Until insurance agents got involved, each newly confirmed child in the Parish Church of St. Helena marked the milestone by climbing the narrow steps to the top of its steeple.
In Beaufort now, only eagles and osprey get nearer to God.
Back then, the wind would caress their young faces as they squeezed the banister, looked down on mossy trees hiding the downtown, and squinted at water glistening into infinity in the beautiful bay beyond.
The rite was their passage into a church that was formed in 1712 -- a decade before the Old North Church in Boston was established and six decades before Paul Revere's "one if by land, two if by sea" plot depended on lanterns in its steeple.
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Today, the Episcopal church in the heart of Beaufort will celebrate its 300th anniversary with a sermon by the Lord Bishop of London.
His visit is made more special by the parade of demands on his time, from conducting last year's royal wedding to this year's Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and the London Olympic Games. It illustrates the rare story of the second-oldest church in South Carolina, and one of the oldest in America.
The church predates America. It predates the separation of church and state, having opened in the official state church, the Church of England. Its vestry was a tax-collecting body of local governance. It was founded in a fearful time of Indian massacres. It weathered the American Revolution, with parishioner Thomas Heyward Jr. signing the Declaration of Independence. It survived the Civil War, though stripped bare during federal occupation. One of its brick walls came tumbling down in the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893. It has coped with the Great Depression, segregation, and even the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Today, the church is in the evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. It has some 2,000 members with average attendance the past two Sundays between 800 and 900. The Rev. Jeffrey S. Miller, its 33rd rector, says it is modeled after a much older church -- the church of Antioch described in Acts 13:1-4. "Proclaim, equip, pray, send and go," are its guiding principles.
"We're not the keepers of a museum," Miller said. "This is a vibrant, lively congregation."
YESTERDAY AND TODAY
Parish heritage is everywhere, as rich as the heart of pine flooring and clear as the mouth-blown glass in Palladian windows.
People are called to worship by a 19th century bell, walking through a churchyard filled with historic graves. They use communion silver from the 18th century.
Preservation and restoration of a building dating to 1724 is a sacred trust, formalized in 1990 with the establishment of an endowment fund. A $3.6 million, 18-month restoration was completed in time for Palm Sunday in 2000.
Last Sunday, new tricentennial needlepoint kneelers and cushions were dedicated, each hand-made by women in the parish. Their renderings of the tabby Chapel of Ease on St. Helena Island and the Old Sheldon Church in Gardens Corner weave those who kneel for communion today into the old sights and symbols of the church.
The year-long tricentennial celebration will tie the parish to one of the brightest chapters in its history, the 1831 revival led by a Presbyterian and carried out in conjunction with the Baptist Church of Beaufort. In those 10 days, 40 young men gave up their professions to enter the ministry. One became the first Episcopal bishop of Georgia, another a national leader of Baptists, and another the first Episcopal missionary bishop to China who founded a school that still exists.
A mission trip by parishioners this July to China will focus on an English-language school.
Also, popular national evangelist Tony Evans of Texas will come to town. The independent Community Bible Church is co-sponsoring and hosting the event, making for the unlikely mix of an Episcopal parish and evangelical church hosting an African-American evangelist in the Deep South.
St. Helena will unveil another link to its heritage this year, the Holy Trinity Classical Christian School. It will hearken to the 1748 endowment of its second rector, which established the first free school for those who otherwise would not have been educated.
'CLOUD OF WITNESSES'
The prayer list for today's parishioners includes eight expectant couples. Parish life includes an annual golf tournament between Episcopalians and Presbyterians, who would have been free to worship but known as dissenters 300 years ago. Another sign of modern life is a program to help families cope with divorce and separation; there's also a ministry for women in prison. The Good Neighbor Free Medical Clinic started in the church. It has a mission to Africa for adults and youth, focusing on providing solar-power lighting.
Miller said the church is growing while others shrink because it is clear on where it stands, yet does not dwell on "walls of hostility" that can divide churches today as easily as they could have divided the diverse church in Antioch.
"We believe the gospel is good news, offering a living, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ," Miller said. "That is what their hearts crave.
"We want to equip people to think and to act biblically, that we might show to the world what the kingdom-living in a fallen society really looks like. Jesus showed it in the Sermon on the Mount. That doesn't mean we have made it, by any means. But it means it's our goal. Sanctification is a process."
In his daily work, Miller walks by the tombstones of past rectors. The tomb of the Rev. Joseph Walker, whose ministry spanned 55 years, quotes Ephesians 2 about being saved by grace, not works, then adds "chosen by himself." The tomb of the Rev. Matthew Tate, the first American rector, says he was "born again, or converted, in his 15th year."
Miller says it points to the church's evangelical heritage, and the tie that binds 300 years.
"The Christian faith is like a relay race," he said. "We stand on a godly heritage. The book of Hebrews talks of a great cloud of witnesses. Regardless of what is going on in the culture around them, the old, old story still touches peoples' hearts and changes people. I think if Joseph Walker or Matthew Tate were to come back and walk into our church on any Sunday, what he would hear is a message he would be very familiar with, and a message to which he would say, 'Amen.' "
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.
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