August 10, 2016

Octagonal Gem: McBee Methodist Church in Conestee, South Carolina

  • More: Sacred Places
  • By: Bill Fitzpatrick
  • Photography: Bill Fitzpatrick
Exterior of McBee Methodist Church. Credit: Bill Fitzpatrick

McBee Methodist Church is located in Conestee, a former mill town on the outskirts of Greenville.

Some believe that McBee Methodist Church is just one of three octagonal churches still standing in our country; some think there may be a few more. No matter. Let others quibble about exact numbers while we consider the question: Why even build an octagonal church?

Some folks believe it has to do with the number “8.” Biblical texts tell us to circumcise male babies 8 days after birth. There are 8 Beatitudes. Jesus arose from the dead one day after the Sabbath, which, by occurring on the seventh day, makes 8 one holy number.

Maybe such pious thoughts were behind Roman Emperor Constantine’s motivations for commissioning a number of octagonal churches during his seminal reign. We do know that in 327 AD, he ordered the Church of the Nativity to be built in Bethlehem over the cave where it was believed Jesus had been born. Its original structure featured an octagon at the head of the nave. Or maybe Constantine simply thought the octagon an efficient if not beautiful style of architecture.

McBee Methodist Church octagonal ceiling. Credit: Bill Fitzpatrick

The octagonal form can be seen in many aspects of the church construction, including its ceiling.

The first widespread appearance of the Octagon style in the United States might have been in Pennsylvania. These were not soaring spectacles, but practical, utilitarian structures. According to the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission:

“Documentation suggests that Quakers began building octagonal stone school buildings in southeastern Pennsylvania as early as the 1760s. It is assumed that this school form is derived from English or Scots-Irish folk tradition, a variation on the one-room schoolhouse. The Quakers are thought to have embraced this octagonal school form due to the simplicity of its design, simplicity being a key principle of the Quaker faith. Additionally, the octagonal style buildings were practical, being less expensive to build and heat, and easier to ventilate and light.”

During that era, many Scots-Irish migrated from the North and settled in the western regions of the Carolinas. Vadry McBee, considered the “father of Greenville,” was a Quaker. In 1815, McBee purchased 11,000 acres of land in raw, under-developed upstate South Carolina, much of which is modern Greenville. During his lifetime, he donated land in downtown Greenville for the construction of Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. And when Conestee, a mill town on the outskirts of Greenville, needed a church, he wrote the check.

As South Carolina Department of Archives and History summarizes:

“Architecturally unique, McBee Methodist Church was designed ca. 1842 by John Adams, a local wheelwright who felt that more seating space could be secured by an octagonal arrangement. The little structure is a fine example of octagonal architecture in vogue in the United States from the 1840s-1860s, its prime advantage being that it encloses one-fifth more floor area than a square with the same total length of wall. In addition, octagonal design offered a new aesthetic dimension to American architecture at this time.”

“In vogue” does not quite do the topic justice. In 1848, when Orson Squire Fowler wrote A Home for All or the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building, the form became the rage.

Consider for a moment the story of Quaker Henry Clubb. Fed up with slavery and enamored with the possibilities of the octagon and a vegetarian lifestyle, he moved to Kansas City and built a town named Octagon City. But Octagon City failed, spectacularly, when most of its original settlers left after just a few months of eight-sided life. (Presumably—and history never gives us enough details—theirs was a quick and orderly retreat, thanks to the eight roads that led away from the town.)

Member Helen Hendrix holds McBee Methodist Church's original key. Credit: Bill Fitzpatrick

Long-term member Helen Hendrix holds what is thought to be the original key to the church that was built around 1842.

On a steamy South Carolina morning, I made the fifteen-minute drive from my home in Greenville to Conestee and McBee Methodist Church. There, I meet long-term member Helen Hendrix.

“We are down to a dozen members,” she tells me, “and most of us are old. We still have a minister, so that’s a blessing. Over the years, we have tried to encourage other members of our community to join our church, but no one seems very interested. Sure, they may drop in for a ‘music night’ or stop by our small food bank, but despite our efforts, no one joins us in worship.”

The structure itself, due to the attentive care of its few members, is in fine condition. After Helen’s generation passes, I doubt there will be a batch of new members, or even a minister will to tend to such a small flock. But the pretty brick building will survive. After all, in construction and religious history, the number 8 is one powerful number.

Bill Fitzpatrick is a South Carolina writer and photographer.

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