Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990

Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990

by Erskine Clarke

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The South Carolina low country has long been regarded--not only in popular imagination and paperback novels but also by respected scholars--as a region dominated by what earlier historians called "a cavalier spirit" and by what later historians have simply described as "a wholehearted devotion to amusement and the neglect of religion and intellectual pursuits." Such images of the low country have been powerful interpreters of the region because they have had some foundation in social and cultural realities. It is a thesis of this study, however, that there has been a strong Calvinist community in the Carolina low country since its establishment as a British colony and that this community (including in its membership both whites and after the 1740s significant numbers of African Americans) contradicts many of the images of the "received version" of the region. Rather than a devotion to amusement and a neglect of religion and intellectual interests, this community has been marked throughout most of its history by its disciplined religious life, its intellectual pursuits, and its work ethic.

The complex character of this Calvinist community guides Clarke to an exploration of the ways a particular religious tradition and a distinct social context have interacted over a 300-year period, including the unique story of the oldest and largest African American Calvinist community in America.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817387884
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 05/12/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Erskine Clarke is a Professor of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

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Our Southern Zion

A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690â"1990

By Erskine Clarke

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1996 the University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8788-4


The Tradition Established

A European Prologue

The story of the Reformed tradition in the South Carolina low country began not along its dark rivers or sandy shores but beside the Alpine Lake of Geneva. Here, long before the first permanent European settlers arrived in Carolina, a distinct religious tradition emerged in the midst of social and political transformations remaking Europe. This chapter introduces that religious tradition: its rise, its spread among the nations of Europe, its theological foundations and social characteristics. This "European Prologue" is intended to provide a brief historical overview of the rise of the European Reformed communities and some clarity about their nature and character—for it would be from among these communities that the Reformed tradition was transplanted to the low country of Carolina.

John Calvin

John Calvin's arrival in Geneva in the summer of 1536 as a young French refugee was a turning point for the Protestant Reformation. Already his Institutes of the Christian Religion, published only a few months earlier in the neighboring Swiss city of Basel, was becoming a sensational best seller, destined to be one of those rare books that helps to shape the course of history. Under Calvin's leadership a second phase of Protestant expansion—following the earlier Lutheran Reformation—was about to begin. This Reformed phase, riding waves of change that had long been building, would radiate from Geneva across Europe and in less than a hundred years across the North Atlantic.

Seismic disruptions had been shaking the old order of Western Europe for generations by the time Calvin arrived in Geneva. First in the city-states of Italy, then farther north, modern forms of commercial and industrial organizations had begun to emerge in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a new and dynamic capitalist economy took shape. Cycles of economic crises, depressions, and social unrest were hastening the collapse of medieval ways and helping to usher in the modern world. Traditional society—in which hierarchy was the fundamental ordering principle, patriarchy and personal loyalty were primary forms of human relationships, and passivity was the normal political stance of common people—was giving way, leaving behind both an exhilarating new sense of freedom and mobility and a profound anxiety and fearfulness. Both the freedom and the anxiety produced a restlessness, an unsettledness, that would long mark the Reformed communities and that would leave a deep and abiding mark on their character. This restlessness, unsettledness, can be seen in Calvin the refugee and exile and in antithetical impulses in his life and thought.

On the one hand, Calvin responded to the turbulence of his age, to the "terror of the abyss," by seeking assurance in the order of nature and by following the lead of the medieval Scholastic tradition of Thomas Aquinas. This Scholastic Calvin sought order, harmony, and balance as a way of overcoming the chaos he saw all around in the collapse of the old medieval world. He called upon reason and fixed principles as a way of putting up boundaries, of providing intelligibility and certainty, in the face of what appeared to be the limitless disorders and uncertainties of his time. Calvin the Scholastic, the philosopher and rationalist, was a conservative seeking a way to control himself and his world.

But there was another side to Calvin, a radical side, that recognized the powerlessness of human beings to control life, to construct boundaries, and to build perfect systems, that saw mystery in the universe, and that came face to face at some deep inner level with the ambiguities and paradoxes of the human condition. What filled this side of Calvin with anxiety was not the chaos of his time but the feeling of being trapped, of being constrained and boxed in by the rigid systems and enclosing boundaries of the old order. This was Calvin the humanist, more concerned with persuasion and its art—rhetoric—than with the neat systems and orderly arrangements of philosophy. Unlike the Scholastic Calvin who elevated reason above all other human faculties, the humanist Calvin dethroned reason and saw the human personality in more wholistic terms. For this Calvin the heart and the affections played as important a role as the mind and reason. This dethronement of reason, and with it a hierarchical understanding of the human personality, would help make manual labor for Calvin as noble a calling as scholarly endeavors and would raise troubling questions about all social hierarchies.

These two tendencies lived side by side in Calvin and reflected the paradoxes and tensions of his age. Sometimes, as the Scholastic, he sought to reconcile these antithetical impulses, to systematize them and bring them into some order by saying that he stood in the middle, as a mean between extremes. At other times, Calvin the humanist would acknowledge that the tensions could not be reconciled or systematized but could only be recognized and lived with in a practical balance between competing tendencies. The consequences of this dual or composite quality in Calvin's life and thought had enormous implications for the far-flung children of Geneva. "Calvinism," William J. Bouwsma has written in his important study of Calvin, "could be made to sanction change while at the same time appealing to the most conservative of human instincts. Because it balanced, however precariously, the antithetical impulses of its age, it could attract the proponents of liberty and of order, and men and women of many nations and diverse social groups."

These two tendencies would not be absent from the Reformed community in the Carolina low country. Indeed, competing elements within that Carolina context would nurture the tensions inherent within the Reformed tradition and encourage sometimes a Scholastic tendency and sometimes a humanist tendency. Broadly speaking, the Scholastic tendency with its fear of chaos, its hierarchical assumptions, and its quest for order, harmony, and balance would resonate most closely with a society dominated by race and the need for social control. The humanist impulse, on the other hand, with its fear of enclosing boundaries and constraining systems, would resonate more closely with those elements in low country society that were pushing toward the modern world: the region's early frontier character, its restlessness, its individualism, and its market- oriented economy. It was also, no doubt, this resistance to encircling boundaries and questioning of the authority of established systems that would offer some appeal to African Americans held in bondage. Whenever one tendency would dominate, however, the other was always there, looking over the shoulder, ready to step forward when the moment was right.

Despite the antithetical character of these competing tendencies and impulses, they have been held in tension in ways that give coherence to Reformed communities the world over. What provides the coherence and marks the communities as Reformed are certain theological affirmations and a discernible ethos that has existed in very different social contexts. Clarity about what is meant by "Reformed" and the "Reformed tradition" consequently calls for a plunge into theology and ethics, for it is in faith and practice that Reformed communities have found their own identity. Before that plunge is taken, however, a brief review of the spread of Reformed communities in Europe is necessary, for this familiar story of European developments provides an indispensable background to the Carolina story.

The Reformed Communities

Once Calvin was permanently established in Geneva, he helped to turn the city-state into a center of international Protestantism. Refugees, scholars, and reformers from all over Europe flocked to the city and to its great academy established by Calvin.

Those who fled to Geneva for sanctuary were from time to time able to return to their homelands as tumultuous events opened the way for the spread of the Reformed faith. Some went to the other cities and cantons of Switzerland where they joined the work already begun by earlier reformers—Huldreich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullenger in Zurich and John Oecolampadius in Basel—so that by the time of Calvin's death in 1564 the Reformed faith was firmly established among the Swiss as the church of their great cities: Zurich and Basel, Bern and Geneva. Other refugees returned to their homes in Holland, Germany, Bohemia, and Hungary where they led in the establishment of Reformed churches. It would be, however, the Reformed communities in France, Great Britain, and Ireland that would send their sons and daughters in significant numbers to the far-off Carolina low country. For this reason special attention needs to be focused on these communities, for their specific traditions and memories would long play a part in the self-understanding of a Reformed community in the Carolina low country.

French Huguenots

By 1562 there were perhaps 700 Reformed churches in France. Most of their members were from the rising new middle class—merchants and skilled artisans—but they also included peasants and increasing numbers of politically powerful nobles. Pastors who had received their theological training in Geneva settled among the people as a French Reformed Church began to take institutional shape along presbyterian lines.

The social composition of the French Reformed Church meant that the tensions and competing impulses of the Reformed faith would be clear in the French church. The still-feudal nobility encouraged the Scholastic, medieval side of Calvinism, as the church was integrated into an established system of feudal connections and patronage. Local lords, for example, exercised great influence over consistories with the minister often a member of the lord's feudal household. At the same time, the rising middle classes demanded legal control, by means of church courts, over feudal households and patronage. "It was entirely possible," Michael Walzer has written of the French church, "for the two different organizational systems—congregation, classis, and synod on the one hand, feudal hierarchy and local connection on the other—simply to coexist, although curious jurisdictional tangles might be the result." These tensions, as we shall see, would play their part in the response of French Protestants to the social context of the Carolina low country.

The number of French Protestants, or Huguenots as they later were called, grew in the face of the fiercest persecution. At first hundreds and then thousands were martyred for their Reformed faith. In August 1572, approximately 70,000 Huguenots were butchered in the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Intermittent wars between Catholics and Protestants followed until Henry IV issued in 1598 the Edict of Nantes, which granted freedom of worship to Protestants in those areas—except Paris—where they had maintained churches the previous year. The terms of the edict were, on the whole, kept until 1665. Under Louis XIV, harassment and persecution began once again in earnest. In 1685 the Edict of Nantes was revoked and there began a mass exodus of French Protestants, perhaps 200,000. Their exodus was a blow to France and its economy—although not the catastrophe once thought—for the Huguenots represented much of the nation's rising commercial and entrepreneurial classes. Many went to Switzerland and Germany; others went to Holland and England. Some dared to cross the Atlantic and to settle in the British North American colonies. Among these were some who settled in the young colony of Carolina.

Scottish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians

While there was earlier dissatisfaction and protest in Scotland against corruption in the church, Protestantism as a movement came to the ancient kingdom of the Scots in 1526 with William Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament. This revolutionary text, together with the "reek" of Protestant martyrs burning at the stake, helped to prepare the way for John Knox. Thundering from the pulpits of Scotland as the storm clouds of Reformation swept across the land, Knox led the nation in its decisive break with Catholicism. In 1560 the Scottish Parliament adopted the Scots Confession, largely written by Knox and clearly Reformed. The pope's authority was repudiated and the Book of Common Order and the First Book of Discipline were adopted for the Scottish kirk. While the Reformed faith was thus established in Scotland, the shape of the kirk was left an open question. Only after a long and bitter struggle, the presbyterian nature of the Church of Scotland was finally settled in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Across the Irish Sea from Scotland lay the counties of northern Ireland and the ancient region of Ulster. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, James I began the establishment of the Plantation of Ulster, encouraging Scottish settlers to come to this area that had been devastated by war. It was all a part of the English attempt to "domesticate the wild Irish" and to provide a place of settlement for increasingly restless lowland Scots. Those who came were Presbyterians, and in their new Irish home the Presbyterianism of these Scotch-Irish settlers became even more pronounced.

The subsequent history of Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians revealed how competing tendencies and paradoxical impulses within the Reformed tradition could live side by side: theologically, they tended to move toward a strong Protestant Scholasticism; socially, they frequently exhibited the restlessness and individualism of the modern world; and ecclesiastically, they became vigoroussupporters of the independence of the church and a Presbyterian court system. In the eighteenth century, economic and political difficulties set them moving again, with many finding their way to the South Carolina colony.

English Puritans

Reformed influences came early to the English Reformation, especially by way of the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer who spent the last years of his life at Cambridge. When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote the Prayer Book (1549, 1552), he reflected the significant influence of Reformed thought on the leaders of the English Reformation. The Thirty-Nine Articles, the doctrinal statement of the Church of England and of Anglican churches in other parts of the world, is sometimes listed as a Reformed confession primarily because it takes a Reformed position on predestination and the Lord's Supper.

Whatever the Reformed influence on the Anglican establishment, it was not enough for increasing numbers of the English. They began to be called Puritans because of their desire to "purify" both the church and the society and reshape them along what they regarded as biblical lines. During the reign of Charles I (1625–49), their numbers grew as people reacted against Charles's claims of royal absolutism and the despotic activities of the archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. As a result of the turmoil that followed, and especially the two disastrous Bishops Wars (1639 and 1640) against the Scottish Presbyterians, Charles found it necessary to call a parliament. It came to be called the "Long Parliament," for it stayed in session through years of tumultuous change. It was this Parliament that led the people through a civil war, destroyed royal absolutism in England, and called the meeting of the Westminster Assembly that would have—through its Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms—such a profound impact on the future of English-speaking Reformed communities.

While there were no clear class divisions between the two parties in the English Civil War, the Royalists represented the more conservative forces in the nation's life. Parliament, on the other hand, drew its support from those elements of British society that were closely aligned with the Reformed spirit, with commercial interests, and with democratic impulses. At its heart the war was between opposing political and religious passions represented by the popular images of the Cavalier and the Roundhead.


Excerpted from Our Southern Zion by Erskine Clarke. Copyright © 1996 the University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 The Tradition Established: A European Prologue
2 The Context: The Colony of South Carolina
3 The Tradition Transplanted: The Reformed Communities
4 The Tradition Articulated: A Carolina Accent
5 The Tradition Expanded: The Great Awakening
6 Competing Impulses: Tories, Whigs, and the Revolution
7 Institutional Developments: “Our Southern Zion”
8 A Church Both African American and Reformed
9 An Antebellum Social Profile in Black and White: “Our Kind of People”
10 An Intellectual Tradition: The Quest for a Middle Way
11 Slavery: “That Course Indicated by Stern Necessity”
12 Secession and Civil War: The End of Moderation
13 The Challenge of an Almost New Order: “Hold Your Ground, Sir!”
14 The African American Reformed Community: Between Two Worlds
15 The African American Reformed Community: “Two Warring Ideals in One Dark Body”
16 The White Reformed Community, 1876–1941: A “Little World” in Travail and Transition
17 From “Our Little World” to the Sun Belt
A. Three Centuries of Reformed Congregations in the Carolina Low Country (1685–1985) B. Martin III Joseph
B. Known Pastors in Colonial Presbyterian and Congregational Churches
C. Presbyterian and Congregational Ministers, 1783–1861
D. Pastors of Black Presbyterian and Congregational Churches and Principals of Black Institutions
E. Leading White Presbyterian and Congregational Ministers or Those with Five or More Years in the Low Country

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