Gilman, Samuel

Samuel GilmanSamuel Gilman (February 16, 1791-February 9, 1858) was arguably the most important and dedicated leader of the ultimately unsuccessful effort to establish Unitarianism in the antebellum South. He served the Archdale Street Church, the only Unitarian congregation in South Carolina, for almost 40 years and became a central figure in Charleston’s social and intellectual life. A man of many talents and accomplishments, he is today remembered primarily as the husband of Caroline Howard Gilman and as the author of his alma mater’s hymn, “Fair Harvard.”

Gilman was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the son of Frederick Gilman, a wealthy merchant, and Abigail Somes. He spent part of his childhood in the Sargent house, which his father purchased from Judith Sargent Murray and John Murray in 1797. He prepared for college at the home of an Arminian minister, Samuel Peabody, and entered Harvard in 1807 at the age of 16.

Gilman’s years in Cambridge were in some ways the high point of his life: his intellectual and literary gifts were recognized by his teachers and peers, who chose him to write the 1811 class poem; he made a number of lifelong friends including Edward Everett and Jared Sparks; and he met his future wife, Caroline Howard, in 1810. After graduation, he worked for a bank before returning to Harvard to tutor mathematics and study Unitarian theology. During this period he also established his literary reputation, publishing a series of translations and articles in the most important intellectual journal of the era, the North American Review.

In 1819, the congregation of the Second Independent Church of Charleston invited Gilman to visit and quickly offered him a permanent position. Samuel and Caroline were married in Cambridge on September 25, 1819, and immediately moved to Charleston.

American Unitarians viewed Samuel Gilman’s appointment as an important step in the southern expansion of the church, and Joseph Tuckerman and Jared Sparks officiated at his ordination on December 1,1819. Although many of its members were transplanted New England merchants and professionals, the congregation had developed independently and did not formally title itself Unitarian until 1834.

Gilman threw himself into his new duties, managing to get his congregation out of debt and endeavoring both to expand its membership and influence and to develop other Unitarian congregations in the South, particularly in Georgia. Looking back on his pastoral career in 1852, when his congregation averaged about 400 members, Gilman estimated that he had baptized 521 individuals, performed 148 weddings, and registered 232 white communicants. In that year, a local architect began remodeling and expanding the Charleston church; the result, one of the most beautiful Gothic Revival structures in the South, was inaugurated in 1854.

Despite these accomplishments, Samuel Gilman’s professional and private life in Charleston was sometimes difficult. While his wife’s literary endeavors brought in some additional income, he was forced to supplement his meager salary by teaching. Although Gilman preached a conservative version of Unitarianism that he defined in the title of an 1829 tract as Unitarian Christianity Free From Objectionable Extremes, he was frequently attacked as an infidel by other Protestant ministers in Charleston. The rise in sectional distrust after the Nullification Crisis (1828-1833) greatly complicated life for the Gilmans and other New Englanders. Samuel joined a unionist association and wrote an ode to the Union but generally tried “to enter into no discussion of these everywhere agitated themes.” Sectionalism, however, triumphed in South Carolina and in Gilman’s own thinking: in 1850 he wrote John Calhoun‘s funeral ode, and by 1856 he had concluded that secession was both necessary and inevitable.

Inextricably linked to sectionalism, of course, was the issue of slavery. The Gilmans owned house slaves, and while family tradition holds that the couple occasionally purchased young males to educate and send North to freedom, there is no clear evidence of such illegal and dangerous activities. A few Unitarian ministers in the South, like Theodore Clapp of New Orleans, openly supported and justified slavery; many of those who could not do likewise either chose or were forced to abandon their churches, decimating the denomination in the region.

Gilman took a middle path: he defended slavery in private, and his wife was a vehement public champion of the institution, but he avoided the issue in his sermons and writings. The Charleston congregation, apparently smaller but considerably more affluent by 1850, may have become dissatisfied with Gilman’s silence. In 1853, the church recruited Charles Manson Taggart, one of the most extreme pro-slavery Unitarian ministers, to assist Gilman. Taggart, however, died the following year. Gilman never did support the institution in public. Nonetheless, it seems clear that white Charlestonians felt that they knew where he stood on the issue, and that he was with them. When Gilman was buried on February 17, 1858, the Charleston Daily Courier editorialized that his funeral occasioned an outpouring of communal sorrow comparable only to that at the burial of Calhoun.

It is difficult to know whether Samuel Gilman loved Charleston as much as Charleston came to love him. During the first decades of his life there, he may have hoped to follow what was becoming a standard career path for young Harvard-trained Unitarian ministers—a few years of difficult service in the South rewarded by a comfortable appointment in the North. Gilman was nostalgic for New England and frequently returned to the area. On one such visit he composed “Fair Harvard” for the 1836 bicentennial of the college, was rewarded two years later with an honorary doctorate of divinity, and gave the Dudleian lecture there in 1848. By that point, however, Gilman’s reputation as a slave-owner made it virtually impossible for him to find a position outside the South. Undoubtedly depressed by political events and by the failure of southern Unitarianism, Gilman devoted himself to his congregation, to minor literary and intellectual efforts, and to his family. He was visiting one of his daughters in Kingston, Massachusetts, when he died of a heart attack on February 9, 1858.

A passage from one of his sketches, “A Day of Disappointment,” 1838, perhaps sums up Gilman’s frustration as he imagined the life he might have led and the literary reputation he might have achieved had he remained in New England: the narrator notes that his “usual destiny . . . never allows me to look perfect satisfaction directly and permanently in the face, but only, like Moses in the wilderness, to behold its departing skirts.”

Most of Gilman’s papers are in the Harvard University Library, although a few are with his wife’s materials in South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina. Almost all of Gilman’s non-theological writings, from 1812 to shortly before his death, are collected in Contributions To Literature; Descriptive, Critical, Humorous, Biographical, Philosophical And Poetical (1856). His most important theological texts, including sermons and tracts published earlier, appeared after his death, in Contributions To Religion: Consisting of Sermons, Practical and Doctrinal (1860). He contributed two articles, “Theory of Association in Matters of Taste” and “American Literature,” to the Southern Review (August 1831). The only one of his prose works that continues to be read is his Memoirs of a New England Village Choir (1829, reprinted in 1984), a nostalgic and humorous piece based upon his adolescent experiences in Atkinson, New Hampshire, as a student of Samuel Peabody.

Articles on Gilman include Daniel Walker Howe, “A Massachusetts Yankee in Senator Calhoun’s Court: Samuel Gilman in South Carolina,” New England Quarterly (1971); Daniel Walker Howe, “Samuel Gilman: Unitarian Minister and Public Man,” Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society (1973-1975); Conrad Wright, “The Theological World of Samuel Gilman,” Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society (1973-75); James W. Mathews, “A Yankee Southerner: The Aesthetic Flight of Samuel Gilman,” No Fairer Land, ed. J. Lasley Dameron and James W. Mathews (1986); and “The Doctrine of Contrasted Extremes,” in Arthur J. Graham, The Manichean Leitmotif (2000). To find out about early Unitarianism in the South consult Clarence Gohdes, “Some Notes on the Unitarian Church in the Ante-bellum South,” American Studies in Honor of William Kenneth Boyd, ed. David Kelly Jackson (1940); George H. Gibson, “Unitarian Congregations in Ante-Bellum Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly (1970); John Hammond Moore, “Jared Sparks Visits South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical Magazine (1971); Douglas C. Stange, “Abolitionism as Maleficence: Southern Unitarians Versus ‘Puritan Fanaticism’—1831-1860,” Harvard Library Bulletin (1978); and John Allen Macaulay, Unitarianism in the Antebellum South: The Other Invisible Institution (2000). On Samuel and his wife, Caroline, see William Stanley Hoole, “The Gilmans and the Southern Rose,” North Carolina Historical Review (1934).

Article by David Haberly
Posted March 11, 2002