William Plumer Jacobs was born to Rev. Ferdinand and Mary Elizabeth (Redbrook) Jacobs in Yorkville, South Carolina, March 15, 1842. Ferdinand had been born in Alexandria, Virginia, and following his education at Hampden-Sydney College and Union Seminary he served churches in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Ferdinand Jacob’s ministry over the years included the presidency of Laurens Female Seminary, principal of the Charleston Female Seminary, and teaching in Oglethorpe University. Young William would follow in his father’s footsteps and be involved in both pastoral and educational work as a Presbyterian minister, but he would also enter other areas of service during his very busy life.
Jacobs received his education in South Carolina at the College of Charleston, which was followed by ministerial studies at Columbia Theological Seminary. To gain preaching experience and test his ministerial gifts before finishing seminary he was licensed by Charleston Presbytery in the spring of 1863. After graduation Licentiate Jacobs was ordained and installed in First Presbyterian Church of Clinton beginning a call that would extend from 1864 until it was dissolved July 28, 1911. During the forty-seven years of his ministry the communicant membership of First Church grew from around 40 to over 300. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities with the Clinton congregation he supplied both the Duncan’s Creek and Shady Grove Churches, 1864-73; was stated supply of the Rockbridge Church, 1870-87; and was often invited to preach in other churches throughout the presbytery and synod.
Following the Civil War, the South’s recovery was slow due to a collapsed economy and the difficulties of Reconstruction. The administrative and physical infrastructure for educating local youth had to be rebuilt. W. P. Jacobs saw the need and organized the Clinton High School Association in 1872. An old pre-war academy building at the edge of town was renovated and William States Lee of Edisto Island was hired to be the principal and teacher. However, the new school was private and only those who could afford the fees had access to an education. From the small start of the Clinton High School Association came the organization that would take the next step, the Clinton College Association. On October 11, 1880, Clinton College, currently Presbyterian College, was organized a coeducational school with the driving force coming from Rev. Jacobs and his First Church congregation. He would serve as president of the board for over twenty years. W. S. Lee went on from his high school work to be the first president of Clinton College, and a local minister and educator, Zelotes Holmes, was hired to serve on the faculty.
Even though serving churches and leading in higher education would seem to be enough for Pastor Jacobs to do, his compassion for the homeless children of his day led to the founding of Thornwell Orphanage. His mother, Mary Elizabeth, had been an orphan until she was adopted into the family of William Swan Plumer, thus the “William Plumer” in his name was her way of honoring her adoptive parents. The name, “Thornwell Orphanage,” was chosen by Jacobs to honor and remember his seminary professor, James H. Thornwell, who was himself an orphan. A board for the institution was organized in 1873, the first building was begun in 1874, and the first orphans were admitted on October 1, 1875. The orphanage went through difficult times but by 1909 the number of children was great enough that they could no longer worship with First Presbyterian Church due to the limits of its seating, so Enoree Presbytery organized Thornwell Memorial Church on the orphanage campus. Dr. Jacobs was called to serve the Thornwell Church while continuing at First Church, but due to the heavy load of work and his increasing age he resigned from First Church and dedicated his pastoral efforts to Thornwell Memorial.
Dr. Jacobs love for the orphans is seen in a monument in the First Church cemetery for Mary Jane Manson (1876-1915) or “Mollie,” who was adopted by him on June 17, 1896 (Diary, 318). It is appropriate that the compassionate founder of an orphanage would adopt a child into his home (Mrs. Jacobs had died in 1879). According to the dates on the grave memorial, Mollie was approaching her twentieth birthday when she was adopted. It may seem unusual to adopt a twenty-year-old woman, but it should be remembered that Victorians thought propriety, manners, and family were important for a young lady’s social position and necessary for courting and marriage. Another possibility for the late adoption might have been that Mollie was unable to take care of herself due to a physical or psychological challenge. When Mollie died, W. P. Jacobs commented, “We buried Mollie, yesterday, at 6 in the evening. A lovely evening. God smiled upon her—a beautiful service, men and women mourned. All have been good to me” (Diary, 462).
Another field of endeavor for W. P. Jacobs was printing. He not only founded and wrote much of the content of the periodicals, Our Monthly, True Witness, Farm and Garden, and Orphan Work, but all four were printed on a press purchased by him and set up in Clinton. The press was used to print these periodicals and orphanage publications, as well as presbytery minutes and other denominational literature. The print shop provided a vocational education for the orphans and opportunity for others to learn a trade and prepare for their futures.
W. P. Jacobs had married Mary Jane Dillard in Coldwater, South Carolina, April 20, 1865. There were at least seven children born into the Jacobs household. The five that lived to be adults included Florence Lee, James Ferdinand, William States, John Dillard, and Thornwell. In the cemetery abutting the First Presbyterian Church in Clinton are markers for two children that died in infancy. One stone may be for Eugene Ferdinand who was born in 1869 (Diary, 128), and the name of another child is abbreviated with the initials “W. J. J.” on the grave marker. Given the high infant mortality rate of the era, it is possible that other children died in infancy and their deaths were not mentioned in Dr. Jacobs’s diary.
William Plumer Jacobs died on September 10, 1917. He was a pastor, churchman, educator, printer, and orphanage founder who was honored by his peers. Shortly after he started ministry in Clinton he received the Master of Arts from the College of Charleston. In 1886, he was given the LL.D. by Erskine College in South Carolina. Dr. Jacobs’s faithfulness as a churchman is seen in his service at the clerk’s desk for South Carolina Presbytery, 1875-1878, and then for Enoree Presbytery, 1879-1897. In addition to the extensive writing for serials, he published The History of the Presbyterian Church, Clinton, S. C., circa 1901; A History of God’s Work through his People for the Thornwell Orphanage: Being the Testimony of a Grateful Heart; 1894; and To Jerusalem and “the regions beyond”: On the Steamer Friesland, 1897, which was about his trip to Europe. In the published minutes for the Synod of South Carolina, a memorial for Dr. Jacobs is found on pages 58-60. As the memorial draws to its conclusion, Dr. Jacobs significance and influence is described.
How one man of delicate body, with defective sight and hearing from his youth, and often the victim of illness, could accomplish all that Dr. Jacobs has done, is indeed a marvel. But his work, as a monument erected by himself through his constructive genius, persistent toil and well-directed efforts, is before us today, speaking for itself. And the explanation is doubtless to be found in his indefatigable industry and his rare capacity for doing things, coupled with a thorough consecration to God, faith in prayer and fidelity to truth and duty. Truly may it be said of him as of Mary, “He hath done what he could,” and now, as our Synod reviews the distinguished career of its esteemed and lamented fellow-laborer, who like his Master, made himself the servant of all, it may record its appreciation of his inestimable service by borrowing other words of our Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Notes—The books by Ben Hay Hammet, The Spirit of PC: A Centennial History of Presbyterian College, Clinton: Jacobs Press, 1982; Thornwell Jacobs, The Life of William Plumer Jacobs, New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1918, and edited by the same author, Diary of William Plumer Jacobs, Oglethorpe: Oglethorpe University Press, 1937, were very helpful. The Jacobs memorial is found in the Minutes of the Synod of South Carolina Held At Seneca, South Carolina, November 6-8, 1917, Spartanburg: Band & White Printers. A president of the orphanage, L. Ross Lynn, wrote The Story of Thornwell Orphanage, 1875-1925. Presbyterian College has the office of Dr. Jacobs including his library and furniture reconstructed for display in its archives.