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Historic Campbell Chapel AME Church

Historic Campbell Chapel - Audio
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     Preservation is as much about the future as it is about the past.  The story of the Historic Campbell Chapel AME Church embodies this idea.  From the purchase of the building by 9 freedmen in 1879 to the current restoration efforts, the church symbolizes the hopes and dreams of many generations of community members.   

The building standing before you is a Greek Revival structure built in 1853.  It originally housed a white Methodist congregation.  When emancipation was announced in 1863, the African Methodist Episcopal church, or AME church, which had been disbanded in South Carolina in 1822, sent missionaries from the north into the south, establishing and fostering AME congregations in the area.  While some Methodist congregations became biracial, all services were supervised by white ministers.  Freed African Americans sought religious independence as well as education to establish their new places in society.  The AME church was a vehicle to a new life.  In 1866, the Methodist Episcopal Church South conference allowed African American members to organize separate congregations and hold separate conferences.  By the end of Reconstruction, the AME Church was the second largest African American Church in SC.  Evidence suggests that the new congregation in this church was worshiping here by 1869.

In 1874, the trustees of the Bluffton Methodist Episcopal Church sold the building to trustees of the newly-organized African Methodist Episcopal Church.  A cornerstone with this date was laid in 1891. Nine freed slaves are listed as trustees of the new church in a deed recorded in 1879.  The nine freed slaves were Renty Fields, Jacob Chisolm, William Ferguson, Jeffrey Buncomb, William Smith (or Smiley), David Heyward, Christopher Bryan, Theodore Wilson, and William Lightburn.  At least one of the freedmen had been enslaved by one of the white trustees listed in the deed, and had likely attended services in this building with his master.

Through a variety of sources we are still learning about these nine men. William Ferguson opened a bank account in 1870.  Renty Fields opened an account in 1873.  Jacob Chisolm was a farmer.  The 1880 U.S. Census notes that he owned his own home, but that he could neither read nor write.  David Heyward was also a farmer and also could neither read nor write.  But in 1870 he did have a personal estate valued at $350.00.  Although little is known about each of these men, the few available details show that, though lacking in education, they did well enough to put money in the bank and, in some cases, purchase land or homes. They were also able to combine their financial resources to purchase the church building for their fledgling congregation.

The physical church provides clues to the transition from the white congregation of slaveholders to the establishment of the new congregation organized by nine of their freed slaves.  Board and batten siding is an unusual application on a Greek Revival building and was almost certainly added by the new congregation. 

It is believed that the new congregation immediately expanded the church, probably changing the appearance with new siding and adding a church bell.  The bell that is still in the church belfry was manufactured during the time the church transitioned to the new congregation. The early changes to the church may have been an effort of the new congregation to erase a symbol of oppression and to make the church building distinctly its own.   

Newly-freed people demonstrated a desire for literacy and education, seeing literacy as their key to advancement, and so Sunday schools took on an important role.  Church buildings were put to use as schools.  They were often the only public buildings freedmen owned.  In many places, including Bluffton, these Sunday schools became one of the only reliable sources of education for blacks.  Sunday was typically a free day, even for children who worked during the week, for example, on farms, making it possible for them to attain an education.

Minutes of the South Carolina Annual Conferences of the AME Church from 1875 and later testify to an increase in Sunday School attendance in Bluffton, specifically Campbell Chapel, leading to more teachers, sessions, and books in the church library.

The 1880 U.S. Census notes that Jacob Chisolm’s twelve-year-old granddaughter worked on Jacob’s farm and did not attend school.  Yet she was literate.  Her access to an education most likely came though the Campbell Chapel AME Church Sunday school.  A 1910 U.S. Census identified David Heyward’s son, James, as living in Bluffton and farming on Charles Point Plantation.  He was literate, and assuming that he, like Jacob Chisolm’s granddaughter, grew up working on the farm, literacy was also likely acquired through the Sunday school at Campbell Chapel AME Church.

Many current congregation members trace their ancestry back to two of the original Campbell Chapel AME trustees: Jacob Chisolm and William Lightburn.  Though documentation has not yet surfaced for William Lightburn, the descendants of Jack Lightburn believe that William and Jack were brothers. 

Census data and family oral history indicate that the Lightburn family farmed on rented land at Foot Point Plantation in Bluffton for at least two generations after the Civil War.  Jack’s children were literate, and since they worked on the farm, they likely received their education in the Sunday school of Campbell Chapel AME Church, where all descendants up to the present day have maintained a membership, testifying to the stability of community fostered by the Church.

The church building has revealed and continues to reveal information about the history of the AME church in the south and its re-emergence during Reconstruction, the role of Sunday schools in the Reconstruction-era south, and economic and social changes for African Americans during Reconstruction. The stories that emerge tell us how members worked through the church to gain the confidence, courage, and skills they needed to take their rightful places in society.  Through this building, we hear the voice of those previously silent.  This building symbolizes the hopes and dreams of many generations of community members. 

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