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Writing Congregational Histories


(Converted to html from Hill, Samuel S. Encyclopedia of Religion in the South. Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1984. Used with permission of Mercer University Press)

The Southern Christian Church arose from the JAMES O'KELLY schism of 1792 in the early Methodist Church in North Carolina and Virginia. O'Kelly's followers, who formally organized themselves in 1794, were sometimes called O'Kellians or Republican Methodists in tribute to their leader and in reference to their utter aversion to anything that smacked of hierarchical authority in the church. O'Kelly preferred the name Christian because it suggested a fellowship of Protestant believers that transcended denominationalism.

Often confused with the Disciples of Christ, with "Campbellites," or with Christians in New England or the West, the Southern Christian Church's choice of a name was innocently—perhaps deliberately—ambiguous. During the fierce controversies between O'Kelly and the Methodists, early Southern Christians became wedded to a radically Christocentric theology and democratic church polity. Because they made adherence to the Bible the only creedal basis of fellowship and because they insisted that every believer had direct access to the ear of the Savior, Jesus literally became "King and Head of the people" in their conception of the church, and "the all-sufficiency of a 'Bible Government"' permeated the sectarian affairs of their church. When Abner Jones left the Baptists and BARTON W. STONE the Presbyterians to affiliate with O'Kelly, they made it a remarkably nondenominational entity that was known by 1820 as the "Christian Connection." A similar group of New England Christians sought union with the O'Kellians, but insisted on baptism by immersion, which O'Kelly opposed.

From 1794 to 1810 an annual General Meeting governed Christians from Pennsylvania to Georgia, but then the nascent denomination split into two distinct conferences—Eastern Virginia and North Carolina-Virginia. The Eastern Virginia Conference maintained close ties to New England Christians and in 1844-1846 sought again to bring about a union. However, the project collapsed in 1846 when the New England Christians issued a ringing denunciation of slavery; the Christian Sun of Hillsborough—which had strongly supported overtures to the North—retorted, "the Borealis of the north cannot frighten and bewilder us.... We have no desire to be united with you." A similar effort at the 1854 General Christian Conference in Cincinnati to persuade Northern Christians to desist from condemning slaveholding also failed amid an acrimonious debate on the Fugitive Slave Law. Accordingly, in 1856 the Eastern Virginia and North Carolina-Virginia conferences merged to form the Southern Christian Convention. In 1858 the Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri Conferences became loosely affiliated with the convention. Over the next 40 years the denomination suffered from lack of a formally trained clergy and an inability to project a vigorous institutional image— weaknesses highlighted by a strenuous campaign for reform led by the newly elected church president, Jesse T. Whitley, in 1878. Failing to find support, Whitley simply disappeared. Finally in 1931 the Southern Christian Convention merged with the Congregationalists, and in 1957 these Congregational Christian Churches joined with the Evangelical and Reformed Churches to form the UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST. The most enduring institutional achievements of the Southern Christians were the establishment of Elon College, near Burlington NC in 1890, and the Christian Orphanage in the town of Elon College in 1905.

Bibliography. Durward T. Stokes and William T. Scott, A History of the Christian Church in the South.


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