By John Ross
Fleeing sultry, disease-bearing miasmas of South Carolina’s Low Country, plantation gentry trekked up what would become the Buncombe Turnpike to Little Charleston in the Mountains, now incorporated as Flat Rock. The village is so named from a broad outcrop of granite where Cherokee bartered hides with English traders. Among the highlands’ first “summer people,” in 1827, were Charles and Susan Baring.
He was the brother of Sir Francis Baring of the London banking house, Baring Brothers and Co., which financed the Louisiana Purchase and fledgling America in the War of 1812. Their money was largely hers, inherited from her late and fifth husband James Heyward of Charleston. Susan and Charles built Mountain Lodge in the classic English style of a country estate on more than 1,000 acres.
Along with their slaves, the Barings brought with them the Rev. T. W. S. Mott, an Episcopal minister, and the motherless sons of Susan’s brother. As was the custom among the very wealthy, Susan ordered construction of a wooden chapel near the manor house where she and Charles and their household servants could worship. Not long thereafter, a raging brushfire consumed it.
On a tranquil wooded knoll, the Barings erected a new chapel, this one of brick most likely made by slaves who would worship in a small gallery behind two rows of ten pews each. Before the building was completed, the Bishop of the North Carolina Diocese paid a visit.
“At Flat Rock, Buncombe County, when I arrived on July 2, 1833,” wrote the bishop, the Rt. Rev. Levi Silliman Ives, “I found a beautiful edifice of brick, nearly completed, which, however, not in sufficient state of forwardness to admit of its being consecrated. I officiated at this place two Sundays.” On August 27, 1836, the Barings deeded the new church named St. John in the Wilderness and the surrounding grounds to the diocese.
Ever a grand dame, Susan and the Barings would arrive by carriage for Sunday service. At the church door, a liveried footman would await with a pillow in outstretched hand. Upon it she would place her prayer book. She and her party would wait as an attendant notified the rector that the Barings were ready for the service to begin. In this manner services continued until she died in 1845.
In 1851, the vestry voted to double the size of the chapel. The contract was let to Ephraim Clayton of Asheville. He was, perhaps, Western North Carolina’s most prolific builder constructing four courthouses, four churches, two college buildings, a hotel, a major bridge and several houses. St. John features gracefully carved arches and woodwork. As was the antebellum custom, much of the actual work on the building was probably performed by slaves.
At the base of the knoll on which St. John’s stands are buried an estimated 75 slaves of its prominent members as well as a few freedmen. All were parishioners of the church, said the Rev. John A. Morton, rector at the time when a six-foot granite cross was erected commemorating their lives in 2015.
To learn more, visit StJohnFlatRock.org.