Presbyterianism is a movement within Christianity that traces its distinctive character to the Swiss Reformation of the sixteenth century and in particular to the theological and social thought of John Calvin. Presbyterianism in South Carolina represents a complex interaction of this distinct religious tradition with the social and cultural lives of the state over a three-hundred-year period.
At the heart of Presbyterian theology and piety is an insistence that in all of life one is confronted by the God of Israel, the high and holy One, who is revealed most clearly and fully, most graciously and compassionately, in Jesus Christ. The doctrine of predestination, often associated with Presbyterianism, is an attempt to acknowledge that salvation is a gift of this gracious, sovereign God’s own holy, just, and loving purposes.
A theological emphasis on the sovereignty of a gracious God has encouraged among Presbyterians an ethic that emphasizes the importance of ordinary work that is for the common good of the community and a sense of vocation that is a calling to such work. Presbyterians have emphasized that faithful living involves frugality, simplicity, delay of gratification, and control of impulses. The theology and ethic of Presbyterians have frequently created a distinct personality type marked by a consciousness of personal worth, a vocation to reform society, and a sense of undeserved privilege and substantial responsibility. Presbyterianism has traditionally honored the life of the mind and has insisted that only a life of love exceeds it as a means of praise to God.
Presbyterians were among the Calvinists who, beginning in the late seventeenth century, came to South Carolina. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the Presbyterian Church was the largest denomination in the colony. In the lowcountry Presbyterianism was closely linked with the Congregationalism of New England. In Charleston, Presbyterians at first, together with many Huguenots, worshiped with Congregationalists at the White Meeting House. In 1731 Scottish Presbyterians left the Meeting House to form the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church in Charleston. The islands south of Charleston—James, Johns, Wadmalaw, and Edisto—had strong Presbyterian congregations from the early colonial period with growing numbers of African American members.
Presbyterianism came to the upcountry primarily by way of Philadelphia and the Great Wagon Road. Scots-Irish immigrants established Presbyterian churches at Waxhaw in Lancaster, at Nazareth on the Tyger River, at Old Greenville at Donalds, at Upper Long Cane in Abbeville County, and at a host of other places. Associate Reformed Presbyterians settled around Due West. Presbyterian congregations throughout the state, except for the Scots in Charleston, were deeply identified with the patriot cause during the Revolution.
Presbyterianism after the Revolution—while losing its numerical leadership to Methodist and Baptist churches—grew rapidly and entered a period of significant social and intellectual strength. Most notable was the strength of the Presbyterian churches in the low- country, where, with the Congregationalists, they remained the largest religious community among the whites. In Columbia a circle of Presbyterian intellectuals—including James H. Thornwell, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, George Howe, Joseph LeConte, and Louisa Cheves McCord—gained national influence.
Following the Civil War, most Congregational churches became Presbyterian. Strong African American congregations, with roots going back to the colonial period, emerged from white-dominated churches in the lowcountry. They established an extensive school system, including four boarding schools, which nurtured a tight- knit African American community that was deeply Presbyterian in its ethos and ethic.
From 1865 to 1945 Presbyterianism in South Carolina was marked by significant social cohesion and theological conservatism. Institutions of the church—especially Presbyterian College and Columbia Theological Seminary—played a part in nurturing this cohesion, but it was rooted in a dynamic interaction between religious traditions and the social and cultural character of the state, especially the state’s poverty and intensified provincialism.
An influx of people into the state after 1945 changed the character of Presbyterianism as it once again grew rapidly and developed internal tensions. No longer composed primarily of “old Presbyterian families,” Presbyterianism experienced a split in 1973 with the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America. This new denomination, lodged primarily in the states of the old Confederacy, identified closely with the most conservative theological traditions of Presbyterianism and long-established patterns of social life in the state. A union in 1983 of the “Northern” United Presbyterian Church and the “Southern” Presbyterian Church in the U.S. brought together into the Presbyterian Church (USA) the great majority of Presbyterians in the state.
Clarke, Erskine. Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690–1990. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Howe, George. History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia, S.C.: Duffie and Chapman, 1870–1883.
Thompson, Ernest Trice. Presbyterians in the South. 3 vols. Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1963–1973.