Renowned rural church approaches 260th anniversary

The current iteration of Salem Black River Presbyterian Church, a looming Greek Revival structure which shows surprising little wear and tear, dates to 1846.

The church, Basilican in plan, with walls and ceilings of plaster and heart pine floors, has a slave gallery and boxed pews. It has played an important role in the development of the surrounding area, including the town of Mayesville, which today has approximately 700 residents, essentially unchanged over the past 125 years.

The congregation dates to 1759, with congregants first worshiping in a log cabin, then moving to a framed structure shortly before the American Revolution. A third church was built in 1804 and used until the current building was erected.

Its full-time first pastor, from 1773 until 1792, was Thomas Reese, a Princeton-educated churchman whose doctoral thesis was titled “The influence of Religion on Civic Society,” likely an unusual topic for an 18th century Colonial American theologian.

The makeup of the church’s antebellum congregation reflected the rural region’s growing dependence on cotton and the need for slaves to sow, tend and reap that crop.
In 1804 the congregation totaled 89: 45 whites and 44 blacks. In 1840, that number was 160, with 42 whites and 118 blacks. By the beginning of the War Between the States, the church’s rolls showed 67 white members and 389 blacks.

Many of the black congregants, who no doubt attended the church because they were required to, left Salem Church shortly after the war’s end to join Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church.

Goodwill

Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church, was begun in 1867 by black members of Salem Church.

Goodwill Presbyterian went on to become the mother church to many African-American churches in South Carolina, according to the blog Everything Happens at the Crossroads, which recounts a history of the Mayesville area.

Today, Salem Church has just 30 members of its roles and averages active attendance of 14 for its services, according to a 2015 article in the Darlington News and Press.

Among noted members of Salem Church have been Robert Witherspoon, a US Congressman who served during James Madison’s first term; Matthew Peterson Mayes, who served in the SC legislature and signed the SC Ordinance of Secession; and James M. Dabbs Sr., who, despite being born in 1896 and growing up on 10,000-acre plantation, was a Civil Rights leader who also served as a professor, farmer, author, church leader and Penn School Community Services trustee.

Dabbs deserve special attention. He took up the civil rights cause in the mid-1940s when he began writing about segregation and racial injustice in Southern culture. Dabbs served as president of the Southern Regional Council from 1957 until 1963, during which time he endorsed a petition requesting executive clemency from President John F. Kennedy for imprisoned civil rights activist Carl Braden. His wife Edith Mitchell Dabbs was also active in the Civil Rights movement.

Salem Church, despite the declining health of the surrounding area and the size of its congregation, continues to hold services twice a month, and both the church and graveyard are kept in immaculate condition.

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