Dissenters

The dissenters, grateful for the policy of religious toleration that had given them a place of refuge, supported the proprietors. The proprietors tried repeatedly to break the power of the Goose Creek Men, but their attempts only provoked political disorder.

From the earliest years of European settlement in South Carolina, religious dissenters (non-Anglicans) comprised a significant part of its population and played an important role in its government, economy, and society. The eight Lords Proprietors of Carolina envisioned for their colony a model structure of religious toleration, partly to attract nonconforming settlers. To that end, they guaranteed “full and free Liberty of Conscience” to all settlers and assured dissenters that they would not be taxed for the support of the Anglican Church. This policy attracted Presbyterians and Baptists from England, as well as Huguenots seeking refuge after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Numerous Anglicans from Barbados also came to the colony, settling primarily near Goose Creek. Cognizant of the potentially toxic mixture of these many different religious faiths, the Lords Proprietors tried to make religion politically neutral by prohibiting ministers from sitting in the legislature or holding public office and by allowing dissenters the right to serve in the government. In this noble goal, however, the proprietors failed.

Confrontation between the evenly matched dissenters and Anglicans caused considerable political friction in South Carolina for decades. Throughout the seventeenth century the Goose Creek Men, who controlled local government and who rejected the policy of religious toleration, consistently opposed proprietary policy. The dissenters, grateful for the policy of religious toleration that had given them a place of refuge, supported the proprietors. The proprietors tried repeatedly to break the power of the Goose Creek Men, but their attempts only provoked political disorder. After 1700 the proprietors, seeking a compromise with the Goose Creek Men, reversed their policy on religious toleration and sought to establish the Church of England as the state church of South Carolina. In 1704 the Anglican governor Sir Nathaniel Johnson pushed through the Assembly a Test Act requiring all members to conform to the Church of England and an Establishment Act making the Church of England “settled and Established” in the colony. The dissenters quickly protested against these two acts to the English Parliament, arguing that they were unprecedented in the colonies, contrary to the Carolina charter, and discriminatory. The House of Lords concurred with the dissenters and disallowed both acts. The Anglican-dominated Assembly responded in 1706 by passing a more moderate Establishment Act that allowed dissenters full political participation. This policy of moderation toward dissenters contributed to relative religious harmony through the remainder of royal rule.

One area of exception to this religious harmony was the backcountry, where the Anglican clergymen failed to make an appeal to the numerous Presbyterian and Baptist dissenters residing in the region. Instead, the Anglican-controlled Assembly fueled sectional and religious tension by refusing to provide the frontier inhabitants with courts, jails, representation, schools, and churches. In the early 1760s dissenters in the region complained to the legislature that they paid taxes to support Anglican churches and ministers in the lowcountry while they had none of either. On the eve of revolution, lowcountry patriot leaders realized that the success of their cause required the support of the backcountry majority. Thus, they promised religious freedom to dissenters in hopes of enticing them to support the local rebellion. The Presbyterian minister and patriot leader William Tennent petitioned the General Assembly in 1777 to disestablish the Anglican Church. In 1778 the Assembly adopted a second state constitution that disestablished the Church of England but still required voters to believe in God and legislators to be Protestants. Only with the 1790 constitution did religious freedom and separation of church and state prevail in South Carolina.

Bolton, S. Charles. Southern Anglicanism: The Church of England in Colonial South Carolina. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982.

Curry, Thomas J. The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Sirmans, M. Eugene. Colonial South Carolina: A Political History, 1663–1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Dissenters
  • Author
  • Keywords “full and free Liberty of Conscience” , eight Lords Proprietors of Carolina, Goose Creek, Anglicans, Church of England, Goose Creek Men, Establishment Act,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 3, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 22, 2022
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