Dorchester County is named after a group of Puritans from Dorchester, England, who settled along the banks of the Ashley River in 1695, but after three generations, that group migrated to eastern Georgia.
Sterling “Skip,” Skinner, a historian from Georgia, has studied the legacy of those Puritans — known as Congregationalists — and the events that triggered their emigration from England to Massachusetts followed by their migration to the southern states.
Sterling presented his research to the Summerville Preservation Society on Nov. 21. His presentation included a summary of why the Puritans set out for America, followed by a description of each of their settlements in colonial America. He concluded his talk by highlighting Midway Church in Georgia, a church founded by the Congregationalists after they left South Carolina.
Sterling said Puritans living in England, in the 1600s were one of the many groups of dissenters who became enemies of the monarch.
“They believed that the Bible alone is the rule for faith and practice—not the king’s decree, and the purpose of a person’s life is to glorify God, not royalty,” Sterling said.
In addition, Puritans believed the king did not possess divine rights and the products of a person’s work or industry should belong to that person and not the king.
These were radical ideas that led to Puritans being persecuted by English monarchs and by the Anglican church. In late 1630, a group of 140 Puritans from Dorchester left Europe and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for 70 days to reach colonial America. They arrived in Massachusetts and called their settlement Dorchester.
Within five years some in their group became dissatisfied with the primitive conditions of their settlement and left for Connecticut, Sterling said. By 1695, more Congregationalists in the group decided to relocate to Charleston. They settled on the banks of the Ashley River, inland from colonial Charlston, at the present-day Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site. They built up a meeting house called the White Meeting House. However Anglicans erected St. George’s Anglican Church in the Dorchester settlement which drove the Congregationalists to migrate further south.
“This was too much for the Congregationalists and by the 1750s they began sending scouting parties to the new colony of Georgia,” Sterling said.
According to Sterling, there were 72 heads of households who left South Carolina and each received 500 acres of land on the Georgia coast. These Congregationalists were slave owners, their group comprised 350 white people and 1,500 enslaved African Americans. After arriving in Georgia, the Congregationalists established plantations between the Midway and North Newport Rivers.
“Midway Congregational Church had a succession of bold and educated pastors who preached the same gospel that they brought all the way from England so many years earlier,” Sterling said.
This church produced a legion of leaders and influential people including scientists, educators and politicians. Two members of the church were signers of the Declaration of Independence. Several counties in Georgia were named after members of the church.
“Their influence on our new nation was huge — all from one small church in the South,” Sterling said.
Among those Midway Church members was The Rev. Charles Colcock Jones, who inherited three plantations in Georgia including 1,000 enslaved people. According to Sterling, Jones had been educated in New England and was familiar with the abolitionist movement.
“Thus arose a moral and social dilemma for this man,” Sterling said.
According to Sterling’s research, the man bucked social norms and sidestepped the law in an effort to teach enslaved people on his plantations to read and write.
“He preached the Bible to slaves and encouraged 29 other planters to teach slaves Christianity too,” Sterling said.
Because of this, he made many enemies in the South and the North, according to Sterling.
Jones died in 1863 when the nation was in the midst of the Civil War. In the next year, his widow wrote several letters to relatives documenting the destruction of plantations, farms and houses by Union Gen. William T. Sherman and thousands of soldiers as they marched from Atlanta to Savannah.
Sterling said many of the women, children, and grandparents of confederate families fled to other places in the South such as Alabama or Louisiana- where there was less destruction. The formerly enslaved African Americans did not have the means to travel and were left to “barely exist.”