Presbyterians of the Past

Samuel R. Preston, 1849-1929

Samuel Rhea was born to Capt. John F. and Jane Rhea Preston in Abington, Virginia, September 4, 1849. He began his college education at Emory and Henry College in Emory but finished his Bachelor of Arts degree at King College in scenic Bristol. King College was named for Presbyterian minister James King and was established by the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). After he completed ministerial studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in the spring of 1874, he married Ida Sutphen, June 30. 

For his first pastoral charge, Preston was ordained and installed by Florida Presbytery in the Presbyterian Church at Fernandina Florida on November 6, 1874. While in Florida, Ida and Samuel’s first child, John Fairman, was born. Baby John would grow up to become a Presbyterian missionary in Korea for nearly forty years. Samuel’s ministry in Florida was brief because the Prestons left the church sometime in 1875. The reason for the short call is not mentioned in the sources available, but it may have been due to the newlyweds adjusting to marriage, a new baby, and the ruggedness of Florida’s mosquito-infested coastal region. If they had managed to complete their move to Florida from Columbia by September 28, 1874, they experienced the hurricane that passed through the area that day as it exited the state having entered the west coast from the Gulf of Mexico. Florida in 1874 could be an uninviting place to the uninitiated and a hurricane would have made for a less than congenial introduction to often sunny but sometimes intimidating Florida living in the nineteenth century.

Rev. Preston’s next call took the family back to Tennessee where he served the Mars Hill Church in Athens for a period of about three years beginning in 1876. Then he moved his ministry to the Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Virginia, for about three years during which time he also completed the Master of Arts program at King College in 1882. For several years, Rev. Preston served a number of churches in Virginia as either the installed pastor or as a temporary pulpit supply. Also, during this time he was president of Plumer Memorial Female College, Wytheville, Virginia, 1886-1890 (the college is defunct). Plumer College was named for William Swan Plumer who was a respected minister and churchman that had passed away in 1880 after a long pastoral, educational, and literary ministry and he was a professor at Columbia Seminary while Preston was a student.

For Dr. Preston’s next call, he moved from the mountains, hills, and valleys of Virginia to South Carolina to serve the Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville. He was installed the second pastor of the congregation on December 28, 1895. In conjunction with shepherding the church, he returned to college work as the president of Chicora College beginning that same year. Chicora College had been established through the efforts of a diligent group of Greenville Presbyterians that met August 12, 1893 to discuss, plan, and organize the college for women. At the time, the church property and the manse were located on the southwest corner of Rhett and Wardlaw, which was just a few blocks from the college campus. The Chicora property was within the area that is currently bounded by River and South Main Streets, and the Reedy River. As the months passed, Pastor Preston’s work for Chicora College was taking an increasing number of hours from his pastoral call as is indicated by his move from the church manse to the more substantial brick house on campus. Something had to give, so S. R. Preston decided to leave pastoral ministry to give all his time to college administration and fund raising.

On May 1, 1899, Enoree Presbytery met at First Presbyterian Church, Greenville, and accomplished the following action with respect to Dr. Preston and Second Church:

On motion, the pastoral relation existing between the Rev. S. R. Preston, D.D., and the 2d Presbyterian Church of Greenville, was dissolved, the church agreeing thereto through her representative, [Ruling Elder] J. C. Bailey.

When he resigned from Second Church, Dr. Preston dedicated his full efforts to expanding and stabilizing struggling Chicora College. A number of local church-based colleges existed in the nineteenth century all over the nation and as transportation was facilitated by expanded train service and later the automobile, the need for local colleges for near-by residents diminished. Another factor contributing to the demise of many religious colleges was the growth of state university systems in the nation. Chicora, too, would find that financial difficulties would lead to consolidation, moving its campus, and eventually being absorbed by another institution.

The last action of Second Church regarding the Preston household occurred June 6, 1899, when Mrs. Preston (Ida); their communing children John Fairman (the future missionary to Korea), M. Floy, and James B.; and their two baptized children, Ida and Jane, were dismissed to the First Presbyterian Church, Greenville. Dr. Preston remained a member of Enoree Presbytery while he was president of Chicora College. He had been honored with the Doctor of Divinity by King College in 1891.

After resigning from Chicora in 1906, Dr. Preston suffered an extended period of illness leading him to convalesce back in Bristol. When he recovered, the household moved to Atlanta where he was the superintendent of Presbyterian Hospital which was an endeavor that had a brief existence closing its doors after only a few years. After a year as a stated supply minister back in Bristol, he returned to Atlanta and supplied the Pryor Street Presbyterian Church, 1911-1913. Following a time without a call, Rev. Samuel Rhea Preston, D.D., was honorably retired from active ministry by the Presbytery of Atlanta in 1919.

Dr. Preston and Ida lived in Decatur, Georgia, until his death on December 6, 1929, which was followed a little over six months later by the death of Ida on June 30, 1930. Samuel and Ida were buried in what must have been their favorite place, Bristol.

Barry Waugh

The information from the Enoree Presbytery minutes is from a copy of the published edition held by the author of this article.

The information about the 1874 hurricane was obtained from an amazing government website that locates and maps hurricanes of the past via searching the location and date parameters desired. The site is located at The Chicora College picture is from the Greenville County Library System digital collection; Preston’s brick house can be seen on the right. The bearded man is William S. Plumer.

The photograph of S. R. Preston is from Chicora’s yearbook, Clarion, for 1902. The same book provided the photograph of the faculty with Preston in the upper left corner. The list of faculty members is on page 10.

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