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John Bachman Charleston Theologian and Naturalist

For decades before the turmoil and destruction of the Civil War, Charleston, South Carolina had a small but thriving scientific community. Since a concern of the early Carolinians was for growing crops to both feed themselves and for profitable export to Europe and other American colonies, there arose a strong interest in the science of botany. While experimenting with crops such as sugar cane, indigo, rice, and cotton, several of the planters became interested in not only the commercial value of their crops, but the scientific value as well and established correspondence with botanists in Europe, especially England, where many of these subtropical plants could not be grown. Europeans were anxious to see specimens of South Carolina flora and fauna.

Alexander Garden, for example, who immigrated to Charleston from Scotland in 1752, regularly sent specimens of plants and animals to many European scientists, including Carl Linnaeus, who named the flowering shrub, gardenia, after him.

Another person who made significant contributions to the knowledge of South Carolina botanical studies was John Bachman. Born in Rhinebeck, New York on February 4, 1790, Bachman studied theology in Philadelphia and was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1814. While in Philadelphia, along with studying theology, he spent a great deal of time in the garden of John Bartram, a botanist who lived from 1699 to 1777, and who established what was considered then, and even today, one of the premier gardens in America. In 1815, Reverend Bachman was sent to Charleston to fill a pastoral vacancy at St. John’s Lutheran Church. By the time Bachman arrived in Charleston, he was well versed in both theology and botany.

Bachman’s talents in both fields were soon recognized. The St. John’s congregation was delighted with his kind demeanor and insightful sermons and he remained pastor there for 56 years. Also, he was not in Charleston long before he befriended several of the scientific notables in the area. For example, a group of professors who taught at the College of Charleston invited him to join their “circle of naturalists”. The list of members reads like a who’s who of Charleston’s scientific history: John Edwards Holbrook – medicine, zoology, and herpetology; Edmund Ravenel – medicine, conchology and paleontology; Lewis Reeves Gibbs – chemistry and astronomy; Francis Simmons Holmes – agriculture and paleontology; and John McCrady – marine biology. With the addition of John Bachman, the group made Charleston one of the most productive centers for natural history in America, exceeded only by Boston and New York with much larger populations. Louis Agassiz, internationally known Harvard biologist, visited Charleston to confer with the scientists here and gave lectures at the College of Charleston.

Another prominent Charleston naturalist was Stephen Elliott –1771 to 1830 – who, in 1814, founded the Literary and Philosophical Society of South Carolina, later changed to the Elliott Society of Natural History. By 1819 the popular society had 138 members. Elliott compiled a great deal of information on the plants found in South Carolina and Georgia and published it as A Sketch of the Botany of South Carolina and Georgia. Published in 4 volumes between 1816 1nd 1824, it proved to be an important reference book prompting historians to give him the title “the father of Southern botany”. After Elliott passed away in 1830, John Bachman, who by that time was well known for his botanical work, was elected president of the Society and served in that capacity until the Civil War when, unfortunately, the members had to put aside science for political and military concerns.

Perhaps Bachman’s greatest contribution to natural history on a national and international scale, was his collaboration with John James Audubon. They met in 1831 when Audubon was visiting the area to collect samples for his books on birds. They quickly became friends, and over the next several years Audubon frequently stayed at Bachman’s home on Rutledge Avenue. Audubon set up a studio in the home and painted many of his famous bird pictures there. They did quite a bit of traveling together, including a trip to Europe where both men were recognized for their scientific work.

In 1816 Bachman had married Harriet Martin and in the next 20 years they had 14 children, 9 of whom survived to adulthood. An indication of the close friendship between the Bachman’s and the Audubon’s, was that in the late 1830s two of John and Harriet Bachman’s daughters, Maria Rebecca and Mary Eliza Bachman married John and Lucy Audubon’s two sons, John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford Audubon.

From 1831 until Audubon’s death in 1851, the two naturalists worked together on a number of projects writing about and painting the birds and animals not only in the south, but throughout America. One of their most ambitious projects was cataloging nearly every north American mammal, a large publication in which Bachman wrote most of the text and Audubon and his sons John and Victor drew the pictures. Published in three volumes from 1845 to 1848, The Viviparus Quadrupeds of North America, is today considered a monumental work.To show his appreciation for Bachman’s help on his projects, Audubon named a number of species after him, such as the Bachman’s warbler, now feared to be extinct, Bachman’s sparrow, Bachman’s oyster catcher, a species of butterfly –libythaea bachmani, Bachman’s hare, and the eastern fox squirrel – Sciurus niger bachmani.

In 1846 John Bachman’s wife Harriet died of consumption or tuberculosis, and two years later, in 1848, he married her sister Maria. As early as the 1830s, having met Maria through his friendship with the Bachman’s, Audubon noticed that she had a natural talent for drawing. He bought her paints and brushes and encouraged her to do some work on his publications. With Audubon’s help her talent blossomed, and for several years she did quite a bit of the background work such as trees, flowers, and insects that accompanied Audubon’s drawings of birds. She also painted for John Edwards Holbrook in his North American Herpetology published in 5 volumes between 1836 and 1842. Today she is recognized as one of the best natural history illustrators of the nineteenth century who “coupled scientific accuracy with an artist’s sense of color and natural beauty”. In recognition for her good work, Audubon named Maria’s woodpecker, Picus martinae, in her honor.

John Bachman stayed busy not only with natural history, but church work and education as well. Along with writing and preaching some 2,000 sermons at St. John’s Church in his 56 years there, in 1824 he helped found the Lutheran Synod of South Carolina and in 1831 he founded the Lutheran Theological seminary, both located in Columbia. in 1856 he founded Newberry College which today is a thriving Lutheran college in Newberry, South Carolina.

The state of New York did not abolish slavery until 1827, and Bachman’s parents, Jacob and Eva, had owned slaves when he was growing up there. Although there is no record of John himself ever owning slaves in South Carolina, he did not seem adamantly opposed to the institution. It is quite probable that many of his parishioners and acquaintances owned plantations and used slave labor. In his writings, however, John expressed the opinion that God had created all people to be one humanity, an attitude that prompted him to welcome African Americans to attend St. Johns Church, although the black and white congregations were kept segregated. And even though it was generally considered politically unpopular in Charleston, Bachman taught several young African Americans to read and write and gave them a good grounding in Christian theology.

Of the many African Americans Bachman tutored, three rose to prominence in church work. Daniel Alexander Payne became the sixth bishop of the African American Episcopal Church in America. Boston Jenkins Drayton was ordained by the South Carolina Lutheran Synod and went as a missionary to Liberia where he not only did church work but also became chief justice of the Liberian Supreme Court. Jehu Jones was ordained by the New York Lutheran Synod and established St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. He also established churches in Gettysburg and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Bachman’s work with St. John’s Church, his study of natural science with fellow Carolinians and John Audubon, as well as his work in education of both blacks and whites endeared him to the people of Charleston and South Carolina. His work was also recognized nationally, and in 1845 he was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The longer he stayed in the south, however, the more ingrained he became in the culture and politics of the region. At that time, the economic base of the area was primarily plantation agriculture and the extensive use of slave labor as well as the buying and selling of slaves that went along with it. John seemed to remain open-minded concerning slavery. If he opposed it, he kept his views to himself. But the practice was beginning to cause a great deal of social turmoil throughout America, in both in the northern and southern states.

As early as the 1820s political problems began to arise which prompted southerners, especially South Carolinians, to look closely at their loyalties concerning their state government in relation to the United States government. A serious source of contention was a tariff passed by Congress in 1828, which raised the cost of goods imported into the US. The tarrif led South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who was vice president under Andrew Jackson at the time, to write a treatise in which he expressed the opinion that states had the right to ignore or nullify laws passed by the US government that were detrimental to the economic well-being of a state.

His view was that the 1828 tariff imposed by Congress, which he called the ‘Tariff of Abominations’, would hurt the southern agrarian economy and that southern states should not be forced to abide by it. Many southerners, dependent on inexpensive manufactured goods from Europe, agreed with him while most people in the industrialized northern states did not.

During the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s when the idea of South Carolina secession was first brought up by Calhoun’s followers, Bachman initially remained a staunch unionist. In the next 20 years, however, he seemed to align himself more with the idea of state’s rights and other southern concerns. Some historians have pointed out that as the tide of states’ rights and secession rose, Bachman found it increasingly difficult to go against the attitude of his parishioners and fellow Carolinians, many of whom were slave owners who resented northern interference in their lives.

An example of Bachman’s growing southern point of view was that in the early 1850s, when northern abolitionists were calling for the end of slavery, he made a trip to Washington DC to talk to president Millard Fillmore to persuade him to keep slavery a viable institution in the south and to allow states to ignore federal laws that were detrimental to the southern culture and economy. Although Fillmore was a fellow New Yorker, his views on the tariff of 1828, slavery, and the idea of state’s rights did not agree with Bachman’s.

Tensions created by the issues of slavery and states’ rights came to a boil when on December 20, 1860 a convention was held in Charleston in which the delegates drew up an Ordinance of Secession separating South Carolina from the United States. Bachman not only attended but gave the opening prayer for the convention in which he expressed the desire that the political, economic, and cultural issues between the north and south could be resolved without resorting to war.

But war came, and in July 1861 Union warships began a blockade of Charleston harbor, and by the end of November Union troops had taken all of the sea islands south of Charleston from Hilton Head to Edisto.  As the threat of invasion grew, many Charleston churches and businesses closed when people left the area. Bachman closed St. John’s Church and its bell was melted down to make guns for the Confederate army. John and his wife Maria fled to Columbia where he ministered to sick and dying soldiers. While there, Maria died and John, on a visit to Cheraw, South Carolina, encountered Union soldiers who robbed him and beat him so severely that he lost the use of his left arm.

In 1864 Bachman published Characteristics of the Genera and Species, As Applicable to the Doctrine of Unity in the Human Race, in whichhe argued that all humans, black and white, slave and master, were the same human species. This was a radical point of view for that era in that many southerners wrongly, or at least conveniently, interpreted the clause in the 1787 United States Constitution, Article One Section Two, stating that the number of representatives for a state was based on the number of free citizens and three fifths of the slaves, to imply that enslaved Africans were only three fifths human. The 14th amendment ratified in July 1868 superseded the clause.

It has been argued that perhaps the book, published during the Civil War, was Bachman’s attempt to reconcile to himself the fact that he had condoned slavery and supported the Confederacy even though the tenets of his Lutheran theology claimed that all of humanity had been created in the image of God. It is possible that the publication may have had more impact on southern society had it come out several years earlier.

In spite of the injury to his arm, as the war was coming to an end, Bachman returned to Charleston and reopened St. John’s Church, making it one of the first churches in the city to open following the war. The Charleston that Bachman returned to was not the same city in 1865 that it had been in 1860, especially concerning the scientific community that Bachman had been such a big part of. For almost five years, war concerns had replaced scientific concerns. Several of the prominent members of the Charleston scientific community, as historian Lester D. Stephens wrote: “put regional patriotism above science and supported the Confederate cause.”

Although, after the Confederate surrender in February 1865, some of the former members of the various scientific groups attempted to reestablish them, the primary concerns of most Charlestonians after the war were to survive in a ruined economy and rebuild their devastated city. Then, during the years of Reconstruction, the former Confederate sympathizers had to cope with a number of social as well as economic adjustments which left them very little time for scientific work. It could be argued that Charleston still has not fully recovered the enthusiasm for science that it enjoyed before the Civil War.   Bachman returned to his pastoral duties at St. John’s Church, serving there until shortly before his death in 1874. An indication of his stature in the community was that on the day he died church bells were rung throughout the city and the College of Charleston closed its classes for the day. His parishioners interred his remains in the floor of his church. John Bachman is noted for excelling in a number of fields from theology, education, natural history, medicine, botany, zoology, and even race relations. Although today, some of his views on race relations may seem a bit contradictory, he was a man of his time who was caught up in the cultural predilections of his neighbors, his state, and his nation.

One comment

  1. Stunning photographs and thoughtful writings that awake a sense of place and universe.

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