Climbing a pine-straw covered hill on the side of Greenville Highway in Flat Rock, North Carolina, are dozens of eight-inch tall stone crosses, squat so they almost look like plus signs.
They caught my eye the first time we drove by, but our turn was up ahead to the left and I needed to concentrate on where we were going.
“What IS that?” I asked the next time we drove by, trying to squint through the undergrowth along the road, the fencing and the giant pine trees that allow only dappling glimpses of sunlight to break through.
“Are they graves?” my daughter asked.
“No. The stones are too small.”
“Maybe they’re slave graves,” she said, pointing to the historic marker that named the site St. John’s in the Wilderness.
She was right.
The exceptionally named St. John in the Wilderness is a North Carolina landmark dating back to the 1830s when the hoi polloi of Charleston sought refuge from the summer heat and came to Flat Rock where they founded the church.
The church itself is mostly obscured from view by the ancient pines. The still fully-functioning church sits atop a steep hill and is nearly surrounded by a picturesque graveyard that wraps around and climbs the hill up the church. Most of the churchyard is for fine, elaborate southern graves with ornate markers or giant stone slabs, many representing the wealthy and important people who at one time worshipped from the dark wooden pews inside the church. These are the kinds of graves that adorn book covers and Southern Living Magazine.
And then, between the church and the road is another cemetery, containing the remains of some of the slaves who worshipped alongside the people who enslaved them in that beautiful ornate church.
The St. John’s complex is bisected by Rutledge Drive. On one side sits the old church and graveyard. On the other, more modern facilities for youth groups and Sunday school classes. When we were there, the church itself was unoccupied as the congregation conducted outdoor services across the road under giant tents. We pulled into the wrong spot, attracting the attention of a church member who was in charge of directing traffic. As we explored the cemetery, the kind lady came across and gave us something of a tour, taking around the graveyard and inside the old church.
It was the anniversary of her mother’s death, she explained and she was coming over to visit her grave anyway.
As we walked through the church and cemetery, she shared some of the history.
The significant history of St. Johns in the Wilderness and the First Families that are buried there
Charles Baring, of the Baring banking family of England, came to Flat Rock looking for a summer place with a climate his Welsh-born wife would find more suitable. They designed an English country estate, Mountain Lodge, which still stands today about a quarter of a mile from the church. On their newly acquired land, they built a private chapel, a common practice, I’m told, among the English gentry. After a fire destroyed the first wooden structure, they began work on a second structure, this one of handmade brick, in 1833.
In 1836, the Barings deeded their chapel to the Diocese of North Carolina and 20 members of the Flat Rock “Summer Colony” became an Episcopal Parish.
In 1852, a decision was made to rebuild the church, with minor modifications to the primary structure, which nearly doubled its original size.
For its first 120 years, the church operated only in the summer months as the majority of the congregation counted Charleston as their home and Flat Rock was merely Little Charleston of the Mountains.
As I wandered through the churchyard, I noticed many surnames that will be familiar to anyone who is acquainted with American history. “Our churchyard is of historic significance, with graves of men and women whose names are written in the history books of South Carolina and the United States. First Families of the early years of our country, descendants of signers of the Declaration of Independence, influential politicians of the 19th century, military leaders and others of note are buried in the churchyard,” the church’s website states.
Winding our way up the path through the generations of families who worshipped at the church, we arrived at the summit to find a small, but attractive chapel hidden under the towering pines.
With our guide’s permission, we entered the sanctuary. It was exactly the kind of place designed to be a conduit to God. Not surprisingly, it reminded me of the old churches of Europe and England in the best possible ways. I don’t have the knowledge of wood to describe the pews, but they were dark and heavy with the kind of craftsmanship that is learned by families over generations. The stained glass at either end managed to catch the rays of sunlight that escaped through the canopy of pines and the giant pipes of the organ at the back of the church.
I imagine that organ must fill the modestly sized chapel with sound. Maybe one day I’ll be able to go back and hear it.
It was as if the chapel was made out of history itself, the kind of thing I find endlessly fascinating.
The graves of slaves, freedman and their children at St. John’s
We asked our guide about the slave graveyard. She said members of St. John in the Wilderness’ congregation often brought their slaves to the service and servants and those slaves who worshipped in the church were buried in the graveyard we saw. She explained the church renovated the slave graveyard in the 1970s and erected a monument in honor of the slaves buried there.
I’m still processing the idea that a person could enslave another, own them and then bring them to church. They sat in the same pews, sang the same songs. They bowed their heads together and prayed to the same God. It’s horrifying. How could the rector have preached about Exodus? How could he have read the scriptures in which Moses demanded that Pharaoh free his people? How did everyone in that sanctuary not drown in the irony?
With my mind suitably muddled with the juxtaposition of transcendent beauty of all-encompassing horror, I worked my way down to the slave graveyard.
There was a little wooden bench there, a perfect spot for reflection. I think, had I been by myself, I could have sat on that bench, amongst the dead and the magnificent pines and spent the day. If the sanctuary of church could bring us closer to God, then that bench was the perfect place to ponder what his creations have wrought.
Maybe it’s my penchant for gothic melodrama, the little boy who grew up reading all the Poe he could get his hands on, but there are places I come across occasionally that seem to be at the confluence of something bigger. The kind of place you can linger and think, a sort of cognizant meditation, where you can quiet your mind and maybe clear your soul.
That bench, overlooking the graves of the descendants of Africans brought to this country in bondage who lived and died as property, may just be one of those spots.
I think it is.
St. John in the Wilderness is on the National Historic Registry. The church and the cemetery grounds are open to the public Tuesday-Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Gates are locked at 4 p.m. Vehicles left in the parking lot after 4 p.m. may be locked in overnight.
St. John in the Wilderness is located at 1895 Greenville Hwy. (Hwy. 225 South) in Flat Rock, NC.