by Mike Stroud
In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Southeast Conference, the following essay describes the presence of Congregationalism in antebellum times in South Carolina and Georgia.
To take a strictly chronological account of how far back the roots of the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ actually go, one has to go all the way to the late 17th century. It was in the swampy, flat, black-soiled “Low Country” of the colonies that became South Carolina and Georgia where Puritans fleeing the brutal winters and overpopulation of Massachusetts and its contiguous neighbors brought Congregational churches to a hot climate. For some 200 years, parsons and high-minded laity carried on a style of life at first identical to that in the frigid northeastern quadrant of America. These followers of the doctrines of John Calvin and radical British Reformers were staunchly industrious, they believed education was a moral duty for the masses rather than a luxury for the privileged few, and they demonstrated deep concern for the impact of religion upon the civic health of a community.
Erskine Clarke of Columbia Theological Seminary remarks in his Our Southern Zion that both church and society shaped each other in complex ways:
… On the one hand, the ‘Scholastic’ tendency of the Reformed (or Calvinist) community—with its fear of chaos, its hierarchical assumptions, and its quest for order, harmony, and balance—would provide powerful ideological support to that side of low country society that … sought the integration and preservation of the community through time by justifying the present system of authority. On the other hand, what has been broadly identified as ‘the humanist impulse’ within the Reformed tradition—with its fear of enclosing boundaries—would resonate with the region’s restlessness and its steady move toward the modern world. 
And in worship, iconoclasm and a literalistic fear of violating of the Second Commandment (Philonic division) as enunciated in Exodus 20:4-6 drove the Puritans toward austerity, augmented no doubt by the circumstances of limited material development during settlement days. But it suited the Calvinist aversion to idolatry perfectly, as Clarke elaborates:
… The eye looks out to its object, but hearing receives into the human heart God’s word. Hearing, not seeing, was consequently the foundation of Reformed spirituality—for God speaks, and faith, it was said, consists of listening to the word of God … there was a conviction that when God is presented in an identifiable form, an image, the purpose is to control God, to domesticate and reduce God to the tool of those in power. Fixed religious images lead to consolidations of power and to social docility … 
There was also, joyfully to the hearts of those in the present-day UCC, an ecumenical sensibility to the Puritan churches in the Low Country. According to Richard Taylor in his pioneering book on the subject of Congregationalism in the South, Southern Congregational Churches, the Charleston church, which we today know as Circular Congregational, had in its membership not only Yankee Puritans, but also other Calvinist groups such as French Huguenots, the Reformed of Germany and Switzerland, and the beginnings of Scots Presbyterianism in South Carolina.  Eventually those groups would leave to form separate churches, but it gave the Charleston church the reputation as an incubator for Christian diversity, something it is still known for in its fourth century of existence.  It was a voice for free expression in the midst of an Anglican establishment that had an unsavory association with royalist suppression of liberty.
The two other Low Country Congregational churches that had the greatest cultural impact were Dorchester in South Carolina and Midway in Georgia.  The latter was in fact a child of the former, and claimed to have nurtured early leaders of Georgia and other states and other political figures, as well as early military, medical, legal, and clerical leaders of the South. Whatever one makes of those assertions today as to the intellectual and moral caliber of the membership of the Midway Church, its survival up the eve of the Civil War put it in far better stead than its numerous plantation-based sister churches. For, as it turned out, most of those were absorbed by aggressive Presbyterian proselytizing due in part to the increasing population advantage it had from Scots—Highland, English-border, or Ulster (erroneously, but popularly, termed “Scotch-Irish”)—immigration into the Carolina and Georgia upcountry. The other side of things, of course, was the increasing identification of Congregationalism in the public mind with opposition to slavery, especially from the 1830s onward. To be known as an “abolitionist” in most of the South in the years running up to the Civil War was the equivalent of high treason. Thus, Southerners developed poisoned attitudes toward a “meddling, Yankee” faith that they came to blame for inspiring slave revolts and attacks upon the planter economy of cotton, rice, indigo, tobacco, and other crops.
Also, Taylor points out the plain, hard facts of geography in determining the character of future settlements:
… Most population movement inland from the coast tended to be due west. When one realizes that New England is east of New York (and not north of it), one realizes that New Englanders had a lot farther to go before they reached the center of the continent. When Yankee settlement was filling in central and western New York, southern coastal settlers were more than half the way to the Mississippi River. The few Congregationalists that did arrive continued, for the most part, the cooperation with the Presbyterians already begun … 
Furthermore, there was significant theological interpenetration between the two bodies on matters relating to historic Reformed, or Calvinist, teaching on human salvation, the public duties of Christians, and abstinence from vices such as alcohol and amusements. This tended to diminish significantly any differences between the two communions. As Presbyterians possessed decided organizational advantages over Congregationalists in the field of evangelism and church planting in frontier communities, most people of Reformed sympathy, usually better-educated (and better-off) settlers, instinctively lent their efforts toward founding Presbyterian congregations, due to their more sturdy ecclesiastical infrastructure, as one might describe it these days. Pastors could more easily maintain contact with their colleagues in presbyteries and synods rather than distant correspondence with the still-fragile Congregational associations in New England. In other words, it was not as if Presbyterians were “stealing” Congregational “sheep” on purpose, despite the grumblings of later generations when polity and theology had become more sharply defined between the two groups. In any case, both became handicapped in the days of the Second Great Awakening by an obstinate insistence on a trained, educated clergy, something that the two eventually dominant Christian groups in the South, Methodists and Baptists, mostly did away with for reasons having to do with their focus upon the “common person” and their belief that elaborate doctrine sullied simple Christian teaching, where the emotional experience of salvation was the overriding concern. (But in a great irony, two different schismatic groups among Methodists would join with Congregationalists decades later.)
With cultural secession having preceded political secession by some years, the death knell of the original Southern Congregationalism was really a foregone conclusion, even before April 1861 when the new Army of the Confederacy seized control of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, a short distance from Independent Church. The Midway whites and whites in the other mixed-polity congregations fled almost entirely to pure Presbyterian ones, where reactionary interpretations of Scottish Calvinist theology were gaining favor against the supposed compromises of modernity represented by Northern “heretics” educated at the likes of Andover and Yale. To be sure, the more sanguine views of God’s benevolence advocated by figures like Nathaniel William Taylor and Charles Grandison Finney were, in retrospect, probably out of place in a time of belligerence where Protestant Christians were fighting yet other Protestant Christians. But the coming of the Civil War and its aftermath would of its own accord harden prejudices against ideas and people believed to be culturally subversive, traits that are still discernible today in much of the present territory of the Southeast Conference. As raw, anger-saturated emotion supplanted calm, rational discourse, a sane, humane, sober theology suffered perhaps the greatest loss of any American cultural institution by the War.
- Erskine Clarke, Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990 (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1996), 37.
- Ibid, 66.
- Richard H. Taylor, Southern Congregational Churches (Benton Harbor, MI: self-published, 1994), 12.
- For more detailed histories of Circular Church, see these works: Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2008); George N. Edwards, A History of the Independent or Congregational Church of Charleston South Carolina, Commonly Known as Circular Church (Boston: Pilgrim, 1947); David Ramsay, The History of the Independent or Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina, From Its Origin Till the Year 1814; With An Appendix Containing the Speech of the Rev. William Tennent, A. M. in the Commons House of Assembly, Charleston, S.C. January 11, 1777, on the Petition of the Dissenters From the Church Then Established in That State; Praying for a Constitutional Recognition of the Equal Rights of All Religious Denominations (Philadelphia: J. Maxwell, 1815).
- For a more detailed history of Midway Church, see James Stacy, History and Published Records of the Midway Congregational Church, Liberty County, Georgia (1903: repr. Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Company, 1979).
- Taylor, 22.