The Society of Friends (more commonly known as the Quakers) experienced a fragmented history in South Carolina. This was due in large part to the isolation they faced living as antislavery pacifists in a slave economy and their distance geographically from more prominent Quaker settlements in the North. Ties were maintained, however, through visitation by Friends ministers (several of them women) from Europe and elsewhere in America.
Founded in England in 1652, the Religious Society of Friends emphasized a personal religious experience and the presence of God in every individual, which encouraged a belief in the equality of all regardless of sex, race, or economic status. Other characteristics of this radical Christian group that have continued to hold value to many Friends include opposition to all forms of violence and living one’s life with simplicity and integrity.
Quakerism came to South Carolina in the 1670s, and a meeting, the organizational unit of the Society of Friends, was established in Charleston by 1682. John Archdale, Quaker governor of Carolina from 1695 to 1696, promoted religious toleration and peace with the Native Americans. However, Friends’ involvement in and influence on South Carolina politics came to an end with oath requirements for officeholders mandated by the Church Act of 1706. Quakers testified against the taking of oaths due to their belief, based on the teachings of Jesus, that individuals should be truthful in all matters and affirm rather than swear to an oath.
Charleston Friends held ties to London and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings and remained separate from the other South Carolina Quaker settlements, which were affiliated with North Carolina Yearly Meeting. A group of Irish Quakers settled along the Wateree River near Camden about 1750. Also in the mid-seventeenth century, Friends from Quaker communities elsewhere in the American colonies migrated to the areas of Marlboro and Newberry Counties. Bush River was by far the largest and most influential of the Piedmont South Carolina meetings, with attendance reportedly as high as five hundred. The Quaker population in South Carolina peaked by 1800, however, and suffered dramatic decline due to out-migration to slave-free Ohio. By 1822 only a weak Charleston Meeting remained, and it too ceased to exist by the time of the Civil War. Except for some northern Quaker women caring for newly freed slaves during the Reconstruction period, South Carolina was without a Quaker presence for more than one hundred years.
Beginning with Columbia Meeting in 1967, several small worship groups formed in South Carolina during the late twentieth century. By 2003 there were an estimated eighty-five meeting members and regular attendees. South Carolina Friends have met annually since 1999 for the Palmetto Friends Gathering. Three of the seven small meetings are affiliated with the Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting, and all practice the distinctive silent worship traditionally associated with Quakers.
Hinshaw, William Wade. Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy. Vol. 1, North Carolina. 1936. Reprint, Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing, 1969.
Webber, Mabel L., ed. “The Records of the Quakers in Charles Town.” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 28 (January 1927): 22–43; (April 1927): 94–107; (July 1927): 176–97.
Weeks, Stephen B. Southern Quakers and Slavery: A Study in Institutional History. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1896.