Unitarians in South Carolina boast a legacy of professional distinction and influence disproportionate to their size and numbers. Throughout the nineteenth century, Unitarians filled the top ranks of the growing urban professional classes and forged a respectable place for rational Christianity alongside an increasing evangelical culture.
Unitarianism in South Carolina had several religious and philosophical sources: an indigenous Arminianism, commonsense realism, Anglican latitudinarianism, and English and New England Unitarianism. During the antebellum period, southern Unitarians neutralized the more radical elements in all of these sources and created a core of “rational Christianity” that many within southern orthodoxy embraced. As “Christians,” they maintained that the Bible was the Word of God and believed in the virgin birth, the Resurrection, and the miracles and divinity of Christ, although they stressed the Unity of God as opposed to the Trinity. They believed that Christ was the Son of God but, as the Son, was not as divine as the Father. For this, many within orthodoxy rejected their claim as “Christians.” Unitarian theology was broad and liberal at its foundation and ecumenical in nature. For Unitarians, theology was a reasonable and rational enterprise designed to commend the Christian faith to an ever expanding class of educated southerners who, like them, wanted to reform and purify the church while keeping separate the elements of church and state.
The Second Independent Church of Charleston was incorporated in 1817 under the guidance of its minister Anthony Forster. Its origins, however, are tied to the Independent or Congregational Church of Charleston. Founded in the 1680s, the Independent Church originally gathered a broad faction of dissenting religious groups in Charleston: Huguenots, Scots and Irish Presbyterians, and Old and New Englanders. By the time Forster became copastor, the church had a sizable “Unitarian” constituency. Though trained as a Presbyterian, Forster was soon swayed by the arguments of the English Unitarian Joseph Priestley. Without assuming the name Unitarian, Forster began to preach on the common elements of Christianity and salvation.
Following Forster’s untimely death, the congregation took the name Second Independent or Congregational Church of Charleston and hired Samuel Gilman, a young Harvard tutor and an avowed Unitarian. His ministry in Charleston has been called the “golden age” of Unitarianism in South Carolina. Though he was faced with increasing opposition from evangelical circles, Gilman’s poise, conciliatory spirit, character, and intellect soon became apparent to many in the city. Both he and his liberal constituency rose within the ranks of the city’s literary, mercantile, and professional elite, which helped to place their church among the most respected in Charleston despite the unpopularity of their beliefs and the initial hostilities from the community at large. The congregation soon formed the Charleston Unitarian Book and Tract Society, the first organization in the United States for the circulation of Unitarian literature, and established the Association of Southern Unitarians with Charleston as its center. By the early 1840s the initiative for establishing and supporting Unitarian churches in the South rested almost entirely on the Charleston congregation as it helped found churches in Augusta and Savannah, Georgia, and Mobile, Alabama.
On the eve of the Civil War, like other denominational divisions, the congregation broke from the American Unitarian Association in Boston. Since then, Unitarianism has evolved and changed in South Carolina. As part of the Unitarian-Universalist Association, contemporary Unitarianism embraces a broad spectrum of both Eastern and Western philosophies, including Buddhism, humanism, earth- centered traditions, and Judeo-Christian teachings. Fundamentally, Unitarians profess a belief in the dignity and worth of every human being and uphold justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. They stress that personal experience, conscience, and reason should be the final authorities in all religious matters. With more than twelve hundred members scattered across South Carolina, Unitarian congregations can be found in Aiken, Beaufort, Charleston, Clemson, Columbia, Florence, Greenville, Hilton Head Island, Newberry, Pawleys Island, and Spartanburg.
Edwards, George N. A History of the Independent or Congregational Church of Charleston, South Carolina. Boston, Mass.: Pilgrim Press, 1947.
Gibson, George H. “Unitarian Congregations in the Ante-Bellum South.” Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society 12, pt. 2 (1959): 53–78.
Gohdes, Clarence. “Some Notes on the Unitarian Church in the Ante-Bellum South: A Contribution to the History of Southern Liberalism.” In American Studies in Honor of William Kenneth Boyd by Members of the Americana Club of Duke University, edited by David Kelly Jackson. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940.
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.
Stange, Douglas C. “Abolitionism as Malfeasance: Southern Unitarians Versus ‘Puritan Fanaticism’—1831–1860.” Harvard Library Bulletin 26 (April 1978): 146–71.
Wright, Conrad. “The Theological World of Samuel Gilman.” Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society 17, pt. 2 (1973–75): 54–72.