Sunday, October 25, 2015

Presbyterians of Reconstruction-era Laurens County, SC

Duncan Creek Presbyterian Church, oldest church in Upstate
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with a sketch of Presbyterianism in the county.
Because of the heavy Scots-Irish settlement of much of Laurens County, the Presbyterians early on had the preeminence in terms of numbers and influence. Dr. Jacobs came in 1864 to pastor the Clinton Presbyterian Church. At the end of the war in 1865, the church had thirty white members, only a few colored, no Sabbath school, no choir, no prayer meeting, no church collection, no officer's meetings, no ladies' society, and only two services a month.[1]

The Laurens Presbyterians had a "neat little brick building on Church Street with a yard in front, enclosed with a beautiful iron fence" put up in 1850. "The Sunday School is in a flourishing condition" with 115 members. The colored Presbyterians had a church called Mt. Pisgah in Jersey on Hance Street, built for a school house and used as a church and school until 1878 when it was used only for worship.[2]
            Rev. Zelotes Lee Holmes continued his work as a Presbyterian evangelist, organizing Lisbon Presbyterian Church south of Laurens near the Beaverdam community in 1871, as a chapel for his family and an outreach to those in the community. At the same time Holmes also pastored the ancient Little River Presbyterian Church. In 1870, Little River, progressing with the times,
dismantled their century-old church building and moved from her 1761 location three miles northwest of Milton to be more accessible to travelers on what is today S.C. Highway 56 near the Newberry County line. Former slave Jane Bradley, recalled in 1937, "I was born in Newberry County, near the Laurens County line, above Little River. Me and my mother belonged to the Workman family . . . [who was] good to his slaves. I remember the old Little River Presbyterian Church where people would go on Sundays. They would go in the mornings, and again in the afternoons and have preaching."[3]

            Other Presbyterian churches across the county operating during Reconstruction included Duncan's Creek, Rocky Spring, Liberty Spring, Friendship, Warrior Creek, Bethany, and New Harmony. Friendship in 1867 had 71 whites and 12 black members. There was the Old Rock Church on Main Street in Laurens facing the Laurens and Columbia depot lot. This was the church of the old Seceders, but no Associate Reformed Presbyterian had been in town for years.[4]

      Under the leadership of Dr. William P. Jacobs, the Clinton Presbyterian Church decided in 1864 to evangelize the colored community. By the end of the war they had eighty members, and added forty in 1865. “In the early days after the war,” Dr. Jacobs wrote, “I preached for them for five or six years every afternoon and organized a church and Sabbath school. The church had about 200 members. Some of them did not understand church life very thoroughly." They would change churches. One man who joined the Methodist church said upon being accosted by Dr. Jacobs for quitting the Presbyterians: "Oh, I just did that to encourage them, I ain't jined dem, I belongs to you yet."[5] However, on May 10, 1869, the 163 Negro members "voluntarily left the white church with the feeling that they could be more effective in church work under their own leadership. Their group moved to Sloan's Chapel and promoted an organization of its own."

      In December, 1869, Jacobs wrote: "I think our negro church will be built this fall. We have bought a lot just out of the town and hope to build by this fall." By January, 1870, only fifty still attended Sloan's Chapel of the 170 members who withdrew, but those who remained continued. Dr. Jacobs was asked to be their preacher, and they applied to the Southern Presbyterian Church as a mission. The denomination, to Jacobs' embarrassment, would not take them, and he encouraged them to join the Northern Church, which they did. Most could not read the Bible or hymnbook, "but they could make a noise and a heap of it, and they had a remarkable knack at taking up a collection."

            The church did not thrive well under the Northern General Assembly. "I asked our Presbytery to give them an organization under our care, but they declined. I feel sure that had the Presbytery taken different action, a large colored Synod would now be under our care. But it was not approved by those at the head of our work in this State."[6]

           Black members withdrew from Little River and Liberty Springs Presbyterian in 1869 and met under a brush arbor which was burned. The persistent black Presbyterians formed Piedmont Church under the leadership of Isaac Pitts, who had left Liberty Springs Presbyterian in Cross Hill. Others from Liberty Springs were Messrs. Carey Jones, Thomas Nance, Edmond Nance, Anthony Jones, C.W. Jones, Hampton Bartee, Allen Watts, Thomas Jones, Martin Johnson, and Emanuel Floyd. "These families belonged to the Nances, Williams, and Dr. Phillips." [7] 

At Ora Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, some black members "remained in the church until they died. Others left as soon as they were given their freedom."[8] The ambiguous state of affairs concerning race were not sharply cut between the two peoples. They lived very closely, as the following letter to the Herald editor should show:

            Dear Sir: I hope you will excuse me for the liberty I have taken in writing this communication, being a stranger in your midst to both white and black. I am a native South Carolinian, born and reared at the metropolis, the "city by the sea."
            The occasion of my writing this, is the late fire upon the premises of Nelson Davis, witnessing, as I did, the deep interest manifested on the part of whites, and the efficient assistance rendered by them to check and prevent the spread of that formidable foe which seemed intent upon devouring without pity all that its flaming tongue could reach, but was arrested by the kindly aid of your citizens. But that was not all: a more excellent feeling was instantly exhibited in the act of a contribution in the interest of the persons who had sustained the loss. This latter manifestation cannot but elicit the admiration of philanthropists.
            I take it upon myself to write this communication, because I feel it but due to the noble‑minded gentlemen of Laurens village that some proper and grateful acknowledgement be made of their generosity, and that my race might verily know that they have friends in their midst; and all that is necessary is for us to understand each other in our new relationship; then, there will be a no more prosperous or happy people on the face of all the earth.
                              I am, Mr. Editor,
                                          Your humble servant,
                                          DANIEL GIBBS,
                                          Pastor of the colored body of Presbyterians
                                          Laurensville, S.C., March 14, 1872.

[1]           Jacobs, Literary, 30.
[2]              Garlington, 57ff. Rev. G.T. Dillard was the Presbyterian pastor in 1888.
[3]           Foy, 44. Jane Bradley ( age 80), in Slave Narratives, (I, i, 74), May 17, 1937, edited by Elmer Turnage.
[4]           Garlington, 57ff. Rev. G.T. Dillard was the Presbyterian pastor in 1888.
[5]              Jacobs, Life, 86.
[6]           Scrapbook, 74; Foy, 42; Jacobs, Literary, 48, 63‑64; In Jacobs, Literary, 36.
[7]           "Piedmont Presbyterian Began in Brush Arbor," Clinton Chronicle, November 12, 1970. Scrapbook, 479. In 1844 the Little River church was composed of 46 whites and 15 blacks. In 1859, 201 whites and 224 blacks. By 1866, there were 62 whites and 90 black. In the spring report of the Presbytery of 1869, the Negro membership was omitted for the first time.
[8]           Scrapbook, 477.