Joel Reese is the Local History Librarian at the Iredell County Public Library.
One of the early leaders in the development of education and religious instruction for the black community in Iredell County was Reverend Sidney S. Murkland. Rev. Murkland was a white man born in Scotland, where his family had been friends with the poet Robert Burns. Murkland was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1836 and did foreign missionary work in South America under the auspices of the London Missionary Society from 1836-1846 and in Liverpool from 1846-1850. He immigrated to America in 1851 and served as pastor at Parkersburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), Petersburg, and Richmond from 1851-1861. Rev. Murkland came to Iredell County to serve as pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church in 1861. Murkland was greatly influenced in his beliefs from his experiences as a missionary in British Guiana where he had witnessed the emancipation of the black population.
When Murkland first attended Bethany Church in Iredell County he wrote, “I found the pulpit placed with about two-thirds of the church in front for the whites and one-third in the back for the blacks. This partition was the back of the pulpit, and a high door in each passage, to keep the blacks out of sight of the whites.” After a year of preaching, Murkland informed the church that unless they took the partition down and moved the pulpit forward to the front where he could address all the people with their faces looking at him he would resign. He recalled, “I then said that all who wanted my service on these terms will please rise; I was surprised to see nearly every one rise. Then after they sat down, I said, Let those who are opposed to these charges rise up, but not one arose.” The pulpit was moved and the partition taken down.
Although Rev. Murkland was an abolitionist who opposed slavery, he continued as pastor at Bethany, Tabor, and Fifth Creek Churches throughout the Civil War, even serving as a missionary to General Lee’s army in October 1863. Rev. Murkland’s position on slavery was accepted or at least overlooked by his congregation. As the war neared its end, though, he gave a speech before the North Carolina Synod at Raleigh in which he advocated the abolition of slavery. His public position turned some against him and his efforts to start a school for blacks at Bethany at the end of the war proved to be too much, leading some in the Bethany Congregation to oppose him.
Rev. Murkland resigned as pastor of Bethany, but later wrote that, “I offered to preach to the whites once a week gratis, if they would allow me the use of the church to preach to the blacks, but they refused my offer, and locked up the Bethany church doors to keep us out.” Murkland withdrew from the Southern Presbyterian Church and joined the Northern Presbyterian after deciding to dedicate his life to helping the newly freed black citizens. He first held services at his house and then used an old cocoonery or silk house on his farm to hold church and teach, with the help of his wife, Mary McGregor, and his nieces, “Big Kate” and “Little Kate.” The church became Freedom Presbyterian Church and it was the first free black church in Iredell County and perhaps North Carolina. He also opened up Bethany School on his land to serve the black community and later donated six acres of land that the school and church sat on to Freedom Presbyterian. His efforts were not without opposition, “At first we met with much opposition and threatening. A letter came to me saying, ‘That if we did not stop teaching the Negroes, our house would be burned,’ and gave us so many weeks to leave. Later, local opposition to his efforts softened, “Sometimes the wicked would curse us passing on the road, but now all is changed and our bittersweet foes have become our friends.”
On October 4, 1866 Rev. Sidney S. Murkland, Rev. Samuel C. Alexander, and Rev. Willis L. Miller met on the spot where Freedom Church now stands and organized the first Synod for African-Americans in the country, forming the Catawba Presbytery. The Presbytery began with Freedom Presbyterian, six miles from Statesville and McClintock Church, ten miles from Charlotte. The three men were concerned about the welfare of the blacks after the war and proposed the creation of a college for their education. The proposal was approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and today the three are recognized as the three founding fathers of Johnson C. Smith University (then called Biddle Memorial Institute) founded on April 7, 1867.
Rev. Murkland grew ill in 1877 and relocated to Farmville, Virginia to live with a son. He died March 1, 1880 at the age of 74. Upon hearing of his death The Landmark remembered him fondly saying, “He was a gentlemen of high and pure Christian Character, and was greatly venerated by the good people of this country among whom he made his home.”
The library’s Local History Department has a large collection of Church History Files that cover many of the churches in Iredell County. These files contain articles, programs, flyers, church records, and histories. The library encourages churches to bring information about their history and let us copy it for our files. Photos, flyers, pamphlets, founder’s day celebration programs, church rolls, minutes, and histories are especially welcome. For more information contact Joel Reese at 704-878-3093.