Saturday afternoon my sister Glynda and I had ridden up toward Saluda, NC, for lunch. She and I both love exploring, so on the way home we were taking several side roads and rambling over the countyside. Our route took us past Ebenezer Church near Tigerville. That led to a discussion about the name Ebenezer, and about Biblical place names in general, and how so many of these have worked their way into our own geography.
A Biblical place name such Ebenezer, Beulah, or Shiloh is often indicative of an older, usually historic congregation. The word “ebenezer” itself is an excellent name for a church – according to 1 Samuel 7:12, it was a stone to commemorate what God had done for Israel – a place to give thanks and dedication. However, in today’s society the word is more likely to conjure up a Dickensian miser, and the word “Beulah” is more likely to bring forth unflattering images of a large woman, rather than a vision of the land of Israel, as Isaiah had intended. (Although, the word did originally refer to a married woman, so the comparison may not be as far-fetched as one might think.)
Modern churches tend to pick names that are more evocative of today’s sensibilities – New Spring, Grace, New Life, etc., etc. – or they are more place specific or pick names of neighborhoods, such as Brookwood. I can’t think of any newer congregation that has selected one of the old Biblical names.
According to the GNIS data, there are 60 churches in South Carolina with the word “Ebenezer” in the name. Expand that to include cemeteries, schools, and communities, and you get 103 place names. There are 90 places with the name Shiloh, and 65 with the name Beulah. Bethany shows up 52 times, and Bethel a whopping 238. Even Rehoboth and Zoar are each listed 14 times.
Then there are the “mounts“. Mount Carmel is listed 52 times, including a town by that name. Mount Moriah, 29 times, and Mount Tabor 27 times. The Mount of Olives only shows up once, but the variant Olivet can be found in South Carolina 18 times. The real winner, though, is Mount Zion. Some variation of the name Zion can be found in 320 place names in the state.
Places associated with the life of Christ are also popular. There are 106 place names in South Carolina with the name Bethlehem. Jerusalem receives 43 hits, but if you include the variant Salem, the number jumps to 253. Nazareth only has 16 place names listed.
It would be interesting to learn why certain names were chosen. I’m sure popularity was a factor. In the early days of settlement, I’m guessing that establishing a new religious community felt like a 40-year wilderness ramble, so names dealing with the Promised Land would be popular, such as Canaan with 41 hits. Many of these names can be found in early African-American churches. I’m sure that such names also ran alongside of thoughts of freedom from slavery.
Conversely, there are Biblical names with negative connotations. The name Hell seems to be OK, and descriptive of swamps such as Hellhole. However, I don’t, and wouldn’t expect it to be associated with a church. Gath and Philistia are absent. Neither Sodom nor Babylon make the cut. I’m sure those last two would rank right along side Laodicea as undesirable church names.
I like when I come across these place names, especially the more unusual ones such as Zoar. It lends an air of both history and mystery to the place, and makes me want to learn more about it.
Map – Places in South Carolina with “Ebenezer” in the name