John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, visited South Carolina three times from 1736 to 1737 while he was chaplain to the Georgia colony. He published his first hymnbook in Charleston and saw there the horrors of slavery, against which he devoted a lifelong crusade. Wesley’s successor in Georgia and fellow Oxford Methodist George Whitefield brought the Great Awakening to the province on a dozen visits between 1738 and 1770.
The first effort to organize Methodism in South Carolina came in 1773 when Joseph Pilmore, one of Wesley’s early assistants in America, traveled through the lowcountry to Charleston and Savannah. But the onset of the Revolutionary War curtailed any immediate mission activity.
Once the war was over, a flood of settlers, some of them Methodists, moved into the Pee Dee and the backcountry. In 1784 James Foster, a lay preacher from Virginia, organized class meetings along the Broad, Enoree, and Reedy Rivers. When the Methodist Episcopal Church in America was organized in Baltimore in December 1784, Bishop Francis Asbury received a request to send a preacher to South Carolina. Asbury responded by traveling to the area in early 1785. He organized churches in Georgetown and Charleston, and at the annual conference in April he appointed three preachers to circuits primarily in South Carolina.
Methodism was not warmly received among the planter and merchant elite classes in the lowcountry. Methodist preaching emphasized equality before God and denounced the sins of the wealthy. Women joined the movement in large numbers, and slaves and free blacks flocked to Methodist services. By 1815 there were 4,075 Methodists in Charleston—282 white and 3,793 black.
It was the Second Great Awakening that insured the future of Methodism in the state as a major religious force. In October 1801, while Bishop Asbury was in Greenville District, he received word of the camp meetings in Kentucky and Tennessee. In April 1802 twelve thousand people gathered for the first camp meeting in the state near Lancaster. Others followed quickly, and between 1802 and 1805 membership more than doubled because of camp meeting conversions.
With the expansion of cotton production, Methodists improved their economic status, and their opposition to slavery declined. In 1804 Asbury edited a separate edition of the church Discipline for South Carolina omitting the rule against slaveholding. In the area of education, Mount Bethel, the first Methodist academy, opened near Newberry in 1795, followed by Tabernacle, then by Cokesbury Conference School. In 1854 Wofford College for men was established in Spartanburg, and Columbia Female College opened in 1859.
Slavery remained a dilemma for the Methodists, and in 1829 William Capers, a minister and slaveholder, founded missions to slaves on the plantations. At the same time, antislavery agitation began to grow in the North and eventually led to the division of the denomination in 1844. When the state seceded from the union in 1860, Methodists supported the Confederacy.
After the Civil War, missionaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church created a South Carolina Conference for black members and in 1869 established Claflin College (now University) in Orangeburg. Other black Methodists joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion. White Methodist leaders assisted in the formation of the Colored (later Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church.
By the late nineteenth century, Baptists had surpassed Methodists numerically. Camp meetings lost their vigor and gave way to more sedate revival meetings, while women organized missionary societies and joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The conference opened Epworth Orphanage in Columbia to serve disadvantaged children. A few ministers, such as Robert C. Oliver, joined the burgeoning Holiness movement.
As the textile industry grew in the New South, Methodist mill owners organized churches in the expanding mill villages. Layman L. P. Hollis of Greenville became a leader in welfare work through the Young Men’s Christian Association and the public schools, and the Reverend David E. Camak established the Textile Industrial Institute (now Spartanburg Methodist College) to educate mill workers.
Progressive reform supported the spread of the social gospel. Methodists joined the growing national temperance movement and campaigned for prohibition in the state. They were among the leaders of the Federated Forces, an interdenominational temperance group, and its successor, the South Carolina Christian Action Council. Wil Lou Gray of Laurens led a state crusade for adult literacy. Some ministers attended the new seminaries, first at Vanderbilt, later at Emory and Duke Universities. There were a few efforts to improve race relations, but white supremacy remained the prevailing orthodoxy. Internal power struggles among the white ministers led to the creation of the Upper South Carolina Conference in 1914. The two conferences reunited in 1948.
When southern and northern Methodists voted to reunite in the Methodist Church in 1939, blacks and whites in the state were placed in racially separate jurisdictions. Nevertheless, a vocal minority of whites withdrew to form the Southern Methodist Church. But the winds of change were blowing stronger. In 1954, in response to Brown v. Board of Education, the white conference adopted a tepid resolution applauding “the fine spirit” of interracial understanding in South Carolina, while black ministers, such as I. DeQuincey Newman, joined the civil rights movement. Efforts to merge the white and black conferences began in 1966 under a mandate from the denomination, which merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church in 1968. After lengthy negotiations, the two conferences united in 1972. Nationally, conversations began with the historically black Methodist churches, but there was no progress toward merger.
Race was not the only issue confronting Methodists. In 1964 white conservatives shifted their attention to attacking the National Council of Churches. There were sharp debates over the war in Vietnam. In the 1980s and 1990s the church supported removing the Confederate flag from the dome of the state capitol and opposed a state lottery. Women entered the ministry in larger numbers, and a few churches refused to accept them. Conservative evangelicalism made inroads among clergy and laity. There was continuing concern about church growth, but membership increased only slightly.
Huff, A. V., Jr. “The Evangelical Traditions II: Methodists.” In Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
———. “A History of South Carolina United Methodism.” In United Methodist Ministers in South Carolina, edited by Morgan David Arant and Nancy McCracken Arant. Columbia: South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, 1984.