‘A woman’s idea’ planted seed for First Presbyterian, Greenville, SC

Bailey’s Crossroads…was a far way to go to hear Calvinist doctrine.

In 1893 (they) began a college for young women. Their motivation for beginning Chicora College for Young Ladies may have been the establishment of Presbyterian College for men in 1890. While they were negotiating for land on River Street, Chicora classes began on McBee Avenue. After 1896, the school was controlled by Presbyteries of South Carolina and Georgia… After Chicora was established, it supported Second Presbyterian to minister to the students.

 

Sarah Gantt was raised an Episcopalian; her mother was a charter member of Christ Church. But after she married Charles Rivers Stone and bore his son, she wanted to rear her child in his father’s Presbyterian faith.

In Greenville in the 1840s, that seemed impossible. The Baptist, Methodist, and even Episcopal congregations were well established, but according to the South Carolina Presbytery, there were “no Presbyterians in the village.” Instead, she joined the newly (1841) organized Mount Tabor Presbyterian Church at Bailey’s Crossroads, about two miles south of Greer in Spartanburg District. That was, however, a far way to go to hear Calvinist doctrine.

So in 1847, she raised nearly $50 from among ladies of her acquaintance and invited the well-known Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer of Columbia to spend the summer in Greenville and preach to them. That experiment was so successful that in October she asked the Presbytery for “a supply of preaching.”

The church leaders, meeting in Newberry, dismissed her request as “only a woman’s idea,” but since she hadn’t asked for money, they grudgingly agreed. They arranged for the Rev. S.S. Gaillard, then at Mount Tabor, to occasionally preach at Greenville Courthouse.

Beginning in February 1848, he did so. The first officially scheduled Presbyterian services were held in the Lyceum Building of the Greenville Academies. Soon a congregation of 16 formed, seven of whom had been members of Mount Tabor. About a year later, its elders — John Adams, who had been lured from the oldest church in the county, Fairview Church, to be presiding elder; L.C. Cline; and Whiteford Smith — asked Vardry McBee for land on which to build a church. They had a distinct advantage: Mrs. Jane McBee was a member of their small group.

McBee had given land for the Academies and for Greenville’s first three churches, but the village was growing and land values had risen. That may be the reason he initially asked the trustees of the Academies to return an acre of the land he had granted them in 1820 for church use. They responded (firmly but very politely) that he had given it for educational purposes, and they could not do so.

Instead, he gave them an acre at the northwest corner of Washington and Richardson streets, where in 1851 they dedicated a small, columned brick-and-stone building topped with a (short) tower and a “sweet-sounding bell.”

Galliard became minister of this Presbyterian Church of Greenville Courthouse. In 1860, the congregation changed its cumbersome name to Washington Street Presbyterian Church.

The pews, whose rentals supplied the minister’s $200 annual salary and money for missions, were unpainted pine. A sofa and two chairs upholstered in black horsehide stood behind the altar rail. A bucket with fresh water and a gourd dipper were at the front door. A balcony was provided for slaves, but only two, one of whom was the sexton, were members of the congregation.

Parishioners and clergy brought food and feed for their horses for a lunchtime break between morning and afternoon sermons. In his 1923 history of the church, Arthur Gower says that each Sunday, the minister would place his bagged lunch on the sofa, and while he was conducting the service, the well-fed church mice would nibble on its contents to the great amusement of naughty boys in the congregation.

Church discipline was “kindly but firmly” administered. Members who strayed — generally “loss of virtue” in women, public drunkenness in men — were reprimanded or dismissed. Methodists were teetotalers, but Presbyterians only condemned making a public spectacle of oneself.

The church gained new members, including some of the town’s leaders. Among them were James McPherson, whose son would lead the parks commission for more than 30 years; Thomas Gower, presiding elder for 46 years and known as “a steam-roller in britches; and Vardry McBee, who finally made his profession of faith when he was 86.

At the time of the Civil War, E.T. Buist came from Laurens, where he had been president of the Laurensville Female College, to replace Gaillard. The church then had 79 communicants, 52 pupils were enrolled in its Sunday School, and it sponsored the coeducational Gaillard School in the West End. Allen Temple AME Church is now located on the site.

Buist, who had a loud and resonant voice, became well known during the war. Because Greenville had no telegraph, its one link to the outside world was the afternoon train from Columbia. It carried out-of-town newspapers and lists of men wounded, missing or killed in battle. Buist met the train each day and read out the news to the crowds who gathered at the Augusta Street depot.

He was succeeded in 1877 by the Rev. Robert Nall, who found a congregation in remarkably good shape, but with 143 communicants and 152 Sunday School children, the church was beginning to bulge at the seams (ladies’ hoop skirts didn’t help).

On July 9, 1882, the congregation held its final service there. For the next 17 months, the congregation worshipped at the Opera House above Gilreath’s Store. In the meantime, contractor Joshua Nichols demolished the old church and, at a cost of $24,500, erected a larger, more fashionable, and quite eclectic edifice in what some might call “Queen Anne” style.

In the following decade, they constructed a manse next door to the church (it would later become a Sunday School building), paid off the church mortgage, and in 1893 began a college for young women. Their motivation for beginning Chicora College for Young Ladies may have been the establishment of Presbyterian College for men in 1890. While they were negotiating for land on River Street, Chicora classes began on McBee Avenue. After 1896, the school was controlled by Presbyteries of South Carolina and Georgia.

In 1878, the church had helped its black members build Mattoon Church on Hampton Avenue. After Chicora was established, it supported Second Presbyterian to minister to the students. Its “Working Society” sponsored Third Presbyterian on Buncombe Road. As a result, in 1898, the congregation once more changed its name. Washington Street Presbyterian became First Presbyterian Church.

And First it has remained. The mother now of 14 churches and the sponsor of the first Boy Scout Troop in the state, the congregation affirmed its faith in downtown in 1961 and has since expanded to fill nearly two city blocks. Although it faces theological challenges today, First Presbyterian has served stalwart and independent members, many of them Scots and Scots-Irish, for more than 160 years.

Dr. Judith Bainbridge was born in New Jersey in 1936. She received her B.A. from Mary Washington College and her M.A. and Ph.D from the University of Iowa. She taught in Furman University’s English Department from 1976 until her retirement as a Professor in 2007. Dr. Bainbridge is an active figure in the preservation of Greenville’s history. She has written several books, been a frequent contributor to the Greenville News, and is one of the founding members of the Historic Greenville Foundation.

@Copyright 2012 Judith Bainbridge – used with permission