This was my July 2015 column for the SC United Methodist Advocate.
Most South Carolina Methodists realize the strong influence and important work of the United Methodist Women in our churches and conference. When did this work begin?
Just after the Civil War, women’s efforts moved more into the public sphere, as America entered a period of social reform as well as international missionary work. In the Methodist Church, the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society was authorized by the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, meeting in Atlanta in 1878. This followed years of lobbying the bishops to authorize some type of women’s missionary organization. The College of Bishops drafted a constitution, and the wives of the bishops all became vice presidents of the organization. Mrs. Maria Davies Wightman of South Carolina, the wife of Bishop William M. Wightman, was one of those vice presidents.
In South Carolina, which was one of the fifteen conferences of the M. E. Church, South, the Woman’s Missionary Society was organized in December 1878, during the meeting of the Annual Conference in Newberry. A nominating committee, consisting of male members of the Annual Conference as well as women who would be part of the society recommended a slate of officers.
Mrs. Maria Wightman was elected president by the forty women in attendance, representing ten charges or stations throughout the Conference. The first annual meeting of the Woman’s Missionary Society of the South Carolina Conference was held in Trinity Church, Charleston, being Mrs. Wightman’s own church, in April 1880. This was the first time a woman ever presided over a public meeting in South Carolina. Mrs. Wightman remained the society’s president, providing spiritual leadership to their work until her death in 1912.
A second missionary organization, the Parsonage Aid and Home Mission Society (having been organized in the Methodist Church in 1886) was changed to the Woman’s Parsonage and Home Mission Society in 1890. In 1898 the organization had the name of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society.
In 1910 the General Conference made provisions to unite these two Societies: The Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, 32 years old, and The Woman’s Home Missionary Society, 25 years old. They came together and formed the Woman’s Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. It was optional as to whether the two Societies should unite into one conference society, so in South Carolina, the two organizations did not unite until the Conference split into two Annual Conferences in 1914.
The women of the South Carolina Conference met January 22, 1915, at Florence and organized. The women of the Upper South Carolina Conference also met the same year and organized as the Woman’s Missionary Society of the Upper South Carolina Conference, thus bringing home and foreign mission work into a single organization for each conference.
In 1940, after Methodist reunification, the society had another name change. Both upper and South Carolina conference societies became the Woman’s Society of Christian Service of their respective conference. In October 1948, when the two conferences merged back together, the Woman’s Societies of Christian Service also merged. And, after the creation of the United Methodist Church in 1968, the present United Methodist Women’s organization was born.
For more information about the history of our conference’s women’s organizations, you can read Daring Hearts and Spirits Free: South Carolina Women in the United Methodist Tradition, edited by Harriet Anderson Mays and Harry Roy Mays.