Baptists and the American Civil War: June 14, 1865

South Carolina, Georgia, Florida Coast Map

South Carolina, Georgia, Florida Coast Map

Prior to the war, the landscape of the South Carolina coast was that of large plantations owned by some of the wealthiest men in America. The vast fields of cotton owned by these planters was worked by hundreds of thousands of black slaves who generated riches for their owners. The population was overwhelmingly black, with all the benefits accruing to the relatively few plantation owners.

During the war the tables were turned as Union forces captured the coastal areas, the 1% upper class fled, and the 99% ex-slaves (more or less numerically) were allowed to settle on the former plantations and grow their own food, while acquiring basic skills such as reading and writing — both of which, for slaves, were illegal prior to the war.

Churches along the coast, abandoned by their white members, were turned over to freedmen. Among these churches is the First Baptist Church of Edisto. Prior to the war the church for most of its history (since 1818) was a white congregation but, more recently was, in effect, a black congregation due to the overwhelming preponderance of slaves in the area. As required by law, white members supervised the slaves. When the Federals seized the Edisto Island, freedmen in essence claimed ownership of what had functionally, albeit with restrictions, been theirs for some time.

Now, with the war over, the church buildings serve for worship services as well as black community meetings. So large is the black Baptist congregation on the island that members remodel and double the size of the facilities by the end of the year.

The white owners of the meeting house never reclaim the building, a decision likely attributed to an elite white distaste of slaves, now freedmen.

The church continues to grow in the decades ahead. Existing to this day, the meeting house is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Sources: Charles Spencer, Edisto Island, 1861 to 2006: Ruin, Recovery and Rebirth, Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2008, pp. 77, 102, 125 (link); “Edisto Island Baptist Church” (link); Nancy C. Curtis, Black Heritage Sites of the South, New York: New Press, 1996, p. 248 (“Edisto Island”) (link)