Clergyman. Gilman was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on February 16, 1791, the son of merchant Frederick Gilman and his wife, Abigail Hilier Somer. Gilman was schooled privately for Harvard, from which he was graduated in 1811. In 1814 he took a master’s degree in theology, also from Harvard. Thereafter, he taught, tutored in mathematics, and prepared for the ministry. In 1819 he married Caroline Howard of Boston. They had seven children.
In the year of his marriage, Gilman went to Charleston to serve as minister of the Second Independent (or Congregational) Church, which had recently embraced Unitarian views. Under Gilman’s leadership, the church expanded and changed its name to the Archdale Street Unitarian Church in 1834. Gilman also helped establish the Charleston Unitarian Book and Tract Society in 1821 and made consistent efforts to spread Unitarian Christianity more widely in the area. Doing so was no easy task in a region generally marked by religious emotionalism and revivalism. Yet Gilman remained staunchly committed to this calling. From his base in Charleston, he promoted additional Unitarian societies, notably in Augusta and Savannah, Georgia, and defended rational religion in print and sermons against attacks by orthodox Calvinist groups.
Gilman’s persistence in defending Unitarianism and his growing literary reputation gradually led to his admission into Charleston cultural circles and the acceptance of “Gilman’s Church.” He and his wife became acknowledged literary figures in Charleston. Gilman’s writings appeared in national and regional magazines, such as the North American Review and the Southern Literary Messenger. His work also appeared in bound volumes, such as his Memoirs of a New England Village Choir (1829) and his collected essays, Contributions to Literature (1856).
Gilman was somewhat inconsistent in his regional attachments, as seen in his widely separate odes, “Fair Harvard” (1836) and “On the Death of John C. Calhoun” (1850). This dualism usually caused him to prefer national unity and he readily extolled the common heritage of North and South. In response to the nullification crisis, Gilman penned the staunchly nationalistic “Union Ode” (1831) to counter calls for secession and disunion. On the volatile subject of slavery, Gilman maintained a discreet public silence. In private he educated family servants, apparently to prepare them for eventual freedom. When the American Unitarian Association (AUA) intensified its attacks on slavery in the 1850s, Gilman complied with his congregation’s wishes to discontinue receiving AUA tracts. Yet he requested that the AUA keep him personally on its mailing lists. Overall Gilman saw his first duty as advancing rational religious understanding, not remaking southern society, and let that duty shape his actions.
Gilman’s tireless efforts helped establish Unitarianism as a viable religion in South Carolina and the South, while his religious and secular writings put him at the center of Charleston literary circles. On February 9, 1858, Gilman died suddenly in Kingston, Massachusetts, while on a visit to New England. His body was returned to Charleston and buried in the Archdale Street Church Cemetery.
Gibson, George H. “Unitarian Congregations in the Ante-Bellum South.” Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society 12, pt. 2 (1959): 53–78.
Gilman, Samuel. Contributions to Literature; Descriptive, Critical, Humorous, Biographical, Philosophical, and Poetical. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1856. Howe, Daniel Walker. “A Massachusetts Yankee in Senator Calhoun’s Court: Samuel Gilman in South Carolina.” New England Quarterly 44 (June 1971): 197–220.
Macaulay, John A. Unitarianism in the Antebellum South: The Other Invisible Institution. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.