Shiloh Methodist Church in Inman, South Carolina
Imagine a grand cathedral with exquisite stained glass windows, white marble statutes of Jesus and Mary, and intimate nooks with flickering red candles where you can kneel and pray. The Catholic Church wished to overwhelm the senses with their religious art and architecture, and they did.
But this is not the story of a grand cathedral. This is the story of a white clapboard church where the preachers screamed of hell and the attendees sweated like they were already there.
The father of this new style of preaching was Jonathan Edwards, the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” His fire-and brimstone sermons, in contrast to the more measured tones of other traditions, lit the match to America’s first Great Awakening (1737-1745). A second Great Awakening began after the Revolutionary War. One of that era’s most prominent men, Francis Asbury (1745-1816), figures in the history of Shiloh Methodist Church.
Late one winter afternoon, I made the drive from my hometown of Greenville to Inman, a once-humming mill town located in an area that a century ago, billed itself as “the textile capital of the world.” After parking my car on a patch of dirt, I grab my camera and head toward the rural white clapboard church.
There is no parking lot. The last regular service was held in 1915. The mill-town faithful who once flocked here are now dead, as is the widespread knowledge of Asbury’s galvanizing visit in the 1780s. The powerful words of the man who would become America’s first Methodist bishop led the locals to organize Shiloh Methodist. Over the course of his life, Asbury preached 18,000 sermons, rode his horses an estimated 250,000 miles, grew the church from 1,200 to 214,000 members, and ordained 700 preachers.
As I walked toward the church, I noticed that it appeared to be in mint condition. How could this be?
“May I help you?” The male voice startles me. I turn around, see a building in the distance, and figured the man came from there.
“Maybe. Do you know anything about the church?”
“Yes, I do. My name is Clarence Gibbs. My wife Kay and I have been looking after Shiloh Methodist for nearly ten years. If you’re not in a hurry, I’ll tell you more.”
“I’m not in a hurry.”
“Well, for starters, this dirt and gravel road that we are now walking on was once part of the great Yamassee Indian trail that stretched all the way from Florida to Ohio. Both British and Patriot forces used it during the Revolutionary War. Confederate soldiers used it too.”
When we arrived at the church, Clarence opened the locked door. “After the Civil War, the church also served as a school house for both returning veterans and freed blacks. If you look closely at these pews, you’ll see a few notches, like someone was trying to figure out some basic arithmetic. See these small wooden platforms on the wall? They were used to hold candles. The church never had electricity.”
Curious as to why Clarence and his wife had such an interest in the church, I asked him if he and his wife had family connections to the church, or if they were Methodists.
“No, to both questions,” Clarence answered. “Kay and I just happened to think this church should be saved and protected. For many decades, it wasn’t. So my wife and I, along with a couple of friends—Larry Settle and Bernard Hall—got to work and did what we could.
“The first thing we did was to fix the windows and frames—some had already caved-in. After that, Kay and I paid to have the church painted. We then cleaned up the grounds and cemetery. Finally, we thought that it would be nice if people could enjoy this setting as much as we do, so I made these picnic tables.”
We walked around the cemetery. He read the family names and told me of their place in the community. The name I liked the best was “Golightly.” There were a bunch of them.
“Why, then, have you spent your own money and time on this church?” I asked.
“Kay and I have just come to love the church and its history, nothing more complicated than that. It’s a shared interest, something that has drawn us close together.”
In "The Reading Life," one of our state’s most famous authors, Pat Conroy, notes that "South Carolina is a state of contained, unshared intimacies, a place of crosscurrents, passwords and secret handshakes, but that it rewards the curiosity of both natives and strangers alike." Such was what happened to me on the trip to Shiloh Methodist Church.