Charlestonians may be able to claim visits from John Wesley, but they were not always as kind to Wesley’s successors. While Methodism took root in Charleston in the 1780s and grew in the 1790s, it was not without opposition and even persecution.
With the establishment of the Cumberland Street Church in 1786 and the completion of its structure in the middle of the next year, the first meeting of the South Carolina Annual Conference was held in Charleston in 1787. The next year, when Conference again met at the church, a mob attacked outside during the Sunday morning service. The women of the church were so frightened that many of them escaped out the church’s windows. Later that night, protesters threw bricks and rocks at the church while Bishop Francis Asbury was preaching. The next year, the newspaper denounced Bishop Thomas Coke when he visited the Holy City. Why all this opposition to early Methodists? Perhaps it was their anti-slavery position, or that they had more African-American members than white members in some early years. Perhaps it was their evangelical zeal that put off the Charlestonians, who were generally low key in their religious practice. In any event, as long as Methodists held on to their opposition to slavery, they found condemnation among white Charleston society.
Those early Methodists faced other internal challenges. When Bishop Coke arrived for the 1791 Conference, he brought with him the Rev. William Hammett, who had been working among Methodists in the British West Indies. His enthusiastic preaching wowed the Methodists of Charleston, who demanded that Bishop Asbury appoint Hammett to Charleston. Asbury, having already made the appointments, was unwilling to budge. Hammett, who was probably not the first clergyman to be disappointed with his appointment, and certainly not the last, protested. He went further than most clergy, taking his protests to the newspapers. And then, he led about half of the aggrieved members of the Cumberland Street church out to form a new congregation, calling themselves “Primitive Methodists.” They acquired property on Hasell Street, took the name Trinity, and there Hammett preached until his death in 1813. They eventually spun off a second Primitive Methodist congregation, which became St. James.
The Cumberland Church, though wounded by the loss of so many members, continued, and in 1793 they looked to start a second Charleston congregation. They acquired land for a cemetery on which they also planned to build a church, and as soon as they raised 300 pounds, they began construction on what became Bethel. They put the building into use around 1798.
The “regular” Methodists continued to face criticism and attacks from Charleston society, and the protests increased in force and volume during the early 19th century. Finally, the church abandoned its long-held anti-slavery positions, choosing the path of growth in the South over Wesley’s teachings. The attacks gradually stopped.
The African-American Methodists grew increasingly frustrated with the white leadership of the local congregations. While the enslaved Methodists had class leaders and some control over finances in the class groups, a movement was underway to take that away. When that financial control was taken away by the white leadership, many of the African-American members withdrew to form a new congregation and denomination. That loss of membership marked a momentous change in the antebellum Methodist church in Charleston.
Eventually, after Hammett’s death, the primitive Methodists returned to the Methodist Episcopal Church, becoming regular conference appointments. Charleston Methodism continued to grow into a more influential body within the state and the conference.
This was my column in the November 2018 issue of the SC United Methodist Advocate