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Bishop William Wallace Duncan

Written By: Phillip Stone - May• 23•13

This article appeared in the April edition of the SC United Methodist Advocate.

One of South Carolina’s contributions to the Methodist episcopacy, William Wallace Duncan spent much of his life serving the Methodist Church.

Bishop William Wallace Duncan

When his father, David Duncan, joined the original Wofford College faculty in 1854, the 15-year old future bishop transferred from Randolph-Macon College.  Graduating from Wofford in 1858, Duncan returned to Virginia and entered the Methodist ministry.  He served churches in Virginia for sixteen years, and was also a Confederate chaplain.  Duncan returned to Wofford in January 1876 as Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, and he took on the additional duty of being the college’s financial agent, or chief fund-raiser.  Over the next ten years, Duncan traveled throughout South Carolina, speaking to Methodist churches in an attempt to raise the college’s endowment.  Duncan was active in Methodist circles, representing South Carolina in three successive General Conferences.  In 1881, he represented the Methodist Episcopal Church, South at the first Methodist Ecumenical Conference in London.  His work on Wofford’s behalf brought him increased attention throughout the region, and as a result, the 1886 General Conference elected him a bishop.

Though his elevation to the episcopacy meant he had to resign from the Wofford faculty, it did not end his relationship with the college.  He became a member of the Wofford board of trustees, and for the last nineteen years of his life, the bishop was the chairman of the board.  When he and his fellow trustees elected Henry Nelson Snyder to be the College’s fourth president, Duncan presented Snyder as president of “our” college, with emphasis, Snyder later remembered, on the word “our.”  Snyder later wrote of Duncan, “he looked more like a bishop than any other man I have ever known.”

In those days, the denomination had more annual conferences than bishops, and the bishops presided over multiple annual conferences each year. They did not necessarily preside over the same annual conference in consecutive years, either.  As such, Bishop Duncan served a number of different Annual Conferences across the South as bishop, and even had to travel to the far west as he presided over the Oregon Annual Conference six times.  When opening one annual conference, Duncan reportedly said, “I am glad to meet and greet you. I expect to be glad all the time I am with you, and possibly I may be glad when I leave you.”

Conferences did not provide episcopal residences for the bishops, and so Bishop Duncan made his office and residence in Spartanburg.  Around 1885, he started building a large home midway between the Wofford campus and downtown Spartanburg.  When he became a bishop, he altered some of the plans to accommodate many of the large meetings he might expect to host.  The house was the first in the city to have inside bathrooms with running water.  Wofford’s literary magazine reported in February 1889 that “Bishop Duncan’s handsome residence on North Church Street, second lot from the [Central] Methodist Church, is completed.  It is of English architecture with coat of arms on front.  The Bishop has been spending some time at home.”

At one point, North Church Street in Spartanburg must have been one of the most Methodist areas in the country – for Central Methodist Church, the Central parsonage, the Spartanburg District parsonage, the bishop’s residence, and Wofford sat all in a row. You have to feel a little sorry for Central’s ministers of the day, with their bishop and presiding elder both living on the same block.  From his home, Bishop Duncan could keep an eye on events at Wofford while he handled his responsibilities to the far-flung conferences he was serving.

The home remained in the bishop’s family after his death in 1908 and remained on the same site until 1999, when it was moved to make way for Spartanburg’s downtown Marriott.  The house now sits on a site between the city’s Magnolia Cemetery and the Carolinas campus of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is restoring the house.

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