Today is October 19, which at Wofford means it’s Founder’s Day 237 years ago today, on a small farm in Spartanburg County, Benjamin Wofford was born.
That day in 1780 was a lot like any other day in the early 1780s in Spartanburg, and with a war raging along the frontier settlements, the birth of a baby boy to a local militia captain and his wife probably didn’t get much notice. Coming only a few weeks after a major Patriot victory at Kings Mountain, and three months before another major Patriot victory at the nearby Cowpens, there were much more dramatic events taking place and gaining attention.
Yet for many of us, the events of that day had a major impact. For Benjamin Wofford grew up, had a religious conversion, became a Methodist minister, and married the only child of one of the wealthiest landowners in lower Spartanburg County. He counted both church and society among his interests, and though he gave up the active ministry before his fortieth birthday, he worked for the improvement of his home district all of his life.
We have little record of his education, though he did own some books – some of them are in the college archives – so it’s probably safe to say he was largely self-educated. But he realized its importance. In the last decade of his life, he and his second wife, Maria Scott Barron Wofford, evidently thought about education a great deal. They considered buying land near the Limestone Springs, in the part of Spartanburg District that later became Gaffney, and establishing a college, but believed the Methodist Conference not interested. By 1849, when his friend the Rev. Hugh Andrew Crawford Walker, an agent of the American Bible Society, came to visit, he was clearly thinking about what to do with his fortune. “Why not found a college?” asked Brother Walker, a fateful question indeed. Assured by Walker that the Methodist Conference did indeed want a college “for literary, classical, and scientific education,” Benjamin Wofford had his lawyer draft language in his will leaving a small fortune – $100,000 – to found and endow a college.
We don’t entirely know what to make of Benjamin Wofford today. His portrait makes him look like a fairly severe figure. His reputation in town, at least according to the written accounts of him, was that he was an exacting, thrifty businessman. And of course, like most every wealthy individual of his day, he owned slaves. There’s no heroic end in that part of his story – his will bequeathed his slaves to others, it did not manumit them. History is sometimes cold and unsatisfying that way.
I don’t know what Ben would make of us today. I hope that wherever he is, he somehow knows that the college that he established in his will, that he never saw chartered, built, or opened, has educated probably in the neighborhood of 20,000 individuals in its 163 years of existence. I hope he’d be proud that some families have five or now six generations of family members who have attended. He’d probably be shocked to see the diversity in the student body and faculty and staff. I hope that after the shock wore off, he’d be happy to know that the college he inaugurated took a leading role in desegregating private higher education in the South. I’m sure that like anyone from the 19th century, he’d be amazed by the technological changes that the college and community have witnessed, that students who study at his college can travel all around the world, that students and faculty come from all over the world to study in his home town.
But above all else, I hope he’d be proud that we’re still here, 167 years after his death, on our original campus, with 5 original buildings in daily use, “increasing in power and goodness through the ages as they come.”