If there’s a place in South Carolina that might be able to lay claim to being a real Methodist town, it might be in Greenwood County.
The village of Cokesbury was named, as every loyal reader of the Advocate will recognize, for the first two bishops in American Methodism, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury. Originally settled around a Methodist church called Tabernacle, the residents of the area began to support a school before 1820. When the Methodist Mount Bethel Academy, in Newberry County, closed in 1820, the teachers at the Tabernacle school encouraged the South Carolina Conference to become patrons of their school.
The town founders moved their village to higher ground, on a ridge between the Savannah and Saluda rivers, and built a planned community around the school. They first named the village Mt. Ariel, and during the 1820s, built school buildings for males and females, and in the 1830s, a new church building in the village. With the Methodists taking over the male academy to become the Dougherty Manual Labor School, the church’s presence in the community grew. That name was short-lived, for it was future Bishop William Wightman who suggested naming the school Cokesbury. At the same time, the town changed its name to Cokesbury in March 1835. In 1834, the Methodists moved the district parsonage to Mt. Ariel, and thus the tradition of the Cokesbury District began. A church and cemetery remained at Tabernacle until after the Civil War.
In the days before a strong system of free public schools, the school had its fair share of influential students. Trying to grow in social status, the school abandoned its manual labor orientation – where students studied in the morning and worked on the farm in the afternoon – by 1842. The school became the Cokesbury Conference Institute. The female school came under the patronage of the local Masonic order, and in 1854, they built a three-story building, the top floor reserved for the Masons, the lower floor for classrooms, and the middle floor for a chapel. That is the building that survives today, it became the Conference School by 1874, but the school closed by 1918, becoming instead a public school. Still, a number of leaders in the Conference, in state politics, and in other states spent time at the Cokesbury School.
Like many Upcountry towns, the residents of Cokesbury valued their idyllic, peaceful village and objected to the railroad coming to their community. That proved problematic to the community’s growth after the Civil War. Growth shifted away from Cokesbury and toward Greenwood, which had become a railroad village. When Greenwood County was created in 1897, with the city of Greenwood as its seat, Cokesbury’s influence continued to decline. Greenwood’s leaders encouraged the Rev. Samuel Lander to move his college from Williamston to their city, and it opened there in 1903 as Lander College, where it retained its Methodist relationship until the 1940s. But we’ll come back to the rest of the story in future months.
Note: This was my column in the May 2018 issue of the SC United Methodist Advocate