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The First Baptist Church,
Charleston, S. C.

By Rev. Basil Manly
Chapter 1
     THE Baptist church in Charleston, S. C., owes its origin to some of those mysterious, but wise dispensations of Providence, in which mercy and judgment are blended.

     In the year 1655, according to Ivimey's History of the English Baptists, under the head of Somersetshire, the Rev. Mr. Henry Jessey, Baptist Minister of London, was invited by his brethren in Bristol, to assist them in regulating their congregations. The principles of dissent and of believers' baptism, which had been first avowed there about fifteen years before, had now spread into many adjacent parts; - and the congregation at Wells, Cirencester, Somerton, Chard, Taunton, Honiton, Exeter, Dartmouth, Lyne, Weymouth, and Dorchester, were all visited during this journey by Mr. Jessey, undertaken at the request above named, and all shared in the benefits of this pastoral visitation. In the following year, 1656, these churches published "A confession of the faith of several churches in the county of Somerset, and in the counties near adjacent," subscribed by twenty-five persons, ministers and laymen in behalf of the whole. Among these names is that of William Screven, of Somerton. This is the individual, as is with great probability supposed, who afterwards became the honored founder of this church


     Driven by persecution, or impelled by those other motives which may lead good men to emigrate, he left his native land for America; but at what period he arrived, or where he first settled, does not appear. In 1681, however, we find him settled at Kittery, place on the Piscataqua river, county of York, and providence of Maine, - and employed in holding religious services in his own house. He himself had entered into particular membership with the first Baptist Church in Boston, Mass., on the 21st of June, 1681; and several of his neighbors, through the good and hand of his God upon him, being brought to the knowledge of the truth, joined the same church in that year.


     The opening prospect now invited these Christians at Kittery to more regular and systematic efforts for the promotion of their Master's cause. Wherefore, very early in the next year, they sent their most gifted brother to the mother church in Boston, with a letter of recommendation and request; which procured for him a license to preach. This instrument bears date January 11th, 1862, and is in the following words:

"To all whom it may concern: These are to certify, that our brother William Screven, is an member in communion with us: and having had trial of his gifts among us, and finding him to be a man whom God hath qualified and furnished with the gifts of His Holy Spirit and Grace, enabling him to open and apply the word of God, which through the blessing of the Lord Jesus may be useful in his hand for the begetting and building up of souls in the knowledge of God: we do, therefore, appoint, approve and encourage him to exercise his gift, in the place where he lives, or e1sewhere, as the Providence of God may cast him: and so the Lord help him to eye his glory in all things, and to walk humbly in the fear of his name.
     Signed by us in behalf of the rest,

     This step roused the same Spirit of persecution at Kittery, under which the Baptists about Boston had already suffered severely. By the procurement of Mr. Woodbridge, the minister and Hucke, the magistrate, the people who attended Mr. Screven's meetings were summoned to answer for their conduct, and threatened with a fine of five shillings, should they repeat their offence, Mr. Screven himself, continuing to preach Christ to all who came, was apprehended and taken before the General Court; on whose records is found the following entry:

"William Screven, appearing before this court, and being convicted of the contempt of his Majesty's authority, and refusing to submit himself to the sentence of the Court prohibiting his public preaching, and upon examination before the Court, declaring his resolution still to persist therein, the Court tendered him liberty to return home to his family, in case he would forbear such turbulent practices and amend for the future; but he refusing, the Court sentenced him to give bond for his good behavior, and to forbear such contentious behavior for the future, and the delinquent to stand committed until the judgment of this Court be fulfilled.

A true copy, transcribed, and with the records compared, this 17th of August, 1682.
     Per EDWARD RISHWORTH,      Recorder."

     To this is added a copy, of the same date, by the same hand, of an act of their executive Court, which says, "This Court, having, considered the offensive speeches of William Screven, viz., his rash and inconsiderate words tending to blasphemy, do adjudge the delinquent, for his offence, to pay ten pounds into the treasury of the county or province. And further, the Court doth forbid and discharge the said Screven, under any pretence, to keep any private exercise at his own house or elsewhere, upon the Lord's Days, either in Kittery or any other place within the limits of this province, and is for the future enjoined to observe the public worship of God in our public assemblies upon the Lord's Days, according to the laws here established in this province,upon such penalties as the law requires, upon such neglect of the premises." - See Backus's History, pp. 502-505.


     Mr.Backus adds, that "he was so far from yielding to such sentences, that on September 13, he with the rest sent a request to Boston that Elder Hull and others might visit and form them into a church, which was granted; so that a covenant was solemnly signed on September 25, 1682, by William Screven, Elder; Humphrey Churchwood, Deacon; Robert Williams, John Morgandy, Richard Cutt, Timothy Davis, Leonard Drowne, William Adams, Humphrey Azell, George Litten, and a number of sisters." - See Backus, p. 505.


     This little church, thus begun, was able to maintain its ground but a short time. They were persecuted in such a manner that they were obligated to obligated to flee to some more favored parts of the country. Whereupon, William Screven, and 'his Baptist Company' removed to Carolina; and settled on the Cooper river, not far from the present site of the city of Charleston, and called their settlement, Somerton. This, it is probable, took place in the same year of their constitution, and towards its close; the vigorous and summary methods of persecution adopted against them not allowing a longer respite.

     To the constitution, and subscription of a covenant above mentioned at Kittery, September 25, 1682, the Baptist church in Charleston traces its origin; -- and from all the means of information now accessible, it is most probably concluded that their settlement about Charleston was only a transfer of the seat of worship of the persecuted flock (or a majority of it) which had been gathered on the Piscataqua.

     We, who live in these times of universal toleration, are astonished that men, professing godliness, should have been guilty of such absurd, cruel, and unchristian proceedings. But we are not to suppose that therefore they were all bad men. This part of their conduct surely was an error. But their error was that of the times in which they lived, and "the severities they practiced [sic] were not so much the result of disposition, as of the principles they had adopted." Although they had fled from the old world to enjoy liberty of conscience in the new, it was not against spiritual tyranny, in itself, they objected, but against its bearings upon themselves. They still cherished a notion of the right of the civil magistrate to interfere in religious concerns, and labored as much to secure uniformity in the modes of worship in the new world as their oppressors had done in the old. Happy are we who live at a period when the principles of civil and religious liberty are better understood.


     About the time of William Screven's arrival in Carolina, (viz., 1682, or beginning of 1683,) there came over from the west of England a number of "substantial persons," as they are called by Hewit, (see his History of South Carolina and Georgia,) in company with Joseph Blake, the friend and trustee of Lord Berkeley, one of the Lords Proprietors. The Lady Blake, and her mother, Lady Axtell, were a part of this accession to the strength of the infant church; and Mr. Blake himself, if not a communicant, at least entertained the sentiments of the Baptists, and favored their cause. - Hewit, vol. I, p.140.

     "He, together with Paul Grimball, and five other persons, was a member of the committee for revising 'The Fundamental Constitutions,' prepared for the Lords Proprietors by the celebrated John Locke; and he succeeded Governor Archdale in the government of the Colony, in the close of the year 1696. He died, September 7, 1700, a wise, persevering, and distinguished magistrate. Lady Axtell, whose plantation was in Colleton county, was a benefactress of the church, and gave the glass chandelier which hangs in the old Baptist Church, now the place of worship for seamen.1 Mrs. Blake, besides contributing to aid her own denomination, gave largely to adorn the first St. Philips Church.

     "Not long after this period, Lord Cardross, a nobleman from the north of England, came over to Carolina, bringing with him a colony of North-Britons, who were chiefly Baptists, and settled at Port-Royal Island. But the neighboring Indians, and more particularly the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine, proving hostile, soon obliged them to remove their residence to a place more secure; and before 1686, we find them settled at the mouth of the Edisto River." (Hewit, vol. I, 89. See also appendix to Gov. Archdale's description of the Colony, page 4.) The Baptist part of this company attached themselves to Mr. Screven's Church, still worshipping at Somerton. And thus, by the special interposition of Divine Providence, had Mr. Screven the satisfaction of finding himself, suddenly surrounded in the land of his banishment, by a large number of pious, intelligent christians, of kindred sentiments and feelings, and by a still greater number of influential adherents and friends.


     In the course of a few years, the neck of land between Ashley and Cooper Rivers, which had begun to be settled about ten years before Mr. Screven's arrival, had attracted a considerable part of the Colonists to it, on account of its facilities for commerce; and while a part of the Church at Somerton, pushed their settlements out into St. John's Parish, on the western branch of Cooper River, (so speaks Humphreys in his Historical Account of the Society for propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts, page 88,) and remained there, "very pious and devout," even as late as 1707, and perhaps later, the far greater portion of the members had removed to the neck, before the year 1693; which made it expedient for them to transfer thither also the ordinary seat of their public worship. Whether they left a house of worship at Somerton, we cannot now ascertain; indeed it is impossible even to identify the spot. But "after their removal to Charlestown,2 they held their worship at the house of one William Chapman, in King street, until they built" a place of worship for themselves. Thus they continued until 1699; when by the gift of William Elliott, one of the members, the Church was put in possession of a lot; in Church street, (No. 62, in the model of the town, recorded in the Surveyor General's office,) which is the same on which our house of worship now stands.3 They began to build soon after, and must have completed the building in that and the following year; since there is on record a deed for a lot "bounded north on the Baptist Meeting House," which bears date, January 20, 1701.

     The population of the place was now reckoned at five to six thousand. There was one Clergyman of the Chuch of England,4 and one of the Establishment of Scotland.5


     No sooner were the Baptists settled in their new place of worship, than they began to seek after their spiritual establishment on the foundation of the doctrines of grace. Simultaneously with the erection of the building, they sent to England for copies of "A confession of the faith of more than a hundred congregations of Christians, baptized upon profession of their faith, in London and the country, in 1689; called the Century Confession." This they carefully examined, and adopted verbatim, in the year 1700, as the confession of this church; and so it has remained to this day.


     But while they were thus careful to secure among them soundness in the faith, they were no less "careful to maintain good works." Animated with the spirit, and guided by the example of Mr. Screven, who at the age of more than "three score years and ten," was still the laborious missionary, they procured ministers, and some among themselves, who had the gift of exhortation, aided in the work, to go into the surrounding settlements, and preach the everlasting Gospel. So early and abundant were they in this species of labor, that with all the commendable zeal of the society in England, for propagating the gospel in foreign parts, it is acknowledged by their historians that in most places which their missionaries visited in this neighborhood, they themselves preceded by the Baptists. See Humphries, pp. 88, 95, 108, &c.


     The vigor and health which had sustained him amid the labors and trials of a well-spent life, now began sensible to decline. And as the situation of the Church was such as not only enabled them decently to support a minister, but required more active service than he supposed himself capable of bestowing, he made arrangements for retiring from the pastoral office. With the affection of a father for his beloved flock, he wrote a treatise containing his latest counsels, entitled "An Ornament for Church Members, &c.," which he left with them in manuscript; and which the Church published after his death. It is much to be regretted that not a copy of this, so far as I can learn, seems now to be extant. Morgan Edwards, observing that the style of the whole was good, has preserved a part of the closing paragraph, as follows: "And now for a close of all, my dear brethren and sisters, (whom God hath made me, poor unworthy me, an instrument of gathering and settling in the faith and order of the Gospel,) my request is that you, as speedily as possible, supply yourselves with an able and faithful minister. Be sure you take care that the person be orthodox in the faith, and of blameless life, and does own the confession put forth by our brethren in London, in 1689, &c.

     Had they attended to this counsel, observes Morgan Edwards, "the distractions, and almost destruction of the Church, which happened twenty-six years after, would have been prevented." This written counsel, Mr. Screven supposed might be his last public service of the church he had gathered; - and accordingly he retired in 1706.

     But the old age and retirement of this venerable saint was not to be spent in indolence and ease. He looked for that "rest" only "that is to come." Instead of remaining in Charlestown, where he might have enjoyed a competency, and the society of his numerous family and friends, he removed his residence to the head of Winyaw Bay, purchased and settled the lands on which Georgetown is now built, and commenced proclaiming to the destitute around him as his, as his health allowed, the message of salvation. Meanwhile, the church had obtained a minister from England, whose name, it would appear, was White; but of whom we know but little, except that he seems to have been high in Mr. Screven's esteem. But it pleased Divine Providence, in his inscrutable wisdom, that Mr. White should be early removed by death. In consequence of the destitution occasioned by this unexpected event, the church were now again dependent for a season on the labors of their former venerated pastor; and Mr. Screven seems to have met the occasion with a spirit becoming "the man of God." With him, the choice did not lie between labor and repose, but between the different fields of action which might invite his toil. The circumstances in which he was now placed seemed to be embarrassing. Not only had he to choose between leaving his family and his incipient settlement at Georgetown, and suffering the Charlestown church to remain without the ordinances; but an urgent call from another and a very imposing quarter, now reached him. The First Baptist Church in Boston, of which Mr. Screven had been a member, had suffered several years destitution, since the death of their pastor Elder John Emblen; at length, unable to procure a pastor in this country, they wrote to England for help. To this letter, an answer, signed by nine ministers, and dated "London, March 17, 1706," was returned, expressing regret that they "cannot think of a minister, who is at liberty, proper for" them. The Boston church then lifted an imploring cry to Mr. Screven, to come to their relief; and he was at first "inclined" to go. But while weighing the subject, the unexpected death of Mr. White in Charlestown, seems to have decided him, and accordingly he wrote to Boston, "Our minister, that came from England, is dead, and I can by no means be spared. I must say, 'tis a great loss, and to me a great disappointment; but the will of the Lord is done, and in His will I must be satisfied. I pray the Lord to sanctify all his dispensations, especially such awful ones as this is to us, and to me especially. I do not see how I can be helpful to you, otherwise than in my prayers to God for you, or in writing to you. The Lord help us to pity one another in our affliction; as the Gospel counselleth, if one member be afflicted all mourn.'"

     It is not thought that Mr. Screven removed his family again to Charleston, but that he ministered to the church occasionally, as he was able, until his death. A flourishing church of about ninety communicants was now before him, waiting to been enlightened by the last rays of his setting sun - a scene this which enkindled afresh the energies of his soul. But though, like the sun, he had come forth from his chambers, rejoicing as a strong man to run his race, it pleased God that the remainder of his race should be short. On the 10th day of October, A. D. 1713, at Georgetown, having completed his eighty-fourth year, he was called to rest from his labors. He came down "to his grave in, a good old age, like as a shock of corn, fully ripe, cometh in, in his season." Thus died William Screven, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ; pure in morals, sound in doctrine, abundant in labors - tender, and affectionate to all, but especially to the church of Christ - honored and revered by all who knew him - and, whether in persecution or success, "showing, out of a good conversation, his works, with the meekness of wisdom."


[From American Baptist Memorial, Basil Manly, editor, July, 1856, pp. 193-198. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

Chapter 2 of FBC, Charleston History
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