Trinity’s members have long been proud of the stained glass that graces the lovely 1860 neo-Gothic church in Abbeville, South Carolina. Legend, passed down through generations, told of how the chancel window, ordered from England, did not arrive until 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. According to the story, when the packing crate was opened, the stained glass window was discovered to be one ordered by a Northern church. Church leaders decided to keep the window despite having to alter it to fit the existing space. A lovely legend, indeed!
Recent research by Ann Hutchinson Waigand, daughter of Church Historian, May Hutchinson, has proved that the chancel window, as well as several other pieces of stained glass in the church, have a far more significant provenance. Working with newspaper records and archives containing papers of the church architect, George E. Walker, Waigand has been able to show that the chancel window, a second window, and 10 small stained glass medallions can be attributed to William Gibson, who has been referred to as “the father of stained glass painting in America.”
Uncovering this fascinating fact involved a bit of modern-day detective work and started with an attempt to find which English stained glass studio could have made Trinity’s window. A newspaper account of the church’s consecration, written on November 9, 1860, five days after the November 4 event, surprisingly describes both the windows on the sides of the church as well as a chancel window that is remarkably similar to the window that exists today: “On either hand are the large Gothic Windows of Stained Glass through which the ‘dim, religious light’ falls in rays of many a fantastic hue; whilst in the rear the beautiful Chancel..and rich stained glass window…one of the finest in the State; representing the figure of Christ bearing his cross and surrounded with many appropriate devices.”
In addition, a letter dated May 9,1862, found buried in the middle of a collection of 1950s bank statements in an old safe at the back of the church, tells of then-Vicar Benjamin Johnson requesting payment for repairs to the frame of the chancel window. He writes that the window “had shrunk to such an extent and the glass drawn out of its place so generally thereby that it became necessary (in order to stop the numerous leaks) to take down the outside wire and putty and paint it all over again.” If the chancel window were in place—and leaking—in 1862, it certainly could not have run the Union blockade in 1863.
Virginia Raguin, who headed the Census of Stained Glass Windows in America, and Tony Benyon, who has compiled a list of 19th-century stained glass artists in England, affirm that Trinity’s window is American in origin. English stained glass experienced stylistic changes between 1855 and 1860 which are not reflected in Trinity’s chancel window.
Papers of architect, George E. Walker, who also worked on the SC State Capitol and designed the building that is now South Carolina’s Governor’s Mansion, contain a single letter, dated August 19, 1856, from William and James (William’s son) Gibson of New York City to George E. Walker, architect. The letter is a response to an order from Walker to Gibson for a stained glass window for a house being designed and built for James Harvey Carson, a wealthy businessman in Charlotte who owned the Rudisill Gold Mine. Jean Farnsworth, an expert on early American stained glass, including the Gibson family, confirmed that architects often selected one stained glass artist with which to work on their projects, and thus the established connection between Gibson and Trinity’s architect supports attribution of the church’s windows to William Gibson. It is perhaps no coincidence that the original chancel window (since replaced) in Trinity Episcopal Church, New Orleans, was also made by William Gibson at the same period. Lending further weight to the conclusion that William Gibson crafted Abbeville’s window is the fact that both Gibson and Walker were of Scottish descent: Gibson came to the U.S. from Scotland, establishing his studio in New York City in 1833, and George Walker’s father, Robert Walker, a celebrated cabinetmaker in Charleston, SC, immigrated from Scotland in 1793. Artisans in 19th-century America, where many were recent immigrants or first-generation Americans, tended to favor working with their fellow countrymen.
In the late 1850s, at the same time Trinity Episcopal Church was being built, William Gibson’s younger brothers, John and George Gibson, were completing the stained glass skylights in the U.S. Capitol. It is remarkable to note that Jehu Foster Marshall, a member of Trinity’s Building Committee and the major benefactor of the church, had his own ties to the nation’s Capitol. Marshall’s brother-in-law, James Lawrence Orr, was in the U.S. Congress, and also served as Speaker of the House, during the time the Gibson brothers were working on the Capitol building. In the years just prior to the building of Trinity, Marshall graced the gardens of his home on Abbeville’s North Main Street with a 14-foot-tall cast iron fountain that was made by Janes, Beebe, and Company of New York City, the same iron foundry that crafted the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Marshall may have learned of William Gibson’s firm and of the iron foundry through his brother-in-law as the Gibson stained glass skylights were installed in iron frames made by Janes, Beebe, and Company.
Today Trinity holds the largest collection of William Gibson stained glass that has been identified. Stylistic similarities between the chancel window and the “Suffer Little Children” window, as well as the medallions with symbols of faith gracing the tops of windows throughout the church, suggest that these pieces of stained glass were also made by William Gibson’s studio. In fact, Trinity contains a virtual library of rare 19th-century American stained glass, including diamond-paned (quarry) windows and two very early “paper” or stenciled windows, considered to be the “poor man’s” stained glass. The three windows across the front of the church remain a mystery though the type of glass and design suggest they were placed in the church in the 1880s or 1890s. Only one window dates from the 20th century, the Epiphany window next to the organ. Signed by the heralded J.& R. Lamb Studio, the window was installed in 1941, based on a bequest in the will of Charleston businessman Langdon Cheves.
A question that still puzzles Trinity’s many admirers: What caused the legend of an English-made window running the Charleston Blockade to develop? Historic newspapers may, once again, provide a clue. Abbeville’s Independent Press carried a report of donations received from Charleston: From Mr. Trenholm $1,000 and $500 and from Mr. Wagner $500 twice.
Who were these wealthy benefactors? (Trenholm donated 10% of the church’s overall $15,000 cost!) George Alfred Trenholm and Theodore Wagner were partners in a Charleston-based shipping business which also had an office in Liverpool, England. During the Civil War, Trenholm, who later became Secretary of the Treasury of the Confederacy, was a blockade runner so celebrated that many believe he was the model for Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. Could these related facts—England, blockade runner, large donation to Trinity’s construction—have become muddled over the years, resulting in the legend of an English window running the Civil War blockade? Perhaps further research will shed more light on this theory and open up equally fascinating stories behind Trinity’s as yet- undocumented windows.
With gratitude for invaluable assistance from stained glass expert Jean Farnsworth.