The Destruction of the Church As Metaphor

The Destruction of the Church As Metaphor

Written by Forrest L. Marion |
Monday, February 13, 2023

Based on the historical record, there is little doubt that at the time of its destruction Washington Street Methodist had been – for three decades – a powerhouse of gospel-focused labor aimed at improving the prospects for eternity of the enslaved population of South Carolina, and beyond.

As Northern victory drew near in 1865, on the night of February 17/18 troops under General William T. Sherman set fire to the Washington Street Methodist Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Legend has it – highly plausible – that the soldiers intended to burn down the First Baptist Church. But when approached and queried by Union soldiers as to the Baptist church’s location, First Baptist’s quick-thinking sexton directed the soldiers around the corner to the Methodist church. Within minutes, that church was in flames. So goes the story.

Without a doubt, however, the First Baptist Church was where the first day’s meeting of the secession convention met, on December 17, 1860. But a smallpox epidemic had struck Columbia, so the delegates relocated to Charleston for the remainder of the convention, which voted unanimously on December 20 to withdraw from the Federal Union.

In America, the multitude of misunderstandings, ignorance, and errors of fact surrounding the political and social events from the 1860s are such that this little piece must refrain from addressing those important matters. Instead, it focuses on the burning of Washington Street Methodist and its relevance for today.

Washington Street Methodist is considered the mother church of all Methodists in Columbia. The first meeting house was a wooden structure built in 1804. In 1831, two men, Dr. William Capers – who pastored the church four times during his ministry (1818, 1831, 1835, 1846) – and William M. Kennedy, a former pastor and presiding elder of the Columbia district, laid the cornerstone of a new edifice, which was completed in 1832.

The first decades of the nineteenth century, known as the Second Awakening period, witnessed a mixed-bag of authentic gospel progress as well as more-or-less contrived professions of conversion and Christian faith which often were – and still are for historians – difficult to distinguish. William Capers, seemingly indefatigable and one of the few college-educated Methodist ministers in the area, was active as pastor, missionary, editor, and more. In 1821 he founded the Asbury Mission to the Creek Indians. Eight years later, he “took the lead in establishing plantation missions to slaves” among South Carolina Methodists. The same year, 1829, “Washington Street Church added 116 blacks to its roll.” (In 1830, Columbia’s population was 3,300.) Capers published a Catechism for the Use of the Methodist Missions (mainly for slaves), which, incidentally, is similar to the valuable children’s catechism used by some churches today (including in the PCA). Capers’s catechism began:

Who made you? God.
What did he make you for? For his glory.
Who is God? The Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
What do you know of him? God is holy, just and true.
What else do you know of him? God is merciful, good and gracious.

Later, Capers’s missionary work spread to neighboring states. In the 1840s, Southern Methodists considered the mission to the slaves as “the crowning glory of our church.” When in 1855 Capers died, he had pastored Washington Street Church four times, his influence felt there even when not serving as their pastor. A fellow Methodist pastor preached his funeral service from Acts 13:36, “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep.” A biographer of Capers wrote, “. . . a great many . . . of his beloved flock passed by the altar, where lay the body of the faithful shepherd. . . . It was particularly affecting to see the colored people pass before the coffin with a tear and a sigh.”

Based on the historical record, there is little doubt that at the time of its destruction Washington Street Methodist had been – for three decades – a powerhouse of gospel-focused labor aimed at improving the prospects for eternity of the enslaved population of South Carolina, and beyond.

Readers, try to set aside the all-too-common presentism of today. Dr. Capers and many others devoted themselves to providing the gospel of Jesus Christ to a segment of the population which otherwise was unlikely ever to hear the words of life in a manner suitable to their knowledge and understanding. Capers and a number of ministers in denominations in the South – especially Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal – committed themselves to doing what they could. As the Puritan Matthew Henry wrote, if we may not do what we would, we must do what we could. The Southern ministers had no power to change the institutions of society at-large, even if some believed that to be part of the church’s calling.

The matter of the intentional burning down of any Christian church in a land where the vast majority at least nominally professed the God of the Bible is, of course, a troubling concern, but beyond the scope here. The fact was that Sherman’s men burned to it the ground – probably by mistake – the very church in Columbia that had done more than may be known on this side of glory for the souls of a poor and lowly people in the South.

The burning of Washington Street Methodist, then, is a metaphor in America today for the terrible destruction wrought by those who – regardless of their intent – confidently think themselves pure, righteous above all others. We are surrounded by those who never build anything – they only destroy. While the 94th Psalm refers to a throne, a broader aperture is fair for the purpose here: “Can a throne of destruction be allied with Thee, One which devises mischief by decree?” (94:20). And from Isaiah (with allowance for context), “Who among us can live with continual burning?” (33:14). Christians – those who build, not burn – must think rightly about the controversies of our day, and that means according to sola scriptura.

Forrest L. Marion is a member of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Crossville, Tenn

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