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Charleston Holy City

Charleston Holy City Unitarian Heritage

For many years Charleston, South Carolina has been known as the ‘Holy City’. No one knows exactly who first uttered the phrase but it caught on, and now we see it everywhere from tourist websites to roofing companies. And walking through the historic streets of Charleston dotted with church spires and synagogues, one can see why the moniker stuck.

One reason there are so many Charleston houses of worship is that the freedom to worship in any way one sees fit was literally written into Charles Towne’s original constitution, a lengthy document called the Fundamental Constitution. Composed in 1669 by philosopher John Locke for his patron Anthony Ashley Cooper, the most enthusiastic of the eight Lords Proprietors in charge of establishing the colony of Carolina, the constitution allowed a much greater degree of religious freedom than was found in most of Europe at the time. Given that in the 1670s the nations of France, Germany, England, Spain and others were still embroiled in conflicts concerning the Protestant Reformation, it is no surprise that the idea of religious freedom in Carolina was very appealing. For example, hundreds of people seeking religious freedom responded enthusiastically to paragraph 87 of Locke’s Constitution which states that “Therefore any seven or more persons agreeing in any religion shall constitute a church…”  as long as the seven agree “That there is a God” and “That God is publicly to be worshipped”.

In spite of the provisions in the Fundamental constitution allowing religious freedom, many of the English and Barbadian settlers in Charles Towne advocated making the Church of England the official government church. Yet, houses of worship representing a variety of denominations sprang up throughout the city. One of the first of these, established in 1681 soon after the colony moved from the west side of the Ashley River to the peninsular where it is today, was a church founded by a diverse group of French Huguenots, Scots Presbyterians, and English Dissenters who set up a church independent of the English Anglican Church. The group called themselves the Independent Congregational Church. Their original church building was called the ‘Meeting House’ and the street where it sat came to be called Meeting Street, which has become one of Charleston’s busiest streets.

The Independent Congregational Church rose above the politics of the day grew into a church fully separate from the Church of England. Later it was called the Circular Congregational Church named for the shape of the round church structure built in 1804. The circular structure burned in 1861, and although the new church has only a circular wing, the name was retained. Today the Circular Congregational Church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

What became the Unitarian Church in Charleston began in 1774 as an outgrowth of the Independent Congregational Church. For several years, it was considered an offshoot of the main church and was called the Second Independent Church. The new church was not at first considered Unitarian, although many in the congregation were accepting more Unitarian doctrines in their beliefs. By 1815, however, the congregation had become a fully separate church and hired Rev. Anthony Forster, to be their minister. Forster had been ordained in the Presbyterian church and did not at first consider himself a Unitarian. By 1819, however, when he left the church because of ill health, he professed that he had become more Unitarian than Presbyterian.

Upon Forster’s retirement in 1819, the congregation sought a Unitarian minister and was informed about a young New England theologian named Samuel Somes Gilman, a Harvard trained Unitarian. Gilman was born in 1791 in Gloucester, Massachusetts in an area of the country where Unitarianism was popular. He had graduated from Harvard in 1811 and went on to earn a master’s degree there in theology in 1814. Since earning his degrees, he had been living in Massachusetts teaching mathematics in Cambridge as well as leading services in some New England churches, although he was not employed by any particular church. He also published poems and essays on a variety of subjects and had achieved some recognition as a teacher and writer, as well as a popular theologian.

The small Charleston church group, which now considered itself a fully Unitarian congregation, invited Gilman to visit the church to discuss becoming its pastor. He first came to Charleston early in 1819, staying for a few weeks while getting to know the people and the city. Once he and the church members agreed on the terms of his pastoral employment, he returned to New England long enough to marry his fiancé, Caroline Howard. They moved to Charleston in September 1819.

Although at first Samuel and Caroline maintained contact with their New England friends and family and visited there often, the longer they stayed in Charleston the more they became involved with the culture and politics of the area. By the 1820s, plantation agriculture based on rice, indigo, and cotton grown by African American slave labor had made Charleston one of the wealthiest cities in America. It is interesting that although most northerners considered American democracy to be the best political system in the world, many southerners in the “planter class” looked to aristocratic England as a social system to be emulated.

The institution of slavery and the right of each state in America to condone it or oppose it became political as well as economic issues important to all Americans. In time, the Gilman’s, despite their New England background, began to agree with the majority of Charlestonians that the southern states needed slaves in order to maintain a strong agrarian economy. They continued to hope, however, that the two regions could peacefully co-exist even though abolitionist sentiment was rising in the north.

A sign of the growing economic conflict between northern and southern states was the passage of a tariff by the US Congress in 1828 which led to what came to be known as the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s. John C. Calhoun, a southern planter who at the time was US vice president under Andrew Jackson, protested the tariff, calling it the “Tariff of Abominations”. Intended as a move to raise the cost of goods imported into America in an effort to protect American manufacturing, the tariff hurt the southern agrarian states which lacked heavy industries and had to import many goods from Europe. Calhoun and many other southerners promoted the idea that the 1828 tariff and other laws passed by Congress that were not favorable to the well-being of a state could be nullified by that state government. Calhoun and Jackson opposed each other on the issue to the point that Calhoun resigned from the vice presidency.

The tariff created enough ill feeling that many southern followers of Calhoun, especially planters and slaveowners, began advocating secession of the southern states and forming their own government. Samuel Gilman, still a strong unionist in the 1830s, wrote An Ode to Union calling for reconciliation and compromise. Yet by 1850 when John Calhoun died, Gilman had changed his mind and wrote a funeral ode for Calhoun. No doubt influenced by his Charleston parishioners and acquaintances, he had come to the conclusion that secession of some southern states from the United States was both necessary and probably inevitable.

States’ rights, southern secession, and slavery were issues that caused the Gilman’s a great deal of concern. Although Samuel and Caroline owned house slaves and in private Samuel defended the institution, he did not openly advocate slavery in his sermons. As one historian put it, Gilman “saw his first duty as advancing rational religious understanding, not remaking southern society.” As a Unitarian he preached religious tolerance, but as a converted Southerner, he seemed to avoid the issue of racial tolerance.

Under Samuel’s leadership, the popularity of the Charleston Unitarian Church grew. He freed the church of debt and increased its membership, while keeping a low profile concerning his views on slavery. Caroline, however, was more open in her support of slavery and pictured it favorably in some of her writing, a situation which began to cause concern among some of her northern readers.

Like Samuel, Caroline had been born and raised in New England, primarily around Boston. Her father, Samuel Howard, was a shipwright who had participated in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 by dressing as an Indian and helping throw boxes of English tea off ships in Boston harbor. By the time she was 10 years old both of Caroline’s parents had died and she went to live with her older married sister Anne Marie White. She started writing early and had her first poem, Jephthah’s Rash Vow (from the biblical book of Judges 11, 30-40) published in 1810 when she was 16. Encouraged by her relatives, and a growing fondness for literature, Caroline embarked on writing as a career.

Caroline was 25 in 1819 when she married Samuel and they moved to Charleston. In spite of having a number of children over the next few years, she was able to continue writing, and in 1832 began publishing Rose Bud, a journal for young women that grew into a popular family-oriented magazine called Southern Rose. In it she serialized some of her novels that in a few years would make her one of the most famous female writers in the southern states. The publication also included works of some of the best-known writers of the day such as Nathaniel Hawthorne of New England and William Gilmore Simms, a popular southern writer from Charleston, and Harriet Martineau, a fellow Unitarian and England’s first woman journalist.

Her first novel, published in 1835 and written under the pen name, Mrs. Clarissa Packard, was called Recollections of a Housekeeper and mainly depicted domestic life in New England. In 1838 she wrote its southern counterpart called Recollections of a Southern Matron in which her stated purpose was to “explain one section of the nation to the other, to point out the essential unity between them on the domestic level” and to “offset the growing political stresses between North and South”.

By the late 1830s, Caroline had become steeped in the plantation-era Southern sentimentality of chivalrous gentlemen catering to well-mannered, hoop-skirted belles who were kind to their slaves, especially the ‘mammies’ who tended to their children. Although Caroline and Samuel lived in Charleston and did not own a plantation, the first paragraph of Recollections of a Southern Matron shows that Caroline’s perceptive eye caught the essence of the genteel Southern family on the picturesque plantation which had been, and which they felt would always be, their home, a home that united past, present, and future generations.

“I write in my paternal mansion. The Ashley [a river that runs by Charleston], with a graceful sweep, glitters like a lake before me, reflecting the sky and the bending foliage. Occasionally a flat [a type of large raft] with its sluggish motion, or a boat with its urging sail, passes along, and the woods echo to the sound of the horn of the negro, waking up life in the solitude. The avenue of noble oaks, under which I sported in childhood, still spread their strong arms, and rustle in the passing breeze. My children are frolicking on the lawn where my first footsteps were watched by tender parents, and one of those parents rests beneath yonder circling cedars. Change! Sameness! What a perpetual chime those words ring on the ear of memory! My children love to lead me to the spot where they may spell the inscription on one princely monument to my grandfather, and hear the tale I have to tell of the fair, the good, and the brave who sleep in that enclosure, sacred to the domestic dead. There is but one inscription there, for we were as one.”

The reader can picture the columned mansion high on the bank of a southern river, with slave cabins and cotton fields or rice ponds off in the distance. It was the kind of home and a way of life that thousands of southerners fought and died for.

After serving almost 40 years as minister of the Charleston Unitarian Church, Samuel Gilman, who had maintained that he might return to New England when he retired, died at the age of 67 of a heart attack in February 1858 while visiting his daughter and son-in-law Annie Marie and Rev. Charles Bowen in Kingston, Massachusetts. His body was returned to Charleston and buried in the Unitarian Church cemetery. He is noted for having brought his church from an off-shoot of the Congregation Church to a firmly established and respected independent Unitarian Church.

Over the years Samuel had maintained a close relationship with his alma mater, Harvard, and in 1836, wrote the song “Fair Harvard” for Harvard’s 200th anniversary celebration. The song is still popular today. In 1837 Harvard conferred on Gilman the Doctor of Divinity degree for his excellent scholastic and ecclesiastical work in Charleston. From that point he was known as Samuel Gilman D. D.

By this time, Caroline had become active in the Charleston social and literary life. So, after Samuel’s death, she decided to stay in Charleston rather than return to New England. Although she had hoped her novels and poetry would serve as a bridge to ease the political and economic tensions between north and south by writing about the ‘family harmony’ that was common to both areas, the fact that she owned slaves alienated many northern readers. Even though the issue became very controversial, she remained convinced that slaves provided a stable and more efficient workforce than white servants. At the outbreak of the Civil War, she went so far as to define slavery as “the strength and almost the very life blood of this southern region of the Confederacy.”

When war came to Charleston in 1861, Caroline moved to Greenville, South Carolina, some 200 miles north, where she did volunteer work for the Confederate government. She returned to Charleston after the city surrendered to Union forces in February 1865 to find what one journalist described as “a city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of widowed women, of rotten wharves, of deserted warehouses, of weed-wild gardens, miles of grass-grown streets, of acres of pitiful and voiceful barrenness”. Perhaps this grim picture was a bit of an exaggeration, nevertheless, Charleston suffered greatly during the war years and the people returning faced a massive rebuilding project.

Caroline’s home on Orange Street, a few blocks from the Unitarian Church on Archdale Street, had been damaged by Union artillery and most of her possessions were destroyed or stolen. Yet she persevered and continued publishing poetry and books. Among her published works at this time was a poem she wrote in 1873 commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the “overthrow of the tea at Griffith’s Wharf in Boston in December 1773” in honor of her father who was “one of the actors”. Also, she and one of her daughters, Caroline Howard Jervey, worked together on the publication of a book called Stories and Poems by Mother and Daughter.

Caroline had not maintained as close a relationship with her friends and family in New England as Samuel had. Although she had a chance to return to Boston after the war, she remained in Charleston until 1882, when at the age of 88 she moved to Washington DC to live with a daughter who had moved there. She died in Washington DC in 1888 near the age of 94. She was returned to Charleston and buried beside Samuel in the Unitarian Church cemetery.

Caroline Howard Gilman’s literary career spanned over 70 years covering magazine production, essays, poetry, and novels. Her subject matter from the beauty of nature to advice on family harmony appealed to a wide audience and made her one of the most admired woman writers in the South. Although she had remained a prolific and respected writer for many years, some people feel that perhaps her appeal may have been more wide spread in other parts of the country had she not become emersed in southern culture to the extent that she did.

To many northerners, the fact that Caroline condoned slavery and owned house servants contradicted the idea that northern and southern homes shared a similar domestic harmony. But her owning slaves went deeper than just having permanent and dependable servants. Her writing and lifestyle reflected her belief in the ‘natural hierarchy of society’ where the wife was subservient to her husband and African American slaves were subservient to white masters. She saw the hierarchy as God’s plan for humanity.

Caroline expressed this attitude of inferiority to her husband in a poem she called He for God Only, She for God in Him, in which she describes how she is devoted to sharing with her husband all the joys and sorrows of life and to being with him even into death. The last stanza in the poem sums up her point that the husband is nearer God and that she asked that she be given only a ‘low seat’ in heaven:

                “And when the spirit soars above,

                Wrap in the foldings of God’s love,

                Is it too much to ask of Heaven,

                That some low seat may there be given,

                Where I can bow near thee?” When Samuel died in 1858, Caroline was 64 years old. There is no doubt she loved and was devoted to Samuel, but is spite of the sentimentality expressed in her writing, her strong will and active mind motivated her to continue being a scholar of literature and a creative writer for nearly another thirty years after his death.

One comment

  1. Really enjoyed this article in Unitarianism in Charleston and the Gilmans’ prominent role in the early history of that church in the colony. Solid research and writing. Well done, Ted.

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