Two Historical James Island Churches Share Palm Sunday

Saint James and First Baptist Congregations gather

On Sunday, April 2, 2023, two historical churches on James Island, one primarily white and one primarily black, gathered as one body of Christ to celebrate their unity on Palm Sunday.  

After extensive court proceedings, Saint James Anglican Church lost its 302-year-old property in November 2022 to the National Episcopal Church.  First Baptist, also on Camp Road, then offered its former church building to Saint James to remodel and rent the landmark building indefinitely until they buy land and rebuild.  

Founded in 1869 four years after the Civil War, First Baptist was organized by some of the first emancipated Gullah people who needed a place to worship.  They began meeting in the Ferguson family’s house on what is now Camp and Dills Bluff Roads.  The congregation eventually built a chapel, and today that congregation worships in a new huge, beautiful church under the leadership of the Rev. Charlie L. Murray, Jr.  

On Palm Sunday traffic stopped for Saint James members as they walked, with palms in hands, across Camp Road to join worshippers of First Baptist Church, where many of their members stood in front of their sanctuary to greet their guests.  Before entering the church, the three pastors—the Rev. Toby Larson, the Rev. Richard Grimball, and the Rev. Charlie L. Murray, Jr. —formed a close circle to pray together.  

Throughout the service the small choir of Saint James joined the large choir of First Baptist, leading the two congregations in hymns and songs of praise, accompanied by a number of musicians..  The sanctuary was filled to capacity, but those seated in the back pews had the advantage of viewing the service on large screens.  Worship was characterized by a perfect blend of dignity, formality, and spontaneity. 

Rev. Grimball preceded the sermon with an invocation in which he addressed the brothers and sisters in Christ gathered, as God’s commandment instructs, “to love thy neighbor.” 

Saint James’ senior warden Bruce McDonald began his presentation by saying “On behalf of your Christian family next door, I bring you warm greetings, much love, and an enormous amount of gratitude.”  He praised the people of First Baptist for  stepping forward “to extend the hand of friendship, comfort, and practical help in our hour of great need.”  He went on to say we “serve the same God and His Christ and preach the same Gospel, although our traditions are not entirely the same.”  Major McDonald closed by saying he anticipated many opportunities for the two congregations to work together and share fellowship.

Rev. Toby Larson provided the sermon addressing both the Biblical account of Palm Sunday as well as the two congregations committed to the Holy Spirit.  Afterwards the Baptists and Anglican shared both Communion and sincere personal greetings.  Reflecting on the joint service, Rev. Larson commented, “I see a vision of the future of America on our shared corner of South Carolina.  When we crossed the street together on Sunday, it was not the erasure of difference or history!  It was exuberant courage from black and white Christians in this country who have decided to walk in the same direction of love and friendship.”

Adding to the significant histories of both churches, the two different denominations, predominantly consisting of two different races, united to worship, socialize, and serve.  One founded in 1720 and the other founded in 1869, these two groups of mostly James Island residents are bonded in faith and community outreach.  The expressions of joy on the faces of those gathered on Palm Sunday reflected the joy of Jesus.

By Virginia B. Bartels, Saint James Anglican Church, James Island