Church HistorySt. Stephen's Episcopal Church holds a unique place among American Episcopal church as the first place of worship in the country where pews were not rented or sold, but free to all comers. The congregation, organized in 1822 under the auspices of the Charleston Female Domestic Missionary Society, met for the first two years in a rented room. In 1824, a small church was erected on Guignard Street. That building burned in the great fire of 1835, and a year later, the present structure on Anson Street was erected, being consecrated on November 24, 1836.
Sarah Hopton Russell, wife of Nathaniel Russell, one of Charleston's richest merchants, was instrumental in the establishment of St. Stephen's. An early advocate for the underprivileged, she helped organize the Ladies' Benevolent Society, which provided home health care to the poor, and led the Charleston Female Domestic Missionary Society. It was she who donated the church's property on Guignard Street, and she worked tirelessly for the church.
The Three Sarahs
The Three Sarahs
Her daughter, Sarah, who married Theodore Dehon, second Bishop of South Carolina, worked with her mother in supporting St. Stephen's, continuing with this work after her mother's death in 1832. Also active in the Charleston Female Domestic Missionary Society and involved with St. Stephen's was Sarah Rutledge, daughter of Edward Rutledge, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Governor of South Carolina. She founded a Church Home for the education of destitute girls; and proceeds from her cookbook, The Carolina Housewife, went to St. Stephen's and the poor of the city. Known as "The Three Sarahs," these women are memorialized on marble tablets that hang on the north wall of the church as shown to the right. As women dedicated to philanthropy and religious education for all, they insisted that one would ever be turned away from St. Stephen's, regardless of race or condition or position. Sarah Russell tablet reads, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Early records indicate that the congreation was an integrated mix of whites and African Americans (both free men and slaves).
In 1923, an African American Methodist minister and his congregation joined the Episcopal Church and were given St. Stephen's as their place of worship where they continued to worship for the next 65 years. In 1987, the congregation agreed to open its doors to whites as well as African Americans. The Biblical phrase that adorns the church doorway, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people," came alive as the congregation re-integrated.
Since its early days, St. Stephen's has been dedicated to serving the community. Besides a place of worship, it has housed on its property an orphanage, library, mission, parochial school, and kindergarten. Caring about and assisting others within the church and well beyond remain important to the congregation.
In 1892, the Reverend George Frederic Degen, City Missionary and priest at St. Stephen's, wrote of the church, "The poor will be always welcome, and so will the rich for St. Stephen's will know no distinction of persons. All are welcome who come not to criticize but to worship God." This tradition of warm, open, and accepting hospitality continues today.
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church has been placed on the National Registry of Historical Places by the United States Department of Interior.