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John C. Kilgo – the education bishop

Written By: Phillip Stone - Oct• 01•12

My October column for the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate was about Bishop John C. Kilgo

Bishop John C. Kilgo

John Carlisle Kilgo has been called South Carolina Methodism’s gift to North Carolina.  His service to the church and to higher education in the two Carolinas makes him one of the most significant figures in the early twentieth century church.

Born in Laurens, S. C. in 1861, John C. Kilgo was the son of a Methodist minister. He grew up in Methodist parsonages all around South Carolina.  He followed his older brother to Wofford College in October 1880, but stayed only through his sophomore year.  His eyes were weak, and caused him trouble in his studies. He entered the ministry, being admitted to the South Carolina Conference in December 1882.  Appointed to Bennettsville for 1883, he also served in Timmonsville, Rock Hill, and the Little Rock Circuit before returning to Wofford in 1889. His gifts in the pulpit brought him to the attention of the college’s trustees, and he was selected to be Wofford’s financial agent.

The financial agent was the chief fund-raiser for the college, and thus John Kilgo made extensive use of his church connections to help solicit gifts to Wofford.  His two brothers, both of whom had earned Wofford degrees, had followed him into the ministry. Now that he was back at Wofford, he resumed his studies, and though he never earned a bachelor’s degree, he undertook coursework privately with English Professor Henry Nelson Snyder. As a result, in 1892, he was granted an honorary master of arts degree – an unusual award.  He also began to teach courses as a professor of metaphysics. At 31, he was a popular, if brash, young professor, and rumor had it that he aspired to Wofford’s presidency. He continued his work as financial agent, representing the college at gatherings around the state.

Kilgo was destined for greater things.  Only two years later, in 1894, the young minister was elected president of Trinity College, which had only recently moved to Durham, North Carolina.  Trinity, in fact, was in debt at the time, and Washington Duke, who had helped bring the college to Durham, lamented that he had ever become involved with the place.  Touring the campus with Kilgo, Duke reportedly said, “Well, there it is. I never expect to give another dollar to it, and I wish I had never put a dollar in it.”

Kilgo presided over Trinity for sixteen years, guiding the college and repairing the institution’s relationship with the Duke family. Kilgo inspired the family to resume its support, and he was able to articulate a vision for the college. As its president, Kilgo declared that Trinity would help form opinion and not follow it. He supported industrial development in the South and was not shy about pointing out the region’s social problems. Most notably, Kilgo took a liberal position on race relations.  And this was in the 1890s and early 1900s!  He was also a strong defender of academic freedom at Trinity, and in one case, told the trustees that he would rather teach ten students that believed in truth and tolerance than to teach a thousand “who believed in intolerance and regarded intellectual bondage a commendable virtue.”  The trustees backed Kilgo’s position and in 1903, issued a strong statement in support of academic freedom.

John Kilgo was elected bishop by the 1910 General Conference, but he left Trinity well on its way to being transformed into Duke University. As a bishop, Kilgo served throughout the denomination, presiding over sessions of the South Carolina Conference in 1911 and 1912.  He had the good fortune of presiding over one annual conference in Bennettsville, the town where he had his start in the ministry thirty years earlier. He once noted that he had never wanted to be anything but a Methodist preacher, and now he could “do anything in it from holding a meeting to presiding over an Annual Conference.”

As a bishop, he continued his advocacy for education. His abilities as a pulpit orator meant he was in great demand as a revival preacher, and he relished the task of saving souls.  He served for a dozen years in the episcopacy, working until his death in 1922.  As an educator, minister, and bishop, John Carlisle Kilgo believed in the importance and power of Christian education.

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