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William Wightman, Bishop and President

Written By: Phillip Stone - Jan• 29•15

Bishop William Wightman’s career shows that Methodist clergy can wear many hats.

Wightman-portrait

William M. Wightman

A Charleston native, William May Wightman was born on January 29, 1808 to parents who were active Methodists. His mother was a native of Plymouth, England, and according to family legend, sat in John Wesley’s lap as a small child. Wightman graduated from the College of Charleston in 1827, and his valedictory address is in the Wofford archives.

Wightman joined the South Carolina Annual Conference in 1828 and served appointments over the next six years on the Pee Dee Circuit and in Orangeburg, Charleston, Santee, Camden, and Abbeville. In 1834, he became a fundraiser for Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, and over the next three years, helped raise $20,000 to fulfill the Conference’s pledge to endow a chair there. He then served as a professor for two years. Thus, in his first ten years of ministry, he had served in the pulpit, as a fundraiser, and as a professor.

In 1839, he returned to South Carolina to become the presiding elder of the Cokesbury District, and in the summer of 1840, he became the editor of the Southern Christian Advocate in Charleston. His pulpit for over ten years was the paper, and he became widely known throughout the Southeast. His first election as a delegate to the General Conference came in 1840, and he was a member of the 1844 conference that saw American Methodism split into northern and southern branches. In 1845, he represented South Carolina at the founding conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He was a delegate from South Carolina to the next four General Conferences. In 1854, only a mis-marked ballot prevented his election as a bishop.
That mismarked ballot may have been fortunate for Wofford College, for Wightman had been named in the will of Benjamin Wofford as one of the founding trustees of the college, and he gave the principal address at the laying of the cornerstone of Main Building in 1851. In November 1853, the trustees elected him as Wofford’s first president. Thus, the pastor, fundraiser, presiding elder, professor, and editor took on the role of college president.

Bishop Wightman

Bishop Wightman

After five years at Wofford’s helm, whose founder had been a friend of his, Wightman left to become the founding chancellor of Southern University in Alabama, now Birmingham-Southern College. And, in 1866, twelve years after a balloting error cost him the episcopacy, he was elected a bishop.

Upon his election, he returned to Charleston, where he established his headquarters. He purchased a house at 79 Anson Street in the Ansonborough section of Charleston. That house, built before 1760 and known as the Daniel Legare house, is one of the oldest homes still standing in Ansonborough. That fall, Wightman presided over his first South Carolina Conference, and for fifteen years, he presided over conferences around the South. He died on Feb. 15, 1882 in Charleston, and he is buried in that city’s Magnolia Cemetery. The bells of St. Michael’s tolled for the Methodist bishop, a rare honor that the Episcopalians conferred upon this leader of southern Methodist higher education.

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