The Mother of Presbyterianism in Edgefield County, South Carolina

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John Abney Chapman writes concerning one particular South Carolina county (History of Edgefield County: From the Earliest Settlements to 1897, p. 299):

Edgefield was one of the three counties in the State of South Carolina, Lexington and Georgetown being the other two, which never, until 1877, had a Presbyterian Church in its bounds. This is somewhat remarkable when we consider the fact that the adjoining County of Abbeville is one of the great strongholds of Presbyterianism in the State. Abbeville, however, was settled by large colonies of Scotch-Irish and Huguenots, who brought their religion with them, whilst no such colonies of Presbyterians located in Edgefield.

As Chapman also notes, efforts were made in the first half of the 19th century to establish a Presbyterian church in the county, but the War of 1861 put a stop to that.

Meanwhile, there was at least one lone Presbyterian who resided in the county. Born in 1842, Martha (“Mattie”) Wardlaw Hill over a period of many years would cross the state line to worship in Augusta, Georgia, while praying and working towards the goal of establishing a Presbyterian church in her county of Edgefield. Her persistence would ultimately lead to its founding.

Source: Margaret Adams Gist,  Presbyterian Women of South Carolina

Source: Margaret Adams Gist, Presbyterian Women of South Carolina

Mary D. Irvine tells the story in Pioneer Women of the Presbyterian Church, United States (1923), p. 297:

Edgefield Church, Congaree Presbytery, owes its existence to Mrs. Martha Wardlaw Hill, through whose efforts an organization was effected. There were only four members, Mrs. Hill, herself, Mrs. A. E. Anderson, Miss Esther Rainsford and Mr. S. H. Manget. The latter was immediately elected and installed as elder and Mrs. Hill acted as deacon for some years. Mrs. Hill's wonderful magnetism and beauty of spirit drew many friends to her assistance. She solicited subscriptions far and wide and raised over $3,000.00. She organized a Sunday-school and when no man was available, was her own superintendent, her own organist, her own janitor, and at the same time served as the whole board of deacons. In May, 1882, through her efforts, the first pastor was called, our own Secretary of Assembly’s Home Missions, Rev. S. L. Morris. As soon as this good woman lifted all debt from the church, she began to dream of a manse. Miss Esther Rainsford (Mrs. Bunyan Morris), gave the lot for this manse and the communion service as well.

Mrs. Hill began teaching music and doing everything she could to create a manse fund. To make a long story short, the manse became an assured fact. At the age of fifty-two, she went Home, and on the walls of the church which stands as a memorial to her, the women placed a tablet, on which she is called “The Mother of Presbyterianism in Edgefield County.”

Margaret Adams Gist adds, in Presbyterian Women of South Carolina (1929), p. 324, that was so identified with the village church, finally constructed in 1884, that it was referred to by some as “Miss Mattie Hill’s Church.”

Rick Barbare, formerly pastor of the Edgefield Presbyterian Church (PCA) before it was disbanded in 2010, has done yeoman’s work over the years in researching and writing about the history of Edgefield Presbyterianism. He has a valuable series of articles posted on his blog covering many phases of the church’s history, including the additional congregations which grew out of the work. He writes:

Mrs. Hill remained a loyal Presbyterian even when her parents became Episcopalians. She never gave up on the idea having a Presbyterian Church in Edgefield Village, so she kept her church membership at First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, GA in the intervening years between 1859 and 1877. The sum of money raised for this purpose before the war was lost during hostilities. (No doubt it was in Confederate currency in a bank at the end of the war).

After reconstruction (1876), Mrs. Hill found three other persons in the county who were Presbyterians: (1) Mr. S. H. Manget …; (2) Mrs. R.  S. Anderson …; and (3) Miss Etta Rainsford. … Mrs. Hill enlisted them in a plan to get the Presbytery to organize a church. Three of the four then lived in Edgefield Village at the time. Miss Etta Rainsford lived at Pine House, later Trenton.

The labors of Mrs. Hill bore fruit as the Presbytery from 1875 to 1877 paid visits and sent men to preach to the core group that would constitute the initial members. During this period, visiting ministers who preached included John L. Girardeau (December 24, 1876) and William S. Plumer (February 25, 1877). After a petition was presented to Presbytery in April 1877 calling for the organization of the church, the charter was granted and the congregation was established on May 20, 1877.

Samuel Leslie Morris (who would later become the Secretary of Home Missions for the Southern Presbyterian Church) was installed as the first pastor of the Edgefield congregation in August 1882. Barbare adds that “The organization at that time included three churches — Trenton, Johnston, and Edgefield Village.” These preaching stations enabled the broader county to be covered. More congregations would grow out of this initial organization, and in 1884, Edgefield Village would get its own church building.

Rev. Barbare has wise words to ponder in conclusion as we consider the person credited with founding the first Presbyterian Church in Edgefield County. Such a thing is rarely the work of one person — especially not within Presbyterianism, which is based on the communion of saints, and the plurality of elders. Some have highlighted Mrs. Hill’s role to the exclusion of almost all others. The first pastor, Samuel L. Morris, in his autobiography does not even mention her. Barbare writes:

So, who was it that really planted the Edgefield Presbyterian Church? Rev. Morris? or Mrs. Hill? Neither one alone, both together, and with other people’s help is the short answer.

In the story of the Edgefield Presbyterian Church, when looking back at the history and taking note of the secondary causes, we ought not to lose sight of — indeed our primary focus should be to remember — the hand of God at work in the building of his kingdom.