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.

Girardeau's "Flower of Hope"

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Chapter 11 in George A. Blackburn’s The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D.D., LL.D.: Late Professor in the Theological Seminary, Columbia, S.C. (1916) gives a guided tour of the poetry produced by the great Southern Presbyterian theologian. One representative poem given for purposes of devotional meditation today is his poem “The Flower of Hope.”

The Flower of Hope

When Eve, our first mother, forlorn,
Was banished the garden of God,
She plucked at the root of a thorn
A flower be-sprinkled with blood.

And we, the sad children of Eve,
May find the same blood-tinctured rose;
The emblem of Hope when we grieve,
Midst thorny afflictions it blows.

It blooms in the chamber of woe,
Where widows are drooping the head.
And little ones timidly go
A tip-toe to gaze on the dead.

It grows where the stormy winds rave
In this valley of sin and of gloom;
It springs from the mould of the grave,
And twines rounds the gates of the tomb.

Dear Fanny, ‘tis faith in the Cross
Which causes this flower divine
To bloom in the sepulchre’s moss;
Its promise of glory be thine!

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.

(Most of) The Writings of John Lafayette Girardeau Are On Log College Press

John Lafayette Girardeau was born on November 14, 1825, nearly two hundred years ago. One of the luminaries of the Southern Presbyterian Church, he is remembered for his faithful ministry to African-Americans both on both sides of the Civil War. Several of his writings can be found on the Log College Press website, but there is one writing we have not yet been able to locate: his Discussion of Theological Questions. This book has been reprinted by Sprinkle Publications, but a scanned original copy has not been found on Archive.org or Google Books (the source of most of the PDFs on our site). This book contains several articles by Girardeau:

  • The Definition of Theology

  • The Distribution or Division of Theology

  • The Ultimate Source, Rule and Judge of Theology

  • The Person of Christ

  • The Doctrine of Adoption

It is the latter article that deserves the most notice, for in it Girardeau interacts with the question of whether Adam was in any sense of a son of God by nature, and considers adoption as an element of the scheme of redemption. As the topic of adoption has come into larger view during the past few decades, it is unfortunate that Girardeau’s essay has fallen out of knowledge. Hopefully we will have a chance one day to find an original copy and scan it ourselves, or some library somewhere will do that for us. Until then, enjoy the rest of Girardeau’s writings!