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Why is Charleston Called the Holy City?

March 9th, 2017

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Residents and many visitors to Charleston, SC know that the city’s nickname is the Holy City, but not so many people know the true story of  how this came to be. As with many expressions, the origins of this one is shrouded in the past, but there are a couple of versions worth looking at. So, why is Charleston called the Holy City? Here’s a look a two different theories.

Why Is Charleston Called the Holy City?

Churches Galore

The most obvious source of the term Holy City is apparent with one quick glance at Charleston’s skyline. Especially if you’re out on the water of Charleston Harbor, maybe watching the sun set behind the city, you can’t help but notice the abundance of church steeples towering above the historic buildings. While the spires make for a picturesque view, they also reflect a long-standing attitude in Charleston about religion.

Even in its earliest days, Charleston supported religious freedom, and as settlers arrived from all parts of Europe, numerous Protestant denominations took root along with Roman Catholicism and Judaism. Many of these houses of worship date back to the late 1600s or early 1700s, or at least their congregations do. Fires destroyed the earliest buildings, but new ones often appeared in the same locations.

Today, the Circular Congregational Church and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church’s elegant white steeple are among the most noteworthy of Charleston’s churches, while Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in continual use in America. These, as well as several other churches, are also National Historic Landmarks, underscoring the important role they have played throughout Charleston’s history.

See also 5 Fun Facts about Charleston, SC You Probably Didn’t Know

Another Theory

However, another story about the origins of Charleston’s unusual nickname, turns to the University of South Carolina roughly 100 years ago. There, a history professor named Yates Snowden used the term in a series of letters written to John Bennett, a Charleston author and former editor at the News and Courier, which was then Charleston’s main newspaper. The two men seem to have carried on a discussion regarding the relative merits of Boston and Charleston in deserving the honor of being dubbed the Holy City.

Over the next 20 years or so, the term was linked with Snowden’s name in several more articles in the News and Courier, bringing the public’s attention to the name. Snowden was a native Charlestonian and continued to love the city until his death in 1933. One News and Courier staffer implied that Snowden used the name Holy City because its residents worshipped their home and the rest of the world envied those who were lucky enough to live here.

Which of these is the true story? Or do both of them play a part in the tale? It’s safe to say that the reality will never be known with certainty.

Ready to get go back in time? Book your History Tour in Charleston SC now!