An early 18th century joint statement on religious liberty by a Presbyterian and a Reformed Baptist

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The case of Edward Marston, an Anglican minister in Charleston, South Carolina was remarkable for its time, because at the time he delivered his controversial sermon on the Fifth Commandment (October 15, 1704) the colony of South Carolina was governed by the Anglican establishment — but it was some notable Dissenters who came to his defense. Marston argued in his sermon that ministers of the gospel were superior (not accountable) to civil authorities (in spiritual matters), while at the same time claiming that ministers were due monetary maintenance “by Divine Right.”

We (Ministers of the Gospel do not arrogate too much to our selves, nor take too much upon us, when we affirm, That we are superior to the People, and have an Authority over them in Things Spiritual, and appertaining to God.

These claims angered the legislature, which had recently passed the Establishment Act and the Preservation Act, intended to assert more government control over the pulpit, and, it was said, led to his public whipping.

Daniel Defoe, the noted novelist and Presbyterian Dissenter, published two tracts about the church and state conflicts that took place in in early colonial South Carolina, the second of which is titled The Case of Protestant Dissenters in Carolina, Shewing How a Law to Prevent Occasional Conformity There, Has Ended in the Total Subversion of the Constitution in Church and State (1706). Within this fascinating volume, Defoe included an 1704 affidavit by the Reformed Baptist minister William Screven (c. 1629-1713) and the Scottish-American Presbyterian minister Archibald Stobo (about whom we have written before here). These two ministers jointly affirmed that they had reviewed Marston’s sermon and agreed with him that he should be free from civil review of his sermon, and also that it was proper from him to receive government maintenance. Moreover, they noted that the quote about ministerial superiority was derived from the 1692 Exposition of the Ten Commandments by Bishop Ezekiel Hopkins, a clearly approved Anglican source.

Ultimately, the case of Edward Marston was decided by the British Parliament, which ruled that the aforementioned Acts were in violation of the religious freedom guaranteed under the South Carolina Constitution. Queen Anne then nullified those two Acts, which restored the earlier 1697 Act for Granting Liberty of Conscience. Thus it was that two ministers - a Reformed Baptist and a Presbyterian - with help from Daniel Defoe, came to the aid of the Anglican Edward Marston, for the benefit of South Carolina Dissenters. The affidavit by Screven and Stobo can be read here.

A Visit to the South Carolina Lowcountry

Charleston, South Carolina is a city famous, among other things, for its historic churches. A walking tour of the city, especially along Meeting Street, offers the opportunity to travel through time as it were and explore places of worship and graveyards that continue to testify to the faith of our forefathers.

This writer had such an opportunity recently and was privileged to visit such churches in Charleston and the surrounding vicinity. A trip to Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia, SC, was part of the experience as well, where John Lafayette Girardeau, James Henley Thornwell and George Andrew Blackburn were laid to rest between 100 and 150 years ago.

Having consulted several resources beforehand — Erskine Clarke, Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990; Charles E. Raynal, Johns Island Presbyterian Church: Its People and Its Community From Colonial Beginnings to the Twenty-First Century; George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina; and Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History — I made my way first to the Johns Island Presbyterian Church (founded in 1710, its building dates to 1719 — three hundred years ago now). As with many of the churches I toured, the graveyard is an ever-present Memento mori. Next on the tour was the James Island Presbyterian Church (founded in 1706). Both of these churches were established by Archibald Stobo, a Presbyterian pioneer who also founded the first presbytery in the Western Hemisphere, as well as in the southern United States. He established other churches in the area which I do hope to visit on a future tour.

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In Charleston proper, my walking tour began with a visit to the Unitarian Church, which began its existence in 1774 as the Archdale Street Meeting House, founded by Dissenters who branched off from what we know now as the Circular Congregational Church, originally a mixed Independent and Presbyterian Church, itself founded in 1685. William Tennent III (grandson of the founder of the original Log College) is buried on the grounds of the Unitarian Church, though he was no Unitarian. The fan vault ceiling is modeled after the one at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

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Next, was the First Scots Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street (founded in 1731). It was another breakaway from the Circular Congregational Church, by a decidedly Presbyterian group. George Buist is buried in the church graveyard.

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Further along Meeting Street is the Circular Congregational Church, a remarkable architectural and spiritual landmark, where I paid my respects at the graves of David Ramsay and Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1781-1847).

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After this, I visited the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston (founded in 1811), where I was given a tour of the sanctuary and the graveyard (Thomas Smyth and John Bailey Adger are laid to rest there).

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Also on my tour I worshiped at the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia (founded in 1755). At each stop along the way, I was reminded that the past is not dead, and American Presbyterians are not irrelevant. The old Presbyterian history of the South Carolina lowcountry is very much alive for those with eyes to see.