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William Plumer Jacobs (1841-1917)
Three Great Institutions

The Presbyterian clergy kept many academies. The father of William Plumer Jacobs kept an academy for girls in Charleston, South Carolina.

The school for girls in elegant Charleston was very refined, but it did not lapse to empty etiquette. It maintained a moral intensity that if well bred was rarely jarring.

The senior Mrs. Jacobs had been an orphan. Her parents, both teachers, died early. The homeless girl was adopted by Dr. William Swan Plumer, the antebellum minister of First Church, Richmond, Virginia. The compassionate Dr. Plumer had a long white beard. A little boy from First Church came to his Confirmation Class, looked at him, and then asked, "Are you God?"

The Jacobs named their son, William Plumer, in honor of the man who adopted the orphaned girl. Their boy was then aware from the story of his mother of the singular plight of the homeless. Also, one of the earliest memories of Dr. Jacobs' boyhood in 19th century Charleston was passing by the Orphan Asylum. He was called upon to pass it regularly on the way to the manse.

He found the sight traumatic. The contrast between his own Christian home life and the degradation of the inmates of the Dickens-like asylum made a deep impression. He wished to do something about it one day. He was a very serious young man.

At sixteen, he solemnly joined the Church. He wrote in his diary, "Oh, let me always remember this night...Tonight I applied for admission to the Church and was received as a member...Father joined just at my age."

He decided to be a minister like his father and attended the College of Charleston. Afterwards he attended Columbia Theological Seminary then in Columbia, South Carolina. Very bright, he entered college early and finished seminary early.

It was at Columbia Seminary he came under the influence of a teacher who was to mean much to him, Dr. Thornwell, a noted theologian of the day. Jacobs was, as students must be, ready for what the doctor had to give. He wrote simply, "Dr. Thornwell is broad, deep and clear." Jacobs studied at Columbia under James Woodrow, the man who taught early that evolution was an acceptable Christian doctrine.

Jacobs accepted a little church in a small town in South Carolina after finishing seminary. The church had less than fifty members, but Jacobs, in spite of its size, was determined it would have a good influence. He was simply not sure how.

At the time he took on his ministerial duties, he married Mary Jane Dillard whose family was prominent in Bethany Church near Laurens, South Carolina. "My thoughts are all of Mary," he wrote, adding later, "I sit here and look at her sweet face and industrious fingers and thank God for such a treasure."

Planning a family he wrote, "I will try in every way. . . . for Christianity, morality...industry. Mary is of the same opinion, and, of course, it depends only on us...She is a jewel of a wife." They were to have four boys and one girl. Three of the boys became ministers and the other a medical doctor.

Preaching for Jacobs was halting in the beginning. However, he was finally able to say of a sermon, "I lost sight of self and caught sight of Christ". He was never a great preacher in the sense of being popular, but he was a Christian personality of genius. He was above all a practical Christian. Being meant doing.

The idea of an orphanage haunted him since his childhood days in Charleston. The way orphans were treated seemed to call for reform. He toyed with the idea of setting up one and read widely on the subject. He had been impressed in reading about a German, Immanuel Wichern, who had new ideas about orphanage reform. Today they seem to us common sense, but then they were drastic innovations.

The orphanage of his imagination obsessed the young Jacobs. He had an inclination to talk about this need on church visits. However, for a poor minister in a small church this seemed to be an impossible dream. It was to remain so for time. But on a pastoral visit at the house of Sara Anderson, a devout widow, he talked with zeal of the need for a new type of orphanage.

As Jacobs talked, little Willie, aged nine, listened carefully. Finally, he slipped out of the room, returning with something in his hand. He pulled at Jacobs' coat. The minister looked at him. "Take this and start an orphanage," the child said. He handed a fifty-cent piece to the minister.

"Out of the mouth of babes," says Matthew 21:16, and to the minister it was as if an angel had uttered a divine command. To his mind, it was providential. And like an Old Testament prophet going to inform Israel, he went to tell his congregation of forty-six that God had chosen them to build an orphanage. The sermon he would preach rang in his ears. Suffer the little children. The children were suffering.

No one in his church seemed to be surprised. This was perhaps the greatest miracle of all. A little congregation, struggling for very life, in the words of Jacobs himself, quietly resolved to build an orphanage. The church sanctuary was not even adequate. Yet, the leading members met in the Victorian parlor of the manse in 1872 to discuss an orphanage. They prayed and voted unanimously to do it. After the vote a prominent member, Mr. Bell, arose and said, "Now, brethren forward."

Dr. Jacobs was to remember this band of disciples fondly. He wrote later, "My thoughts go up with sweet gratitude to God for that noble band of workers ... the thoughtful West, Lee the learned, the aged Green, Owings the true and tried."

Dr. Jacobs believed he had two things on his side: prayer and providence. He was therefore not discouraged where men of lesser faith might have been. This did not mean he was unaware of the need for selfless industry by his congregation, money raising and his own ceaseless speech making as advertising for the orphanage. It meant he felt he had the power of intercession and his work was the will of God.

Dr. Jacobs was a great believer in prayer. In his own mind he had proved it. The true illustration is told how on Monday a Presbyterian businessman began to feel he must give something to the orphanage. This feeling came again during the week until he resolved to give one tenth of the Saturday receipts. He sent Dr. Jacobs on Saturday a cheque for $310.00. The businessman at this time lived over one hundred miles from Clinton and was in no communication with anyone from there. Dr. Jacobs had been praying for three hundred dollars for a pressing need since Sunday.

Many church people felt that the orphanage was a monument to prayer. Dr. Jacobs had literally prayed it in. The case of Tom Scott was another illustration to them. A native of London, England, a bachelor asking no pay when there was no money, he showed up in 1875 to be the handy man and do whatever was needed. He was a godsend. He did all the practical things the Doctor could not and kept things in order until his death in 1918. Tom was rarely paid, and what money he received he spent to buy luxuries the orphanage could not afford to give the children.

Dr. Jacobs named the orphanage "Thornwell" after the professor who had so impressed him at the seminary. An early record states: "it shall be under the auspices of the Presbyterian denomination, its doors shall be open to all orphans . . . we believe there is no more sacred and pleasing duty".

The ideas Dr. Jacobs had of an orphanage were new at the time to the area. He wished to remove as much as possible all aspects of regimented institutions. He wished children to be treated as human beings and respects as individual personalities in a regulated home atmosphere.

Children were to be placed in family cottages with a matron or man and wife in charge of maintaining a home-like atmosphere and interest in them. His standard was that the children were to be treated as well as his own might be. That they be taught and loved as in an upper middle class home with religious training and good values and common sense imparted.

Dr. Jacobs had enlarged his sympathies to all orphans as if they were indeed his and would be treated as such. "They are God's children", he wrote, "and shall . . . be treated as well as mine". It was, however, a church work bigger than he was. "The Church", he said, "the dear old Presbyterian Church (God bless her), was to adopt these orphans, they were to be her own, she was to put her spirit into them, to give them a true home, to educate them well, and do the best . . . that could be done . . . and having so fitted them, bid them God speed."

The first family cottage, Peace Cottage, was occupied in 1875. There were eight orphans for it, but no matron could be found. The load fell where it might be predicted to fall, on the preacher's wife. Mary Jane Jacobs as matron moved in with her children.

The second cottage, Faith, was built in 1880. Monetarily faith was about all it was built on. The orphan boys helped. In the building of it, "Baldy", the horse gave out. He was the only horse available. There was a character revealing decision. Dr. Jacobs arrived to find the boys in harness and moving the wagon. The Presbyterian iron had entered their souls.

As the years progressed the enrollment enlarged and the campus boasted more cottages. The churches in the area became accustomed to giving regular sums of money each year. Donations from people of all faiths came in. Some gave large sums of money. The principal philanthropists of the early years were the McCormicks of Chicago. Cyrus H. McCormick of "reaper" fame was a noted Presbyterian philanthropist. He was thought of as an "old fashioned sound Presbyterian." The McCormicks donated so much to the construction of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago that it was known in the area as the "Church of the Holy Harvester."

Dr. Jacobs then faced his next problem. If the orphans were to be treated as manse children, education was the next difficulty to be tackled. The Church stressed education. The children must go to college.

It was far too expensive to try to send the children off to college. He was thus responsible for starting an institution of far greater influence than his orphanage. He began Presbyterian College in South Carolina. The year was 1880.

Presbyterian College has served the church and the area since. It has proved itself to be more than denominational in its scope, serving people of all faiths, yet it has retained a compassionate interest in the students.

So it came to pass that Dr. Jacobs's orphans could go to college if they wished. It was remarkable how service to each institution had led to something bigger. He had come to serve a church and started an orphanage, and in serving the orphans had started a college.

In his old age he was one of the most venerated men in South Carolina. He had as others who stood for their ideals become something of an ideal in himself. He was so feeble he could not move about unaided, partially blind and increasingly deaf. Yet by many church people he was regarded as the walking New Testament. The sight of him, as was said of Napoleon's hat raised on a stick, could rouse an area to an emotional pitch.

He continued to serve First Church in Clinton as long as possible. He retired after forty-three years. It had grown from 56 to 300 when he left. It seems an unimpressive figure, but Presbyterians have had to make their impression through things other than numbers.*

In 1917 Jacobs died. Many appreciated him, but few seemed to understand him. Of newspapers the Columbia, S. C. State, materialistic to the end said he might have been a "captain of industry".  The Presbyterian STANDARD, conservative to the end, remarked dryly, "he was predestined to the work of caring for orphans". The Greenville, S. C. News, understood something of him saying, "Tested by the values that are eternal, Dr. Jacobs was one of the really great South Carolinians of his time".

Jacobs' will express it best. He said in it, "I have lived for three great institutions: The First Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian College, and the Thornwell Orphanage".

A partial reason for the unusual good fortune of the American nation was that its people subordinated themselves to institutions. The degeneracy of the social fabric came as subordination of self to the good of institutions faded. Jacobs could say, "I have lived for . . . institutions." He subordinated himself to their good.

As Patrick Moynihan has suggested along with many sociologists, most of the problems of this half century are due to the near collapse and decay of America's basic institutions: schools, churches, homes and governments. Partial reason for this institutional decay must be the new freedom, the new self-indulgence, and the new hedonism that refuses to subordinate itself to the institution, to put the group first.

Dr. Jacobs rather psychologically and skillfully reformed the First Church of Clinton by giving the congregation a goal bigger than themselves. He gave them the college and the orphanage in whose cause the people felt spiritually uplifted and emotionally satisfied.

By involving his congregation in goals bigger than themselves, Dr. Jacobs bypassed the stage of the comfortable congregation turned inward to bickering among themselves. In this way his congregation was spared the personal fighting and divisive nitpicking that so often mar religious life. Dr. Jacobs had after all worked with children and knew the ways of adults. Reform did not always come by frontal attack.

Today Thornwell Home has changed with the times. There is a psychologist for the children, a special school that deals with any learning disabilities they may bring, while the spirit of the home and the cottage principle remains the same. Over the years, many of its alumni have proved themselves to be outstanding citizens and interesting people.

Thornwell still serves orphans, usually from auto wrecks, but more now are one parent orphans. The ravages of modern society have taken their toll in divorce, the breaking up of the basic institution, the home. If one parent cannot emotionally or economically keep things together, the child is taken in Thornwell.

The policy of Dr. Jacobs was that Thornwell never took legal custody. It still is. Legal guardians can withdraw their charges at any time. Very few are taken out. Few children want to leave.

Dr. Jacobs opened Thornwell for people of all creeds. The Home has, however, been so inundated with applications that it has to limit itself to Presbyterian applicants from the Synod of the Southeast (Georgia, South Carolina, Florida).

One of the regrets of Dr. Jacobs in old age was that his health did not allow him to spend as much time as he would have liked on his hobby. His hobby, the same interest George Bernard Shaw left his estate to forward, was the reform of English spelling so that it would be in line with the sound.

The cause of his interest is obvious. It is easy to explain to children about God. Children are born believers. But imagine having to explain to a thousand little children for almost fifty years why pneumonia is spelled with a p.

The Thornwell Home celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1975.

Presbyterian College, a coeducational university, is now one of the leading institutions of the Southeast.
 



N.B.
The remarkable impact of the denomination has never been due to size. In 1880, the year Presbyterian College was founded, the membership of Southern Presbyterian Church was 119,583. The active minister was a small 1,014. Yet, by 1880 it had been responsible for establishing at least twenty-two Southern colleges still existing (some no longer under Presbyterian control or affiliation), various ones now defunct, numerous secondary schools and other institutions.

The twenty-two colleges are listed below:

1. Washington and Lee 1749 (Va.)              12. Mississippi College 1842 (Miss.)

2. Hampden-Sydney 1776 (Va.)                   13. Southern at Memphis 1848 (Tenn.)

3. Transylvania 1780 (Ky.)                           14. Austin 1849 (Texas)

4. Tusculum 1794 (Tenn.)                            15. Westminster 1851 (Mo.)

5. University of Tennessee 1794 (Tenn.)     16. Mitchell 1856 (N.C.)

6. Centre 1819 (Ky.)                                      17. Peace 1857 (N.C.)

7. Maryville 1819 (Tenn.)                              18. Queens 1857 (N.C.)

8. Lindenwood 1820 (Mo.)                            19. King College 1868 (Tenn.)

9. Oglethorpe 1835 (Ga.)                              20. Arkansas College 1872 (Ark.)

10. Davidson 1837 (N.C.)                              21. Stillman College 1876 (Ala.)

11. Mary Baldwin 1842 (Va.)                         22. Presbyterian College 1880 (S.C.)


The list does not include three universities in early days under considerably Presbyterian influence, University of Georgia (1785), the University of North Carolina (1789), and the University of South Carolina (1801). The extent of Presbyterian influence at these colleges made the faithful feel safe to send their sons. At the University of North Carolina, for example, every president until 1861 was Presbyterian.

In 1908 there were over ninety-two institutions of learning connected with the denomination.
 

 

 

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