This was my column in the SC United Methodist Advocate for February 2015
150 years ago this month, the Union Army, fresh from its march across Georgia and its capture of Savannah, set out to march across South Carolina. In February 1865, on a cold and very windy night, much of Columbia burned. (I don’t want to start an argument about who did what, but it’s safe to say that General Sherman’s army was there and the city was burned and leave it at that!) Sherman’s march across the middle of the state left an indelible mark on South Carolina. The Civil War, which started in Charleston Harbor four years earlier, had come home to the Palmetto State, and nothing would ever be quite the same.
The Union Army’s arrival and the end of the Civil War signaled something else for the majority of South Carolinians: freedom. The end of the war brought reality to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and as a result, those held in slavery found themselves free. These newly-free persons sought to form separate institutions, including churches, where they could be independent of their former masters.
Churches, naturally, were high on the list. Methodist missionaries had worked among the slaves throughout the antebellum era, and the Northern branch of Methodism had also sent missionaries to work in the Sea Islands, which came under Federal control early in the war. So, the work of founding a new Annual Conference was well underway by the summer and fall of 1865. Though many white South Carolinians expected to return to something resembling the social and religious system from before the war, African-American South Carolinians were not interested in returning to sit in the church balconies. With the support of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a missionary Annual Conference convened on April 2, 1866 under the leadership of Bishop Osman C. Baker. The previous General Conference had authorized creating missionary conferences in the former Confederacy as the need arose, and the first members of the conference were the northern mission workers. On its first day, that conference admitted five African-American members.
The need for some ministerial education was immediately recognized, and the Baker Theological Institute was organized in Charleston. Dozens of men attended the institute for further ministerial study, and over the next few years, they were ordained into the ministry and joined the South Carolina Conference. The conference boundaries included South Carolina, eastern Georgia, and Florida. Just three years hence, the conference established a university, and clergy members Willard Lewis and Alonzo Webster purchased the property in Orangeburg. The funds for the new university came from Lee Claflin and his son, Massachusetts Governor William Claflin, and the university bears their name. In 1870, the South Carolina Conference met there.
Claflin and the Conference became almost one and the same over the next decades. The state’s African-American Methodist clergy were educated there, as were teachers for the state’s African-American schools. Those individuals spread out throughout the state, founding churches in communities far and wide. Born out of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the 1866 Conference became the backbone of African-American Methodism in South Carolina, and its heritage lives on in the modern-day South Carolina Annual Conference.