Iredell County native Phyllis Bailey will present a special program on the “History of Black Churches in Iredell County” as part of the Iredell County Public Library Local History Department’s Black History Month celebration on Saturday, February 1st at 11:30 a.m. Ms. Bailey’s program will include a slideshow featuring photographs of many of the black churches in Iredell County along with historical background information. Phyllis Bailey is a retired teacher of mathematics at Mitchell Community College and a long-time member of the Iredell County Genealogical Society. She received her B.S. from Livingston College and her M.P.A. from the State University of New York at Albany. Audience members will be encouraged to share their memories of going to church while growing up in Iredell County. The Iredell County Public Library is featuring a display of photographs of black military veterans, families, churches, communities, and schools in February in its display cases at the front entrance of the library.
The first free black church in Iredell County was Freedom United Presbyterian Church. Rev. Sidney S. Murkland was the white pastor at Bethany Presbyterian Church during the Civil War. In 1864 he was approached by black members of Bethany who requested that he start a Sunday school for the black members. When the war ended in 1865 Murkland left Bethany and started both Freedom Presbyterian Church and the Bethany School for the black community in April on his own land which he later donated to the church. On Oct. 4, 1866, Rev. Sidney S. Murkland, Rev. Samuel C. Alexander, and Rev. Willis L. Miller met at the spot where Freedom Presbyterian now stands and formed the Catawba Presbytery, the first Synod for African-Americans in the country. Today these three men are recognized as the three founding fathers of Johnson C. Smith University (then called Biddle Memorial Institute), founded on April 7, 1867.
It is interesting to note that the first actions by the newly freed slaves were to start churches and schools. The North Carolina Slave Code of 1715, prevented slaves from gathering in groups for any reason, including religious worship and required slaves to carry a ticket from their master whenever they left the plantation. Stricter laws were put into place in 1741 preventing slaves from raising their own livestock and from carrying guns without their master’s permission, even for hunting. In 1830 N.C. passed a statue making it a crime to teach a slave to read or write. By 1835 a N.C. law was passed making it illegal for any black free or slave to vote, attend school, or preach in public.
The 1830 North Carolina law making it a crime to teach a slave to read or write noted “Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dis-satisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State.” Fear of slave rebellion was sweeping the South as the legality of slavery became a national issue in the United States. Many feared that black literacy would prove a threat to a slave system that made blacks dependent on their masters. Others worried that it was a sin for a Christian to own another Christian and wished to prevent blacks from reading the Bible or being taught Christianity. However, there were churches that welcomed black slaves such as Bethany Presbyterian here in Iredell County though they were seated in separate sections. Records still exist for black members listed in church records for the Methodist Episcopal Church South, Salisbury District, Iredell Circuit, 1834-1850.
In 1800 there were 140,000 African Americans living in North Carolina. By 1860 the number had risen to 361,522. After the war another white minister named Amos D. Billingsley came to Iredell County from Ohio and helped start Cameron, Logan, New Center, and Second Presbyterian churches. Other churches soon appeared after the war in Iredell County including the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Zion Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church. Early black Baptist churches include New Friendship (1896), Pleasant Hill, Mt. Nebo (1870), and First Baptist Church (1874) which is on Garfield St. Mt. Pleasant Methodist was organized in 1869 and is now called Mt. Pleasant AME Zion Church. Shiloh AME Zion Church in the Belmont area was organized in 1880. Scotts Chapel United Methodist was organized in the 1890s.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article was published in the Statesville Record and Landmark in January 2014