In February 1742, when Bryan sent the assembly a journal of his predictions that God would use the slave population to punish those who profaned his laws, the Commons House ordered his arrest. Bryan fled and underwent a grave crisis of faith. Witnesses claimed that, like Moses, he attempted to part the waters of a creek and cross that way, and he was nearly drowned. Shortly thereafter, Bryan wrote the Speaker of the House apologizing for “the Dishonour I’ve done to God, as well as the Disquiet which I may have occasioned to my Country.”
Planter, evangelist. Bryan was born in South Carolina, the son of Joseph Bryan and Janet Cochran. His father was a native of England and an earlier settler of the colony’s southern frontier. As a youth, Hugh Bryan was captured by Indians during the Yamassee War of 1715, but he was released a year later at St. Augustine in Spanish East Florida. According to later testimony, while a captive Bryan “met with a Bible among the Indians,” which sustained him during his ordeal and laid the groundwork for his future spirituality. Returning to South Carolina, Bryan took up residence in St. Bartholomew’s Parish and then St. Helena’s Parish, where he quickly rose in the local social and economic hierarchy. By the late 1730s Bryan was a leading rice planter, cattle raiser, and slaveholder. His marriage on January 2, 1734, to Catherine Barnwell, the daughter of John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell, further advanced his position.
During a severe illness in 1739, Catherine Bryan underwent a conversion to evangelical Christianity. Impressed by his wife’s devotion and her subsequent miraculous recovery, Hugh Bryan converted as well. When the English evangelist George Whitefield visited Georgia in 1740, the Bryans traveled to hear him and became enthusiastic followers. Under Whitefield’s guidance, Hugh Bryan began to apply his understanding of religious writing to contemporary events. He saw the Stono slave rebellion of 1739, a disastrous fire in Charleston in 1740, droughts, and outbreaks of epidemic disease as signs of God’s displeasure with South Carolina. He actively evangelized among his slaves and prophesied that the colony would be destroyed by “African Hosts” unless it repented and turned from its misguided ways. In January 1741 Bryan’s warnings were printed in the South-Carolina Gazette. This aroused the ire of the residents of Charleston, who arrested Bryan and Whitefield and charged them with libel and contempt “against the King’s peace.” Both were released after a few days. Whitefield sailed for England, and Bryan returned to St. Helena’s Parish, where he continued to evangelize, instruct his slaves in the fundamentals of religion, and call on the people of South Carolina to atone for their sins.
Bryan’s activities did not go unnoticed by the Commons House of Assembly, which became increasingly alarmed at reports of the “frequent and great Assemblies of Negroes in the Parish of St. Helena.” In February 1742, when Bryan sent the assembly a journal of his predictions that God would use the slave population to punish those who profaned his laws, the Commons House ordered his arrest. Bryan fled and underwent a grave crisis of faith. Witnesses claimed that, like Moses, he attempted to part the waters of a creek and cross that way, and he was nearly drowned. Shortly thereafter, Bryan wrote the Speaker of the House apologizing for “the Dishonour I’ve done to God, as well as the Disquiet which I may have occasioned to my Country.”
Bryan returned to his plantation, where he continued to teach religion to slaves but no longer prophesied about slave rebellions as punishment for the worldliness of South Carolinians. He married Mary Prioleau on October 25, 1744, and died on his plantation on December 31, 1753. He was buried in the cemetery of Stoney Creek Independent Church, a dissenter congregation that he helped to found.
Edgar, Walter, and N. Louise Bailey, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 2, The Commons House of Assembly, 1692–1775. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.
Gallay, Alan. “The Great Awakening in the Deep South: George Whitefield, the Bryan Family, and the Origins of Slaveholders’ Paternalism.” Journal of Southern History 53 (August 1987): 369–94.
Jackson, Harvey H. “Hugh Bryan and the Evangelical Movement in Colonial South Carolina.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 43 (October 1986): 594–614.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “‘The Grand Prophet,’ Hugh Bryan: Early Evangelicalism’s Challenge to the Establishment of Slavery in the Colonial South.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 87 (October 1986): 238–50.