It was hardly the best of times, and perhaps the very worst of times for the Unitarian Church in Charleston. Samuel Gilman, aging “for much of the time amid feeble health”, dies suddenly in 1858 on a visit with his daughter in Massachusetts causing an “outpouring of communal sorrow comparable only to that on the burial of Calhoun.” His successor, 30 year old James McFarland, fails to survive a ruptured blood vessel in his lungs in 1858, before he can be installed. George Ingersoll and William Miller have brief months of interim leadership before the Civil War shuts down the plant as the organ, communion plate, records, library and other church furnishings are sent to Columbia, SC for safekeeping, where they are lost in the sacking of that city. Parishioners follow many of Charleston’s other residents in dispersing to less obvious target locations in time of war. There is no minister and no services are held until 1865.
When she was Archives Chairman of the Women’s Alliance, Mary Maxine Larisey developed An Outline History of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Similar to our current chronology, it made brief mention of key events and their dates, listed along with the dates of all ministers known in 1961. In the 1865-1866 entry she writes:
Calvin Stebbins, newly graduated from Harvard Divinity School (was minister). Probably no one from the North could have succeeded in post (Civil) war Charleston. Mr. Stebbins was recalled by (the) AUA (American Unitarian Association) after very dramatic local incidents in which (the) Church for a time was under martial law.
This captures one’s attention!
H. A. Whitman, our minister from 1889 to 1901 fleshes out the tale, somewhat mildly, in the following paragraph on these events, 35 years after they occurred in his A Historical Sketch of the Charleston Unitarian Church, of 1900:
In the month of March, 1865, there had been an informal meeting of some members of the congregation, at which, after discussion, it was decided to apply to the American Unitarian Association for a missionary, whom the Association through its Secretary had offered to send free of cost to the church. The result of this application was the sending of the Rev. Calvin Stebbins, who, during the transition period from military to civil authority, held the church property under and by military rule. An unfortunate misunderstanding arose between him and the officers of the church regarding his occupancy of the pulpit, which engendered a feeling of bitterness on both sides. Possibly Mr. Stebbins was not as wise as he might have been, and, no doubt, said and did things which were offensive to people. And, on the other hand, as the church records seem to show, the officers and members of the church acted rather hastily; and yet, in view of their situation, they were to some extent excusable. They had staked their all on the issue of the war and lost, and felt keenly the sting of defeat. It is extremely doubtful whether, in the then existing circumstances, any Northern minister would have been acceptable to the church. However, the matter between the church and Mr. Stebbins was finally adjusted and composed by the latter retiring from the pulpit and restoring the church property to Dr. James Moultrie, senior warden of the church, who in turn delivered it over to the congregation….Mr. Stebbins left…in January, 1866.
Whitman begs as many questions as he answers!
Someone closer to the action, in that he served as minister from 1875 to 1889, was the usually straightforward E.C.L. Browne who authored the 1882 Historical Sketch of the Unitarian Church. This, however, adds but a few more details:
At the outbreaking of the civil war the organ, communion plate, records, library, including that purchased from Mr. Forster’s widow, and the Church furnishings, were removed to Columbia for safety, and were all burned with that city (in the fall of Columbia to Sherman's troops). Fortunately, the (church) edifice sustained little injury: and as the families of the congregation (displaced by the war) returned to the city, steps were at once taken to resume religious services. Thaddeus Street, Esq., as representing the officers of the Church at the time the congregation scattered, applied by letter to the American Unitarian Association, in Boston, for a Minister, and Rev. Calvin Stebbins, then newly graduated from Harvard Divinity School, was sent in response. This was in April, 1865. But the disturbed condition of local affairs, the bitterness of feeling natural to those returning to their desolated homes, rendered his ministry unprofitable and unsatisfactory alike to himself and them. With whatever generous conciliation and charity he might come – and it is now confessed that no Northern man at that time could, in human probability, have been more acceptable, or have acted in general more wisely – it was soon agreed on both sides that a little time must be allowed for sectional animosities to subside and adjust themselves, and Mr. Stebbins withdrew.
These guys don’t seem to know anything about Maxine Larisey’s “Martial Law”. Fortunately we can call on another woman to carry the ball: Caroline Gilman, Samuel Gilman’s widow, in a letter to “Dear Eliza” (the Gilman’s second daughter was named Eliza, b.1825) found in our church archives writes the following:
December 17, 1865
My dear Eliza ---
This is the Sabbath, and ought to be “holy unto the Lord,” but what a sense of agitation is going on in our little Zion! A Provost Marshal, by order of Brevet Major Devens, is stationed in front of our Church to prevent a Methodist Minister, Mr. Meynardie from occupying the pulpit!
A simple statement of the whole case is this: when the Unitarian Refugees returned to Chas. in Nov(ember), they found Mr. Stebbins preaching as a missionary from the U. Association.
About twelve of our people & as many outsiders, constituted his congregation. Of these, in the first class, was Dr. Mackay, his wife, son & daughters. Dr. M. who was notorious for not having paid his pew-rents for a qr.(quarter) of a century, had left his own pew, and taken possession of the those of the Rose family, in the Broad Aisle, in this at present, “free Church.” The only lady who seemed to be a regular attendant, besides the family, was Mrs. Eliz. (Hurlbut) Ker. I was the only individual in the South range, & sat in Frank’s pew.
This state of things seemed to call for immediate action. A meeting of the pew holders was called through the press, all the proper forms having been attended to. At this meeting, which was full, Wardens were elected, and a committee appointed to investigate the condition of the Church. A vote of thanks was passed to the U. Association and Mr. Stebbins for their care of the building. They then adjourned for the second Sabbath following, to meet at 1/2 past 12 after morning service.
Accordingly, the(y) met; it was one peculiarity of this meeting that scarcely a member, except Dr. Mackay, had attended morning service.
After the report of the committee, it was mentioned by two of the members present that the Rev. Mr. Meynardie, of the Methodist pursuasion (sic), would be glad to have his congregation occupy our church, while theirs was being repaired, on which a resolution was offered that he be requested to occupy the pulpit, during that time, and the congregation made welcome. This resolution was adopted….
So we thought the affair settled, when lo, it was understood that an order was sent the Wardens, interposing to prevent the occupation of the pulpit by anyone except Mr. Stebbins.
There was no opportunity to counterset the advertisements of our Wardens. The Wardens waited on Gen. Devens, state that ours was an Independent Church, always accustomed to choose their own Pastors, that everything had been done in form, etc. etc. But the Gen. was inflexible, and the order that a Provost Marshal guard should appear at the Church, & secure the pulpit to Mr. Stebbins remains in force….It is, however, a rainy Northeaster (today), and few people will be out….
The following aside is entered next in the archives page, which is a typed transcript of the original letter. It says: “Mrs. Gilman was wont to do much of her correspondence on Sunday mornings prior to departure for church services, as undoubtedly was the circumstance indicated above, i.e. ‘few people will be out.’ Further resort to the ensuing encounter has not survived. The episode was far from over, however, as the following letter (a month later) reveals.” (Caroline had an older sister whose married name was Ann Marie White).
Charleston, Jan. 14, 1866
No service today, dear Annie. I met Mr. Stebbins in the Cemetery yesterday, and he told me he had “handed the church over to Dr. Moultrie.” I said, “How is that? Dr. M. has no more control over the Church than any other pew-holder.” He replied that “Dr. M. was the oldest member and he preferred giving it up to him.” I said, “We are still under military control, then.” He answered, “By no means, the Church has never been under military control.” I said, “What was the meaning of Gen. Deven’s order?” He replied, “The Military order secured the Church to me, and I having the right have passed it over to Dr. M.”
Mr. S. seems entirely to ignore Church Government in our case. He paid me thirty dollars, subscribed for the Cemetery by himself & friends. I told him I would appropriate it to the graves of N. E. (New England) dead. And so ends the tragedy….
Dave Elder, for the Docents