Mrs. Maria Davies Wightman lived in several states, but she became one of the most prominent women in South Carolina Methodism as the founding president of the Woman’s Missionary Society of the South Carolina Conference. Given how the organizations have evolved, she stands first in the line of women to have led the conference’s women’s organization.
Born in 1833 in the home of her great-grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran of the Siege of Yorktown, Maria Davies moved as a small child first to Montgomery, Alabama, then to Macon, Mississippi. She graduated first in her class in 1849 from Centenary Institute in Summerfield, Alabama.
During the Civil War, her family moved to Greensboro, Alabama, where Southern University was located. A South Carolina clergyman named William Wightman was serving as the university’s chancellor, having left Wofford College in 1859 to help start the new university. (This college eventually became Birmingham-Southern.) In 1862, Maria Davies met Wightman, who was a widower with 5 children. Despite a 25-year age difference, they married in November 1863.
In 1866, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South elected William Wightman a bishop, and the Wightmans moved to Charleston, Bishop Wightman’s home, to establish his episcopal residence. Bishop Wightman traveled throughout the country to preside over Annual Conferences, and Mrs. Wightman found herself busy supporting the bishop and raising their two children.
And here began Mrs. Wightman’s involvement with missionary society work. Women in Methodism had wanted to organize some type of women’s work in the church for years but had been discouraged by the church hierarchy. In 1878, the Woman’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was approved by General Conference and a constitution prepared by the College of Bishops. On May 23, 1878, the society was organized, and plans soon made to establish societies in each Annual Conference.
The bishops appointed the initial officers of the church-wide society, and the eight bishops’ wives became vice presidents. Mrs. Wightman helped organize the society and she suggested that each Annual Conference should also have a society. When the South Carolina Conference met in November 1878 in Newberry, the conference missionary secretary invited any interested women to meet to form a society. Mrs. Wightman was asked to preside. The nominating committee recommended her for the presidency of the conference Woman’s Missionary Society, and she was elected. Some sources have suggested that she was the first woman to preside over a public meeting in the history of South Carolina.
Mrs. Wightman remained as president of the conference Woman’s Missionary Society after Bishop Wightman died in 1882, and for thirty more years, until her own death in 1912. Many of the articles in her papers testify to the strength and resolve she brought to her position, for she was intent on supporting women who wanted to serve the church. When the conference society held its first annual meeting at Trinity Church, Charleston in April 1880, she addressed the assembled members as to why they were not holding their state meeting during Annual Conference. “At this time, we have, all to ourselves, two days for consultation, for reports, suggestions, for united, specific, continuous prayer, and an opportunity to see our duty and our privilege, that our lives may take a deeper meaning and purpose.” Had they met during Conference, they would have felt like a side show.
She concluded her address, “We need faithful, willing hearts and hands for service… I say to each of you, my sisters, your hand is wanted. The Lord has need of you.” And so, Mrs. Maria Wightman spent the next thirty years organizing the missions work of South Carolina’s Methodist women.