Many South Carolinians call it the “Holy City,” but it’s safe to say that Charleston has had a long and complicated relationship with Methodism. Sometimes supporting the church’s growth and sometimes finding its doctrines in opposition to the prevailing culture, Charleston has been a part of South Carolina Methodism’s story since before there was a Methodist church.
Charleston can claim a connection to early Methodism that very few places in North America can match. John Wesley visited the Holy City on a few occasions while he was serving in Georgia. According to Francis Asbury Mood’s Methodism in Charleston, John and Charles Wesley arrived in Charleston on July 31, 1736, barely six months after his arrival in Georgia. He was there to visit the Rev. Alexander Garden, who was the rector of St. Philip’s Church and also the representative of the Anglican Bishop of London. Garden invited Wesley to preach in St. Philip’s, which Wesley did on Sunday, August 1 to about 300 parishioners. At this service, Wesley encountered several enslaved persons among the worshippers, which seemed to have a profound effect on him. The next day, Mood notes that Wesley paid a call on the governor, who in 1736 would have been Thomas Broughton. He then returned to Savannah, starting out on foot because he could find no other passage available. Charles Wesley was soon to leave Savannah, having found serving as Governor Oglethorpe’s secretary not in keeping with his skills.
Wesley made two more trips to Charleston, once to visit with Garden (for whom the gardenia was named) to ask the rector of St. Philip’s to help put an end to someone in Georgia from marrying his parishioners without going through proper procedures. Mood does not mention the other reason that Wesley visited – to have his “Collection of Psalms and Hymns” printed at the Lewis Timothy print shop on King Street. Wesley’s final visit to Charleston was after he abruptly left Georgia in late 1737 on his way back to England.
Mood notes that George Whitfield, who was an early collaborator in ministry with Wesley, also visited several times in Charleston, but after an early visit, his street preaching offended Garden, who had him suspended from the ministry. Whitfield took to other pulpits to spread his message. One of Wesley’s ministers visited Charleston in the 1770s, but did not leave much of a record of his presence.
After the 1784 Christmas Conference, Bishop Francis Asbury journeyed to Charleston, with Rev. Jesse Lee and Rev. Henry Willis helping him set up preaching places. Willis found a deserted Baptist meeting house on the west side of Church Street between Water and Tradd streets and restored it for services. Asbury himself visited both St. Philip’s and the Circular Congregational Church as he familiarized himself with religion in Charleston. After Asbury left in March, Willis stayed behind, and at the next conference in the spring, Charleston Circuit was established. The Methodists continued to worship in the borrowed meeting house for a few months, but one Sunday, they found their benches in the street and the doors locked. The congregation was a bit itinerant until they secured a lot in early 1786, and a structure built by mid-1787. The lot, on Cumberland Street between Meeting and Church, was the first permanent Methodist church in Charleston.
The congregation and its leaders would face a number of challenges, but we’ll save those for later.
This was my column in the October 2018 issue of the SC United Methodist Advocate