After Slavery: Educator Resources

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2. Whites Reclaim an Edisto Church from Freedpeople

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Six: Pursuing Citizenship: Justice & Equality in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

While a minority of slaves had been converted to Christianity before or just after the American Revolution, slaveholders made no systematic attempt to bring the Bible into slave quarters until after 1800. Even then they did so, in part, to fasten the chains of slavery more securely. On the whole, however, slaves rejected the doctrine of submission and unconditional obedience that their owners tried to convey in favor of a theology of liberation and deliverance. Even while slavery lasted, whites and blacks pursued distinct and, at times, antagonistic versions of the Christian message.

After emancipation there emerged a powerful impulse among former slaves to move out from under the supervision and control of whites, and this was plainly evident in freedpeople's attempts to establish their own churches. On the sea islands below Charleston, a unique situation developed: after whites deserted the islands freedpeople laid claim to the white churches that some of them had worshipped in previously, often sharing them across denominational lines and partaking in shared services on Sundays. The document below details the means by which whites, abetted by federal military authorities,reclaimed the Edisto Presbyterian Church in 1866.

Whites Reclaim an Edisto Church from Freedpeople

After the fall of Port Royal [on] Nov. 13th, 1861, the [white] inhabitants of the Sea Islands were ordered to the mainland. This island and those south of us were deserted.
My next sight of the church was one night in Aug. 1862, where, as one of a scouting party, I passed her, a lonely sentinel, still keeping her silent vigil, over the quiet sleepers of generations passed . . .

The church at that time [1863] was robbed of all her furniture. The pipe organ was taken down and [later] carried away by the enemy. . .

The close of the Civil War found us penniless. Our homes in possession of the US Government. Our church in possession of our former slaves.

After much trouble and anxiety we were repossessed of our lands and returned in May 1866 to our homes, with our rights in them disputed by the negroes, who had possession of them as they were led to believe by the U. S. authorities. . .

Having secured possession from Washington, D. C., and seeing the absolute necessity of getting immediate possession of the church building and property, which was being used by the negroes, our Senior Elder wrote to our venerable old Pastor, Re. Wm. S. Lee, who was still in Edgefield, S.C., where he had refugeed, to come down at once to open services, which he did.

Well do I remember the scene on one Sabbath morning in the last of May or first of June, where a little band of ten of us, with two or three children, assembled across the road opposite the old church, that was packed with negroes, we holding a conference, as to what was best to be done.

The decision was to send for the Commandant out of the U.S. military, located on the Island and let the government execute her own orders. 

When the Commandant came, we formed in line of twos, and marched in on the north side-door. The Commandant and our venerable old Pastor, who had led this flock for half a century, taking the lead, followed by Elder I. J. Mikell and his wife [and others]. As we entered the door we found the building packed. The old Pulpit, with its winding stair-way on either side, and which we represented 'The Holy of Holies' of the Temple, contained four-what shall I call them? Embassadors of Heaven. No!! Well what? I think the scene is well described in Jude where the Devil was contending for the body of Moses.

The whole congregation was singing most lustily. Mr. Lee waited, thinking there would be a cessation after the singing, when he would tell them of our mission, but before it stopped, another opened the Bible and commenced reading. Mr. Lee then held up the restoration papers and said, "In the name of God and by the authority of the U. S. Government, we are here to claim our church," and addressed them, asking those who were former members to retain their accustomed places. Their preacher Rev. Hedges (colored) answered, that for reasons best known to themselves, they had better stay to themselves. Then told the congregation that as the U.S. government had as ordered they would have to leave, which they did in a body. We then had our quiet service, Mr. Lee preaching from the text, "I determined not to know any thing among you save Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 2-2) Our fears and cares now were by no means at our end to protest this old citadel from the wily attack of the evil one-headed . . . traitors.

One of our next biggest fears, which was also the fear with other churches on the coast, was that the negroes would be persuaded to come forward in a body and join our church, then elect their own officers and get possession that way. The Session could not refuse to receive them if their examination was satisfactory. The Corporation could not refuse them membership, according to the requirements of Article 8th of our Constitution, as the Fifteenth amendment of the Constitution of the U.S. blotted out the words, "white and black," from all legal papers and made it unconstitutional to refuse membership on account of color. Then what were we to do? Well; we commenced amending too, and rewrote our constitution, requiring a two-thirds majority to become a member of the Corporation, we would lock its church door and say to the would be congregation, "Find some other place to worship." Our fears were not realized.

Source: Edisto Island Presbyterian Church Corporation Records: March 6, 1867, Townsend Mikell Papers, Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina at Columbia


Questions to Consider

  1. On what grounds might freedpeople "dispute" the right of former owners to reoccupy the church and reassert ownership of the lands on the sea islands?

  2. Rev. Lee beseeches those former members attending the freedpeople's service to "retain their accustomed places" in the church. What does he mean by this? How are they likely to respond?

  3. Why does Rev. Hedges submit to the order to leave the church? Is it likely that the whites would have been as successful in reclaiming the church if they had not been accompanied by federal troops? Is it the fear of federal troops that compels Hedges to submit?

  4. What measures do the whites adopt to ensure that blacks cannot reassert their leading position in the church?

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