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 narrowly on the burning of Washington Street Methodist and its relevance for today.
Washington Street Church 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 during his ministry in 1818, 1831, 1835, and 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 a 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. 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 to be “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.” Many of Capers’s flock – white and black together – passed solemnly by the altar to view the body of their faithful shepherd.
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 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.
Still worse were the details of the Methodist church’s burning. On February 12, one young diarist, Edwin J. Scott, noted, “I went to the Methodist Church and sat for the first and last time in the pew I had selected the day before, hearing an excellent sermon from [the] Rev. Mr. [William G.] Conner, our stationed preacher for that year.” Four days later, as Sherman’s army began shelling the State House, the governor and most of the soldiers still in the city departed. On the following morning, the mayor formally surrendered the city. On the afternoon of the 17th, Sherman’s troops burned the homes of selected prominent citizens, and at about 7 o’clock that evening fired “three signal rockets” in the center of town, causing fires which the winds caused to burn furiously.
Between 11 and 12 o’clock that night, Malcolm Shelton, who lived across the street from the Methodist church, recalled he saw “four or five men in the uniforms of United States soldiers go into the southeast corner” of the church. They “broke open the door” and “entered the building,” emerging several minutes later. When Shelton crossed the street, he “saw smoke rising from the door of the church” and quickly realized “the building had been fired under the stairs leading to the gallery of the church.”
Archie V. Huff, Jr., a former Washington Street Methodist associate pastor, and Furman University history professor and academic dean, seemed providentially destined to write on the burning of this church in Columbia – he was born on February 17th. Huff continued in his history of the church he once served, Tried By Fire:
Edwin Scott, a member of the congregation, later wrote that the church “was set on fire three times before its destruction was completed.” Twice William G. Conner, the pastor, extinguished the blaze as soldiers fired the building. Conner reported that they were chanting: “Burn the heathen temple.” The church and the Sunday School building were completely destroyed, the records were burned, and the communion silver lost. When the parsonage was set on fire, Conner “brought out a sick child wrapped in a blanket.” A soldier seized the blanket, and Conner “begged that it might be spared because of the child’s sickness.” The soldier “tore it off and threw it into the flames, saying, ‘D[am]n you, if you say a word I’ll throw the child after it.’”
If such fiendish behavior seems unlikely or exaggerated to some readers, please spend some time in the excellent writings of South Carolina archivist-author Karen Stokes, who has dealt extensively with the burning of Columbia.
Even if not explicitly ordered, the commanding general’s view of the church burning may be surmised from an exchange on the following Lord’s day morning, February 19, when Edwin Scott led an informal committee including Conner and two other preachers that gained an audience with Sherman:
. . . they called on General Sherman. At first he chided them: “Gentlemen, what can I do for you? You ought to be at church.” But [Nicholas] Talley replied: “Ah, General, our church is burnt.” Sherman admitted that his men “burnt Columbia” and agreed to “leave us 500 head of beef, 100 muskets and ammunition, all the salt at the Charleston Railroad depot, and wire enough to work flat across the river,” as well as “some medicine.”
So what’s the point? Simply this: the burning of Washington Street Methodist 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. That includes those who rail, write, and rule on Confederate monuments, art, and graves as though all purity and righteousness was to be found in the North, or in Union blue.
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).
 Archie Vernon Huff, Jr., Tried By Fire: Washington Street United Methodist Church, Columbia, South Carolina (R.L. Bryan Co.: Columbia, S.C., 1975), 39-40. Aside from the catechism and Bible verses quoted herein, all other quotations are from Huff.
 Anne C. Loveland, Southern Evangelicals and the Social Order, 1800-1860 (LSU Press: Baton Rouge, La., 1980).