A History of St. John in the Wilderness
The search for a milder climate for his Welsh-born wife Susan, brought Charles Baring, a member of the Baring banking family of England, to Flat Rock to find a summer place to escape the oppressive heat, humidity, and malaria of the South Carolina Lowcountry where they lived. In 1827 the Baring's built a home here and named it Mountain Lodge, designed on the order of an English country estate. The house they built stands today about a quarter of a mile from the church.
On the property of their newly constructed home, the Barings built a private chapel, a practice then prevalent among the English gentry. The small wooden structure burned in a woods fire, and in 1833, work began on a second church built of handmade brick.
In August of 1836 the Barings deeded their chapel to the Diocese of North Carolina and twenty members of the Flat Rock “summer colony” formed themselves into an Episcopal parish. In the 1890s when the Missionary District of Asheville (later Diocese of Western North Carolina) was formed, St. John in the Wilderness transferred its affiliation and is the oldest parish in the diocese.
Although there is no written confirmation of how the Barings came to name their chapel “St. John in the Wilderness,” a couple of theories exist. The first is that the area of Flat Rock was part of the Blue Ridge Mountains that used to be known as “The Wilderness.” Some historians point to this geographic designation as being added to a name that honors John the Baptist. However, another likely explanation may be found in Charles’ ancestral home of Southwestern England. In the small town of Exmouth, near where the Baring family is from, there is a church that dates to the 14th century, and laid to rest in its cemetery are several members of the Baring family. The name of that church is St. John in the Wilderness.
Although physically situated in North Carolina, our parish’s roots are forever tied to Coastal South Carolina. Following the Barings, other influential Charleston area planters, merchants and politicians also built summer homes in Flat Rock. So many, in fact, that the area became known as "Little Charleston of the Mountains." With virtually all of the church members traveling back to the Lowcountry after the summer season, the church, with a few exceptions, operated only during summer months for its first 120 years. Church business continued during the off-season though, as some early vestry meetings were held in member’s homes in Charleston.
So rapid was the growth of the Flat Rock community during the 1830s and 1840s that the parish membership outgrew the capacity of the small chapel. In the early 1850s the decision was made to rebuild the church, essentially doubling its size. With only a few minor modifications that structure, completed in 1852, is the one that stands today.
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.
A Rectory, built in 1853, still stands today on the 23-acre church property.
The Rev. Thomas Mott
First Rector of
St. John in the Wilderness