Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"A Very Immoral and Offensive Man": Religious Culture, Gentility and the Strange Case of Brian Hunt, 1727

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"A Very Immoral and Offensive Man": Religious Culture, Gentility and the Strange Case of Brian Hunt, 1727

Article excerpt

IN THE SPRING OF 1727, GIBBON CAWOOD, THE SIXTEEN-YEAR-- old heiress of her late father's estate, wedded Robert Wright, a gentleman recently immigrated from England, in a midnight ceremony at her mother's house in Charles Town, South Carolina. The marriage occurred without the knowledge or consent of the bride's guardians, Andrew Allen and Charles Hill, both merchants in the city. During the subsequent fallout, the blame was heaped squarely on the shoulders of the minister who had performed the ceremony, Brian Hunt, the rector of St. John's, Berkeley, in whose parish the young couple had taken rooms with a shoemaker to establish residence before Hunt read the Banns in his church.1 Hunt seemed to embody the worst reputed qualities of the colonial Church of England ministry. By his own admission, he had agreed to perform the marriage in exchange for Wright's promise to pay off his debts, and during the uproar over the wedding, his own vestry castigated him as "a very immoral and offensive man," guilty of "repeated vices and immoralities" including drunkenness and unseemly behavior with several women of the parish. The disgraced minister resigned in November, 1728, and left South Carolina the following year.2

This brief tale of the Cawood-Wright marriage and Brian Hunt's ruin is certainly a colorful one, replete with elements of romance and scandal.3 But Hunt's ill-fated participation in the affair possesses a broader significance than is readily apparent. His story illuminates tensions and conflicts that could erupt on the local level when the metropolitan religious institution of Anglicanism attempted to transplant to the edge of the British Empire, even when colonists ostensibly welcomed such a development.4 Brian Hunt had every reason to believe that his parishioners appreciated his arrival, and yet he encountered tremendous antagonism. The breakdown of his relationship with many of his parishioners occurred as he and they negotiated the forms of religious practice and the lay-clerical relationship in the unstable economic and social environment of early eighteenth-century South Carolina.

Hunt's story opens a window to the intriguing religious culture of the period in South Carolina and, indeed, the British-American colonies as a whole. In recent years, several scholars have moved away from the traditional "top down" institutional model of religious history, and begun to pay closer attention to popular religion on both sides of the Atlantic.5 But while some historians have alluded to the remarkably ecumenical and individualistic nature of religious belief and practice during the eighteenth century, the implications of the fact that many colonists were not as heavily invested in denominational identities and distinctions as were their ministers have yet to be adequately explored and explained. Colonists often opted to visit various churches in pursuit of varied objectives, even when they retained a primary denominational identity. From New York in 1728, for example, Anglican minister Robert Jenney wrote that a majority in his parish were "latitudinarians, who run from one congregation to another and hold to that religion whose preacher pleases them best." Brian Hunt himself noted that many of his South Carolina parishioners "do not imagine much real difference in principle `twixt Churchmen and Dissenters of all Denominations."6

Laypeople who church-shopped (or church-hopped, to use a phrase that probably gets closer to the truth for most) sought exciting preaching, and were reluctant to accede to their own clergy's rules for the conduct of services and of rituals such as baptism. Even those who did not seek choices outside of the Church of England often attempted to reshape Anglican services to their tastes. They preferred, perhaps, to sit rather than to kneel for communion, or to do without godparents in baptism. Most laypeople sought also to minimize the expense of religion, and particularly the expense of supporting a minister, even if that meant visiting other denominations to have their children baptized. …

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