James Oglethorpe as the province of Georgia was being laid out; he was a primary contributor to the design of Savannah.
Stephen’s children would settle the area known as Prince William Parish and the following generations of Bull’s would yield Governors, Representatives, and the founding fathers of the United States during the American Revolution.
William had 5 children with his wife Mary in Prince William Parish, SC but sometime after her death in 1748, his passion turned to building a church for the parish, which began shortly after, in 1745.
By 1757 the grand church, called Prince William Parish Church, was completed and an Anglican service was delivered. Sadly,William, it’s builder and champion, died in 1755, two years before his building was completed, thought to be the first Greek Revival in the U.S.
In English tradition, he was buried in the floor of the church in front of the altar where his headstone still sits today.
Its founder was gone, but its place in history was not. As revolution stirred in the New World, rural churches like this one were not only religious centers, but political and cultural ones as well, serving local communities where militia sometimes gathered. Local lore says that American patriots were storing gunpowder in the church in preparation of invasion from the British. In 1779, General Augustine invaded the low country and burned Prince William Parish Church to just a few walls.
By 1782, the war was over and the Bull’s had to rebuild like everyone else. But the aftermath must’ve been tumultuous for the family as records show some of the Bull relatives returned to England as Loyalists after the Revolution while most stayed behind to build a country where there hadn’t been one before.
William Bull’s church would stand in ruin until 1826 when it was restored and renamed Sheldon Church, after Bull’s ancestral home in England. For nearly 40 years, the church would serve the local community until war struck yet again. This time, North and South battled over the direction of a new and fragile nation and Sheldon Church once again found itself at a historic crossroads. In January of 1865, General Tecumsah Sherman’s Union troops passed through here, looting and burning the Sheldon Church and leaving what you see today. It has stood in disrepair ever since.
As I moved about trying to position myself for photos, I had to wonder if William ever thought that this place would still be standing all these years later. I would guess that he never would’ve imagined that Easter service would still be held yearly. Or that some woman he has no relation to would be taking digital images of his building to share online with thousands of strangers.
259 years later.
When I think about this, I have to ask myself what he intended his legacy to be and how I could ever convey the gravitas of his life and imprint on our country.
The more I considered it, the more I realized that the legacy he left behind wasn’t this hollow, shell of a sanctuary, but something indelible that can’t be hidden or denied by time. That perhaps the legacy of the Stephen, William and the Bull Family is not in the brick walls that they built and rebuilt, but in the Nation that they helped foster, lead, and grow.
[Beaufort County, SC c. 1755]
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