Charlestons ancient societies have provided invaluable service
Although I can’t say for certain, Charleston probably has more ancient gentlemen’s societies than any other city in the country.
According to Easterby’s History of the St. Andrew’s Society, it can be fairly stated that before the private fortunes were sufficiently large to create foundations and endowments, and before the state was prepared to enter extensively upon charitable and educational enterprises, societies performed services in these precise areas, the value of which cannot be overestimated.
A few years ago, I heard Joseph H. McGee (known to many as “Peter”) give an excellent talk at the New England Society’s annual December black-tie event, in which he succinctly described the various better-known organizations.
Here’s an overview, gleaned from notes that Peter has on file, and which he graciously let me borrow. Any errors are my fault, not his. Things change over the years, and I’m sure I’ll hear about it.
St. Andrew’s Society
Founded in Charleston (or Charles Towne) Nov. 30, 1729, by 34 mostly Scottish natives who gathered to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day. (St. Andrew was a Christian martyr, brother of Simon Peter, and is the patron saint of Scotland). The following year, 64 additional gentlemen joined, mostly Scots, now with the purpose of providing indigent relief. There are more than 1,200 St. Andrew’s Societies around the world; 31 in the U.S. Charleston’s is the oldest.
St. George’s Society
Established in Charleston following a notice appearing in The S.C. Gazette on March 24, 1733, the group invited persons having an inclination to establish a society on St. George’s Day (April 23) to meet at Thomas Batchellor’s at New Market House on said date to honor the patron saint of England. (St. George is reputed to have come from a variety of places, but not England. He lived in the 4th century and saved the virgin daughter of a Libyan ruler by slaying a dragon that was holding her captive.) Today, as always, there are only 30 members. It’s the oldest in the U.S. with a waiting list. It has one luncheon meeting yearly on April 23. No speeches. Toasts to the queen and president of the U.S.
South Carolina Society
This society was established in 1736 by several refugees and descendants of French Huguenots, including a gentleman of low circumstances in whose tavern (Poinsett’s, on Elliott Street) early meetings were held for financial support. In addition to the purchase of libations, members contributed 15 pence and otherwise referred to themselves as the Two Bit Club. Today, there are 125 lifetime members, and the club has a long wait list that can take decades to cycle through. Its charitable emphasis is on scholarships. Its annual meeting is the first Tuesday after Easter in the South Carolina Society Hall, Meeting Street, a National Historic Landmark designed by Gabriel Manigault. No speeches except centennials.
German Friendly Society
This was established in 1766 by 15 native Germans whose early members were either Germans themselves or born of German parents, and whose purpose was to promote fraternal friendships and provide means of support. Its motto is Industry, Justice, Charity. It opened a school for boys in 1803. The Archdale Street hall was a victim of fire in 1864 as it was ignited by a federal shell. The society purchased a building on Chalmers Street in 1942. There are 175 regular members plus life and honorary. It has a wait list.
Hebrew Benevolent Society
This was founded in 1784, five years before Washington was first inaugurated and when there were fewer than 2,500 Jews in the entire country. The oldest Jewish charitable organization is still active in the U.S. Jewish settlers first arrived in 1695 and helped build the city’s Colonial prosperity and overwhelmingly supported the Revolutionary cause. The society was formed to help the less fortunate members of the community and was influenced by the existence of other mutual aid societies. Membership, about 450 in total, is available to Jewish men 18 and older and approved by the board.
Agricultural Society of South Carolina
This society was founded on Aug. 24, 1785, by Thomas Heyward Jr., one of the signers of the Declaration who fought with the Charleston Artillery Company and was later imprisoned in St. Augustine, Fla. It was formed to stimulate agricultural developments, organize promotional fairs and help with scholarships. Thomas Jefferson was the first honorary member and the first to collect foreign seed money for distribution among members. The society received President George Washington during his 1791 visit to Charleston.
Ancient Artillery Society
This group was founded in 1792 by those who fought with the Charleston Artillery Company, which, during the war, was enlarged to a battalion and posted the highest honor of defending the Hornworks enclosing the City Gates. Every surviving member of the battalion was a member. It was (and is) called the Ancient Artillery Society, but members are probably better known as The Old Bats, who meet to enjoy each other’s company, “basking in the sunshine of their mutual company,” according to a society historian, “and grow ever old mindful of the military exploits of their predecessors, but unconscious of their own virtues.”
This group was founded on St. Patrick’s Day 1799 by eight Irishmen whose purpose was to convene, converse and contribute to the relief of fellow immigrants who may have been under financial duress. Hibernian Hall opened Jan. 20, 1841, with its magnificent upstairs 80-by-45-foot ballroom. Today, there’s no requirement of Irish heritage. There are about 400 members and 100 lifetime members; the office of president alternating between Protestant/Catholic.
Formed in 1832 by a group of German friends for the promotion of music, literature and drama, the society originally was called Der Deutsches Freundschaftsbund. Membership required Germanic blood lineage, and only German was spoken or written. That changed after WWI, when anti-German sentiment in 1918 further precipitated renaming the society. Note the spelling: Arion was a 7th-century B.C. Greek singer and choral lyric poet. Aryan refers to a hypothetical Indo-European parent language. Arian refers to a person belonging to, or supposed to be a descendant of, the prehistoric people who spoke this language. In 1870, the society built the Gothic structure at Meeting and George streets. The building was loaned to the USO during WWII and later sold. The society now rents space from the German Friendly Society.
And that’s not all! There are several others, including New England, Scottish Society of Charleston and the Huguenot Society, which space doesn’t permit me to outline.
Like I said, Charleston has an extraordinary number of these societies, and their missions have included the promulgation of good works, not to mention the appropriate festivities.
And speaking of festivities, I wish you all a wonderful New Year!
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net