When William Plumer Jacobs arrived in Laurens County in 1864 to pastor a small Presbyterian Church, the village that would become known as Clinton was known for “horse-racing, chicken-fighting, gander-pulling, gambling and drinking, rowdyism, brawling, and other disorders.”
Seven years later, Clinton was the town of homeless orphans, the unemployed, and roving bands of desperate men. Robberies, murders, and lynchings were common. Educational opportunities were virtually nonexistent and the railroad to which Clinton owed its existence went into bankruptcy.
Jacobs wrote in his diary: “The town has been at a dead standstill with premonitory symptoms of galloping consumption. Her streets are deserted, the stores have no customers, families speak of moving away. I feel convinced that nearly all of those I love the best will be gone. If at the end of the year affairs are no better than they are today I would like to go to another field.”
It would have taken a man of true faith and vision at that point to think such a town would support a college. Fortunately, Jacobs was such a man.
Just one year after his bleak journal entry, Jacobs wrote with conviction “that God has a purpose in locating me in Clinton” and he soon presented to the session of First Presbyterian Church plans for an orphanage — a practical solution to the problem of homeless, parentless children. Many mocked the idea and referred to it simply as “Jacobs Folly,” but he moved forward and also organized the Clinton High School Association to provide a future for the youth of the town.
In 1874, just as the orphanage was about to open, Jacobs again looked at the needs of society and anticipated a next step: “I have at last set my heart on a plan it is nothing more nor less than the establishment of a college at Clinton. It will take a vast outlay of time and money but it can be done and, God willing, it shall be done.”
The Civil War and Reconstruction left the South in ruins. Where others saw ashes, Jacobs envisioned a rising phoenix — a New South that would be built on the foundation of Christian education.
The Clinton High School Association renovated a pre-war academy building on the northern edge of town. William States Lee, a College of Charleston graduate with more than 20 years experience as an educator, was hired as principal and teacher. This action made possible, at private expense, educational opportunities for young people in Clinton until the state was able to take responsibility for public schools.
Lee’s high scholastic standards included in the school program some work of college-level quality that allowed the high school association to change its name to the Clinton College Association. Almost all of the association members being Presbyterians, they transferred their stock to the session of the Clinton Church. Civic and business leaders contributed to the institution’s well-being and growth.
Lee, as head of the school, became president of Clinton College. As president of the Board of Trustees for 25 years, Jacobs remained its driving force until 1904. At that time it came under full support and possession of Presbyterians of South Carolina.”
— from the Presbyterian College 125th Anniversary Magazine