“The propagation of religion by means of the press is next to importance to the preaching of the Gospel.” – Francis Asbury
The S.C. United Methodist Advocate is the longest continuously published newspaper in Methodism. It can trace its roots back to 1825, with the establishment of The Wesleyan Journal by the S.C. Conference. It was edited during its 18-month existence by the Rev. William Capers, a member of the conference.
In 1826, the second official Methodist publication, The Christian Advocate, was established in New York.
The two publications merged in 1827, becoming The Christian Advocate and Journal. In 1828, that publication merged with the unofficial Methodist publication Zion Herald (founded in 1823). In 1833, the Zion Herald withdrew from the joint venture.
At some point between 1833 and 1836, Journal was dropped (either officially or commonly) from the title of the newspaper, and it became known as The Christian Advocate.
At this time, Methodist preachers from around the country sent notices and inquiries to New York for publication in the Christian Advocate.
“It strikes a modern reader who thumbs through these old files as passing strange that there should be reports in a New York journal – reports from Pon Pon and Santee concerning the work among plantation Negroes,” wrote Mason Crum in “The Southern Christian Advocate: An Historical Sketch,” published in 1945.
Prior to the General Conference of 1836, the issue of slavery had begun to become a contentious issue, effectively beginning to divide the church as well as the nation. The Church officially took the view that it was wrong and should be stopped. However, churches in the South disagreed for various reasons, and it soon became apparent that Southern churches and ministers did not appreciate sending their views on the subject to what was considered a “Northern” paper. Northern newspapers circulating in the South were viewed with hostility whether they were religious or secular in nature.
William Wightman wrote in “The Life of William Capers” that “many of these (Northern newspapers) were preaching up a Crusade against the domestic institutions of the South; and self-defense as well as self-respect demanded that there should be an adequate supply of Southern journals.”
As a result, the 1836 General Conference held in Cincinnati, Ohio, took action, approving a resolution “which brought into being the Southern Christian Advocate, to be established in Charleston, with two sister journals, one in Richmond and one in Nashville” (Crum).
The prime motive for the resolution according the General Conference was “to enable the South more freely to articulate its sentiments regarding certain Southern ‘domestic issues’ (particularly slavery)” (Crum).
At the same General Conference, William Capers, a delegate from South Carolina and stationed near Charleston, was appointed as editor.
Capers was adamant in his belief that slavery was a civil issue and one not to be interfered with by the church. The fear among church leaders, including Capers, was that if the church voiced opposition, the state would prevent the missions established among the slaves. As a result, The Southern Christian Advocate was used by Capers not as a vehicle against slavery, but as a vehicle promoting mission among the slaves. The paper and his columns became “the medium par excellence for disseminating all information concerning the plantation missions,” according to Crum.
Although the Prospectus of The Southern Christian Advocate stated the paper would be especially intended for the Georgia and South Carolina Annual conferences, the paper had regional coverage and could be found in Florida, Alabama and North Carolina as well.
Capers was not a man of journalism and was often quoted as saying he would “rather wander the earth on foot, preaching Christ, than be the editor of a religious newspaper.” Nevertheless, he was responsible for giving the new paper “a place of dignity among religious journals of that day” (Crum).
“One has only to look through the files for this period to realize that he had set up a significant journal that carried not only religious news but an astonishing variety of current comment and general information” (Crum). The paper carried notices and advertisements for businesses both secular and religious and often reprinted items of interest from other newspapers. As an example, the first issue offered cotton market reports from Liverpool and London; a notice of the arrival of the ship Empress from Spain; a description of the devastating Baltimore flood; numerous marine notices, including sailings of ships and market reports from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and St. Augustine; and a long list of current prices of articles and provisions in Charleston.
The Advocate reflected the mission work of the Methodist Episcopal Church. While all churches admitted slaves and free persons, Methodist churches seem to take an interest with particular enthusiasm. Truly, many of the churches in South Carolina often had more Black members than White ones. With Capers at its helm, The Southern Christian Advocate served as a voice for the churches and their missions.
When a fire destroyed two of the three churches in Charleston (Old Cumberland and Trinity, leaving only Bethel) in April 1838, Capers was asked to travel the state in order to raise funds to rebuild the churches. Methodists were not discouraged by the fire, however; the May 20 issue reported there were four preaching places available (five if one counted the Poor House). About $13,000 was raised by Capers in both subscriptions and rebuilding funds.
The Methodist Episcopal Church split in 1844 in large part over the issue of slavery. The Southern Christian Advocate was placed under the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and continued to publish from various locations within Charleston. It was often housed within or near the repository of the Church’s bookstore. The split within the church foreshadowed the split within the nation. The Civil War began in 1861. Occupation of Charleston by federal troops necessitated The Advocate’s move in April 1862 to Augusta.
In 1865, the paper moved again to Macon, Ga., where it remained until 1878. At that point the Georgia Conference decided to publish its own paper, establishing the Wesleyan Christian Advocate. While in Macon, the paper incorporated a secular paper. The Jan. 19, 1866 issue introduced the “New Combination,” a merge of the Advocate and The Mirror of the Times.
“Thus, the Southern Christian Advocate becomes a double paper – one half devoted, as heretofore, to Religion and the Church; and one half to Literature, Science, Art, the News, the Markets, Advertisements, etc., etc., etc. In this form, it is proposed to make it equal to any Family newspaper in the country – being all that a family that takes but one Newspaper can need; and also worthy of a place with other Newspapers, where several are taken.”
Crum notes that although it was introduced as a merger, in reality, the paper “swallowed up the secular paper, as it were.”
With the creation of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the Georgia Conference had neither the needs nor the resources for the Southern Christian Advocate. Fortunately, the S.C. Conference wanted its paper to return home.
Minutes for the 1878 Annual Conference reflect this: “At the removal of the Southern Christian Advocate from Charleston, arising from the contingencies of war, it was a direct stipulation at the time, and it was expressly renewed in every subsequent contract, that as soon as circumstances would permit, the paper should return to the old seat of publication.
From 1878 until 1918, the paper traveled the state. It returned to Charleston and then left for Columbia. From Columbia it traveled to Greenville, then back to Columbia, Orangeburg, Spartanburg, a return trip to Greenville, Anderson and finally in 1918 returned for good to Columbia.
Jan. 1, 1921, “everything was in readiness for the first issue of the Southern Christian Advocate to be published within the walls of its own home” at 1314 Lady Street and on its own press, the first time since the Civil War.
Crum’s historical sketch was published in 1945. After, the timeline becomes sketchier.
A called Annual Conference was held in 1948 at Columbia College. During this conference, the Advocate board of trustees were given permission to sell the Lady Street building and construct a new building. Groundbreaking was held for a four-story building during the fall of that year at 1420 Lady Street.
That building also housed conference offices, and the editor was responsible for the management of the building.
In 1973, the paper changed format, going from a 16-page magazine to an eight-page newspaper tabloid. Two years later, the press was sold and the printing was farmed out to local printers.
In 1979, the first woman editor, Maryneal Jones, was hired. A year later, the paper hired its first African-American editor, Rosetta Ross. She left a year later to return to teaching at Benedict College and later went on to seminary.
In 1980, the decision was made to sell the Lady Street building. That decision was not made lightly, nor approved by everyone. In an effort to make some amends, the Advocate agreed to make a loan to the conference for the building of the present United Methodist Center. This allowed all conference offices to be in one place, and the Advocate was allowed to be in the building rent-free for 10 years until the loan was repaid.
Historically, the editor of the Southern Christian Advocate has been a minister and as such sees the Advocate as an extension of his or her ministry. Several editors have not been clergy.
In the 150th anniversary publication, Dr. John Marvin Rast, editor from 1936-1941, concluded his essay with a paragraph from Nolan B. Harmon’s Centennial address on “The Opportunity of the Conference Organ,” printed July 8, 1937.
“The church paper should in fact be regarded as we regard the church bulletin in our local churches. We do not expect these bulletins to make money or pay their way. They are created to represent the church and to hold together the membership. Regard your Conference organ injust that way, as your bulletin of a larger field, but not to make money, but spend it for the truly useful and magnificent purpose for which it is printed. That is, to represent Methodist thought to Methodist people, to tie together the Conference brotherhood, and to hold up a lofty view of church and church life in this troubled era.”
Regardless of the editor – whether clergy or lay – the paper’s policy has been interpreted by all of them as nearly the same. The Rev. McKay Brabham, editor from 1961 to 1971, defined it as an “effort to bring Christian ethics to bear upon the events of the day.” The editor serves not only as reporter of, but as an interpreter of the church’s teachings and works. In addition, the paper has served as a voice, bringing church teachings to bear on current events.
Under Brabham’s tutelage, a high point of 35,000 subscribers was reached.
The Rev. Eugene Mullikin, who followed Brabham and served until 1975, saw the paper as a vital ministry for the conference and the church. Among issues covered during his time were the merger of the Methodist Church and the United Brethren Church, the mini-bottle legislation, a cease fire in Vietnam, equal rights and the establishment of 12 districts in South Carolina.
In a list of “What’s in the Advocate?” (1969-1970), Fred Harris listed what can be found in the pages: worship, evangelism, ecumenical affairs, General Conference news, editorials, conference programs, family helps, education, social concerns, missions and stewardship. The current incarnation of the Advocate continues this broad spectrum of subjects.
The Advocate has explored issues as wide as a state lottery, the Confederate flag, the death penalty, racial tensions and sexuality.
“The Advocate is a loving critic of the church, as denomination and institution, encouraging the church to move toward its stated goals and objectives. It is open to and encourages the expression of different viewpoints within the Christian community. … It speaks to the membership of the United Methodist Church and to committed Christians, rather than for them.”
In April 1997, Allison Trussell was hired by the Advocate to serve as assistant editor, reporting and doing copyediting, as well as helping part-time with the communications department. Then, in December 2003, then-editor Karl Davie Burgdorf was called into active duty with the military. He was only supposed to be gone for six months, but his leave kept getting extended, and he ended up being gone about four years because of active duty.
As assistant editor, Trussell became acting editor. With the help of a hired part-time reporter, Rachel Haynie, Trussell was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Advocate, which she tried her best to do. In those days, the Advocate was produced on the computer but had to be ferried by hand to the newspaper’s printer, which meant Trussell had to drive the paper two hours away to the town of Union.
“It was difficult,” Trussell said about the demands of the job, but she wasn’t about to let the beloved Advocate sink on her watch. She did all she could to help it stay afloat until Burgdorf officially resigned and the board was able to hire an editor.
In 2007, the board then brought on Emily Cooper as editor. Cooper, a journalist with much newspaper experience, took the Advocate to new heights, changing the format, overseeing a new logo design and vastly increasing the newspaper’s focus on South Carolina church news.
In 2010, Cooper retired, and the board brought on Jessica Brodie (then Jessica Connor) as editor. A secular journalist, Brodie said the position was truly a “God call,” as she had no ties to South Carolina and had never heard of the Advocate before she happened upon an advertisement for the position on the website of the South Carolina Press Association. The ad called for an editor who would be responsible for managing all aspects of the newspaper, including writing, editing and photography, plus was preferably a United Methodist. Brodie—a journalist who had recently spent years guiding a community weekly newspaper in North Carolina from a small publication into an award-winning newspaper with a significant reputation—was also a United Methodist and uniquely skilled in writing, editing, web design, public speaking, nonprofit management, fundraising, sales and marketing. The board hired her that spring, and she began just before Annual Conference in June 2010.
When Brodie took the helm, the Advocate was having some growing pains. Income was low and expenditures were higher than she thought was healthy, plus she sensed the relationship between the Advocate and the conference was shaky. She quickly set about not only learning the ins and outs of the South Carolina Annual Conference and its people, but also taking the newspaper to a new level in quality content and visual appeal. She significantly increased the number of internally produced articles, as well as took time to travel across the state to attend events in various districts and local churches. Local church and district news increased, as did features and news articles about missions and ministries. Under her leadership, the newspaper achieved a strong reputation for excellence and fairness. It garnered more than 120 writing, photography and other journalism excellence awards during her tenure (from the South Carolina Press Association, United Methodist Association of Communicators and the Religion Communicators Council). The awards have included “best newspaper” in the Advocate’s division multiple times. She spearheaded an award-winning website redesign, plus established an active social media presence. Ad sales went from $29,000 to upwards of $70,000, and the newspaper also achieved a place of strong financial health and security. Brodie also initiated a year-end fundraising appeal that has become a helpful source of additional income, as well as helped found the Advocate Press, the Advocate’s successful book-publishing arm.
It is committed to being a fair, balanced publication that tries its best to help today’s United Methodists can safely dialogue about often-divisive issues facing the church, such as sexuality and racism.
Today, the Advocate is a thriving print and online newspaper that is active on social media. Many of its articles are disseminated globally through the United Methodist News Service and other religious publications and websites. It maintains an excellent relationship with the annual conference, and while it receives some conference funding, it is taking steps toward self-sufficiency through alternative funding.
To learn more about the history of the Advocate, consider purchasing the Advocate’s history book, “In the World, Not of the World,” available as an eBook or hard copy.