The colony of South Carolina was founded in 1670. The colony’s fledgling church was part of the Diocese of London, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sent clergy to minister here. The colony thrived, largely owing to the cultivation of first indigo, and then rice. It would become the wealthiest colony in the New World during the 18th century.
We acknowledge that this wealth was made possible because of the exploitation of enslaved people. South Carolina was born in slavery, and the legacy of that institution permeates every aspect of our society, even into the present.
We are striving to follow the admonition of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when he noted that true reconciliation can occur only if there is a proper confrontation. We aim to confront our past and ourselves in order to move into a more egalitarian and hopeful future — and present.
The first Bishop of the Diocese was Robert Smith, who also served as rector of St Philip’s and president of the College of Charleston. It was Smith who insisted that the accession clause be included in our diocesan constitution, indicating that we in South Carolina would exist as part of the wider Episcopal Church throughout the former 13 colonies. Our second bishop, Theodore Dehon, was elected and consecrated in 1812. He (with William White, John Henry Hobart, and members of Trinity Church in New York and others) was instrumental in the founding of the General Theological Seminary in 1817. Even though we have not always acted like it, we in South Carolina have relished being part of a national church.
(Bishop Smith is the 6th Bishop of the American succession, and he was ordained to the episcopate by William White, Samuel Provoost, James Madison, and Thomas John Clagett.)
By the time of the Civil War, almost half of the state’s Episcopalians were black. On June 20, 1861, the Diocese withdrew from the Episcopal Church and formed part of the Episcopal Church in the Confederate States. When the war was over, South Carolina and the other southern dioceses returned to the Episcopal Church.
During the period of Reconstruction, a number of parishes struggled over the issue of race. When St Mark’s, Charleston, founded on Easter Day 1865, petitioned the Diocese for full membership in 1875, some parishes withdrew from the Diocese for a season. Around the same time, the Reverend Anthony Toomer Porter, with a few other priests, prepared two black men for ordination. Bishop William Bell White Howe was in favor of the men being ordained. The Standing Committee, however, refused to allow them; and with their decision, our diocese lost untold numbers of black members who joined a movement that would become the Reformed Episcopal Church. In 1965, the Diocese of South Carolina finally admitted black people as members into the convention of the Diocese.
In 1922, the Diocesan General Convention acted to divide the Diocese, which included the entire state. The Upper Diocese was created.
Just as we follow a wounded Savior, we in South Carolina also have as our legacy the witness of a martyred bishop. In June 1928, Bishop William Alexander Guerry was shot and killed by one of his own priests over the issue of race. Bishop Guerry had supported the idea of a black suffragan bishop. Further, he was unswerving in his support for a fledgling school for blacks in Denmark, South Carolina. Voorhees College continues today. The full story behind the Bishop’s death was buried so well that, until recently, we as a diocese had lost the collective memory of having had as our own chief priest and pastor a bishop who gave it all for the sake of inclusion and justice. On the third Sunday in June yearly, across the Diocese, we now observe Bishop Guerry Day, with propers and a collect written for the occasion.
It was Bishop Guerry who said “the Church must be broad enough to embrace within its communion every living human soul.” But we have sometimes struggled to embrace that vision.
In the year 2012, we in the Diocese were confronted with a similar choice about belonging to a church where all God’s children would be welcome.
Read a more detailed history of the Diocese of South Carolina on the diocesan website at this link.
The Rt. Rev. Robert Smith, the First Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina.
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