Church in the Woods

by Roger Pinckney - South Carolina - July/August 2008

At the ruins of an old church, a family honors a tradition begun generations before

It’s the second Sunday after Easter and the family has gathered beneath the sad old oaks once again. There is fine linen atop a battered picnic table, boxes of fried chicken, platters of deviled eggs and shrimp pickled with peppercorns and sweet Vidalia onions. Red wine, white wine, viscous sweet tea, and Aunt Gladys’s famous coconut cake, known to provoke diabetic shock. Out in the swamp, a sleepy bull gator grumbles like some old outboard motor that won’t quite start, and the last of the dogwoods make little patches of glory way down in the cool green woods. 

It’s the annual service at Old Sheldon Church, a magnificent ruin five miles east of Yemassee, South Carolina. I’m a seventh generation South Carolinian, gone wandering and come home, and my children—scattered by divorce—have followed me here. From Minneapolis, from Seattle, from Naples—Italy—they have come.

The youngest, a horsewoman from Minnesota, says, “Pa, I haven’t been here since I was a little girl. Before they start preaching, can you take me up and tell me the story again?”

Hand in hand we walk uphill and stand in the shadows of the ruined brick walls. But before I begin my tale, I work a fleck of charcoal from a crack in a brick and lay it in her palm. “What kind of man,” I ask, “could burn a church?”

There were two very bad men and they never knew each other—good thing. Major Andrew DeVeaux IV, Royal Colonial Militia, and Major General John A. Logan, United States Army.

Old Sheldon Church, the first Greek Revival building in the South and the finest country church in America, has been torched twice. Its construction was largely funded by William Bull, formerly of Sheldon Hall, Warwickshire, England. Work began in 1745. It took ten years to build and ten minutes to destroy in 1779 when Major DeVeaux set upon this country with “a large body of the most infamous banditi and horse thieves,” according to the South Carolina Gazette, “a corps of Indians with Negro and white savages.” The offense? Patriots had stolen a shipload of British powder and stashed it in the church. They had also hidden muskets in the churchyard crypts.

Muskets and powder were long gone before DeVeaux got there. The brick walls, four feet thick and forty feet high, survived the conflagration, but the community roundabouts were devastated. The church lay in ruins for over forty years until surrounding plantation owners could finally afford the rebuilding. But another forty years later, Sherman and his army of pyromaniacs came rampaging up from Georgia.

Sherman had not allowed his men to burn Savannah, famously presenting it intact to President Lincoln for Christmas 1864. But in January 1865 the Yankee army was looking to make up lost time. General Logan was in command. Logan went on to the U.S. Congress and had a college named after him, and they have set a statue of him on the commons laying down his sword. Damn him, he should have laid down his matches when it really mattered.

The woods down here never rest. A kudzu vine—folks swear—will lash you to your rocker while you nap on your porch. Another twenty years and the ruins were completely enveloped, hidden from the road by a thicket of tupelo, sweet gum, and soft maple, with a tangled understory of dogwood and sassafras.

Time passes slowly at Old Sheldon Church, but fast-forward to 1923, when Rev. Maynard Marshall, longtime rector of St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Beaufort, brought in the junior choir with bush hooks and axes. My daddy was among them, scarcely fourteen years old. This curious bit of history has provoked considerable discussion, as Daddy couldn’t carry a tune in a washtub. But I knew him better than most, and I reckon he was looking for a way to meet some girls.

I don’t know how well that worked out, but I know he fell in love with Old Sheldon Church. He went off to Carolina, got a degree in engineering, and then went off to Okinawa with the artillery. Home from the war, he repaired the crumbling brickwork. If you look close, you can still see his initials and 1953 in the stucco he plastered atop the east wall. His brother, Gaillard, drilled a well and fitted a hand pump, still sluicing sweet water today. I drink it each time I go there and it is as holy to me as Communion wine.

Now there is a stirring in the dappling shade, a fluttering of ladies’ church hats, the rattle of folding chairs, and the preachers are lining up. We line up too, Uncle Gaillard the well driller; my mother, Chloe, who threatened to disown me a time or two, hobbling along at eighty-three. My sister follows, stricken with MS, who threatened to shoot me, but only once. There follows a great entourage of cousins, first, second, and third, each with his or her own sad story. Among them is my dear Patty, who will die before the year is up, though we do not, can not, know it now. I slide along among them and then come my daughters, the last of them carrying Baby Chloe, nearly two, the fourth generation who makes the circle complete. We all take our seats as the crowd grows, two hundred, three—I have no eye for the numbers. A brass quintet plays the tune and the congregation rises to a thunderous “Faith of our fathers, living still, in spite of dungeon, fire and sword.”

They generally trot out some well-connected preacher in the Episcopal Church, but he never says quite what I want him to say. I listen, and think maybe someday I will stand up and testify. But this is not a Baptist church where you can do such things. And I, baptized with fire and water, and ordained only with spirit and wind, will not likely be asked my opinions.

Halfway through the last hymn, two buglers slip away, one just out of sight, the other as far down in the swamp as he dares. And when the last amen echoes from the faithful, the first man strikes a mournful taps: “Day is done, gone the sun.” The second picks it up a half line behind. “From the lake, from the hills…all is well.” The tune rolls through the eternal woods while the sea breeze moves the long strings of Spanish moss hanging from the ancient oaks like God’s own tears.