The ultimate Internet source for information about
the Rev. John Bachman; clergyman, naturalist, social reformer, and founder of Newberry College
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John Bachman was born in 4 February 1790 in New York State near the village of Rhinebeck in Duchess County (right) to farmer Jacob Bachman (born 1761 in Pennsylvania) and Eva Shop; John had two brothers--Jacob and Henry--and a sister, Eva. The family is apparently of Swiss origin (probably in or near Richterswil, Canton, Zurich), but there is considerable disagreement among genealogists about the actual line of descent. (There's also a dispute on how to pronounce Bachman's last name. Some authorities claim it's "BACK-man," others say "BOCK-man." At Newberry College most folks favor the latter, but this is one question that may never be satisfactorily resolved.)
When still a boy Bachman served as secretary for a group that met with representatives of the Oneida Indians. He was an ardent outdoorsman from a young age and spent a great deal of time walking the countryside and "camping out" with a family slave wise in the ways of nature. His father showed him a copy of the works of Martin Luther (left), which prompted Bachman to study the Holy Bible and Luther's life and religious philosophies. Some sources say he attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
During a stay for schooling in Philadelphia, Bachman visited John Bartram's famous garden and met poet and naturalist Alexander Wilson (below right), perhaps the first real scientific expert on birds of North America. His volume on American Ornithology set the tone for natural history studies in the fledgling United States. Wilson introduced Bachman to Friedrich Heinrich Alexander (AKA Baron von Humboldt), the great Prussian botanist and explorer for whom, among other things, an ocean current is named; these men showed Bachman that studying natural history was an acceptable vocation or pastime.
Bachman eventually taught school in Ellwood, Pennsylvania, where he also became licensed to preach in a Lutheran church for the year preceding his ordination in 1814. From there he was invited to become pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a call he accepted in part because he thought this southern seaport town would be kinder to his respiratory problems. Arriving in January 1815, he ended up staying at St. John's for 56 years!
Those six decades at St. John's--the church with the rounded steeple in the 1861 photo at left--were memorable and productive; by the end of his service there Bachman had demonstrated that he was a true renaissance man.
Although his father was a slave owner, Bachman helped educate scores of Charlestonians of African heritage--an act both illegal and/or socially unacceptable in the antebellum South--and is said to have baptized as many as 90 blacks in one year, helping raise the black membership of St. John's as high as 40%.
Early on Bachman fell in with a "Circle of Naturalists"--a group of physicians and nature devotees from the faculty of the Medical College of South Carolina and the College of Charleston. Included in the group were such scientific authorities as John Edwards Holbrook, Edmund Ravenel, Lewis Reeves Gibbes, Francis Simmons Holmes, and John McCrady. Together with Bachman, these men made Charleston one of the most productive centers for natural history investigation in the Western Hemisphere--rivaling even Boston and Philadelphia.
Bachman took tremendous pleasure from his scientific study of birds, small mammals (especially rabbits), wildflowers, and virtually any kind of flora or fauna. Eventually his reputation as a highly competent naturalist became known to John James Audubon (above right), the famous bird painter. On a trip to the U.S. in 1831--when Audubon was soliciting subscriptions to his monumental Birds of North America--the artist accidentally encountered John Bachman traveling down a street, got acquainted immediately, and arranged to spend a month at the Bachman home on Rutledge Avenue (left), where began a lifelong relationship of affection and respect between these two men.
As Audubon's bird folios began to sell, he and Bachman conceived of another set of volumes that would include paintings of North American mammals. Audubon acknowledged that Bachman knew far more about the habits of these creatures, so Audubon did the paintings while Bachman wrote nearly all of the scientific text for another massive work on the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. These volumes included such exotic species as the American Bison (right), Wolverine, and Musk Ox--animals unknown to the average American citizen--but also documented common mammals such as Eastern Gray Squirrels and White-footed Mice; the gentlemen even included invasive European species such as the House Mouse. Bachman was so intent on doing an accurate job with the mammmals text that he devoted ten years to writing it--and declined the presidency of the University of South Carolina lest it interfere with his work. Bachman--with Audubon's sons--brought the Quadrupeds volumes to press after the old artist's death in 1851.
In 1816 in Charleston, Bachman had married Harriet Martin (1791-1846), who bore him 14 children (nine survived) but suffered chronic tic douloureux. Two years after Harriet herself died in 1846, Bachman married her sister, Maria (1796-1863, at left), who--thanks to encouragement from Audubon--became one of the few women in 19th century America to develop talent in natural history illustration. Maria contributed work for Holbrook's important North American Herpetology (Black Racer at right) and painted background features for Bird of North America and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America; in fact, she is credited by Audubon for painting the flowers that accompany his illustrations of Bachman's Warbler and Bachman's Sparrow. Critics described Maria Martin's renderings of insects and wildflowers as particularly good in that they coupled scientific accuracy with an artist's sense of color and natural beauty.
The friendship between John Bachman and John James Audubon was only intensified by the marriage of Audubon sons to Bachman daughters: John Woodhouse Audubon wed Maria Rebecca Bachman in 1837, and Victor Gifford Audubon married Mary Eliza Bachman a short time later. John Woodhouse and Maria Rebecca Audubon soon produced two daughters, these named respectively for their grandmothers--Harriet (first wife of Bachman) and Lucy (Audubon's wife, shown at left with the two granddaughters). Unfortunately, the two younger Audubon wives died of tuberculosis within a few years of marriage. Among Bachman's other daughters, Eva married William Elnathan Haskell, and Helen Lynch wedded Robert T. Chisolm. In the War Between the States, Bachman's son--Capt. William K. Bachman--commanded Bachman's Battery of South Carolina's Hampton Legion. Another son, Dr. Samuel Wilson Bachman, was in the medical department of the Confederate army.
Despite his dedication to natural history--which he pursued by rising very early in the morning--during normal business hours Bachman was intensely active in church affairs and public education. He helped establish the Lutheran Synod of South Carolina, and twice served as its president (1824-1833, 1839-1840). He helped found the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary at Pomaria SC in 1831, and then Newberry College in 1856. He served the College as its first board president and oversaw the school's development and expansion for many years.
Bachman also took time to write in diverse realms (see Bachman Resources), not the least of which was nearly 59 years' worth of Sunday sermons. His principal religious work was A Defense of Luther and the Reformation (1853), which countered attacks on Protestantism from local Roman Catholics in the Charleston area. He also published several natural history papers, including Two Letters on Hibridity (1850), Notice of the Types of Mankind by Nott and Gliddon (1854), and Examination of Professor Agassizs Sketch of the Natural Provinces of the Animal World (1855). He was a frequent contributor to the South Carolina Medical Journal (which included natural history essays), and spoke at science professional meetings on such topics as "The Migration of the Birds of North America" (lecture text above right).
As sectionalism began to disrupt unity in the South, Bachman wrote Characteristics of Genera and Species, as Applicable to the Doctrine of Unity in the Human Race (1864). This radical but scientifically accurate text held that master and slave were the same species, providing a scientific rationale against slavery. Although he held Unionist views, when South Carolina met to enact the Ordinance of Secession in December 1860, Bachman opened the meeting with a prayer and thereafter minimized his political activities, choosing to spend the war years ministering to the sick and dying.
Bachman was severely beaten and had an arm permanently paralyzed by Union soldiers, and his scientific collections and library--slated for delivery to Newberry College--were destroyed by Sherman’s Army. Partially disabled by this attack, Bachman eventually died in Charleston SC on 24 February 1874 at the age of 84 years and 20 days. On the day of his interment, bells rang at local churches and all classes were cancelled at the College of Charleston, where he once taught. He is buried in front of the altar in St. John's Lutheran Church (below), and his life and work are commemorated by markers there, at Newberry College, and elsewhere.
You may also be interested in reading John Bachman: A Life of Service, a short biographical sketch written in the late 1970s by Mary Bachman Hoover, Bachman's granddaughter. You can access more detailed information about Bachman's life and work by clicking on the links in the column at left.
You may also be interested in an abbreviated Bachman Family Tree that includes his parents, siblings, and children.