Enslaved People, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Oral History, Religion

Church home, no. 8: Back Creek Presbyterian Church, Rowan County NC.

Founded in 1805, Back Creek Presbyterian Church is a historic church in Mount Ulla, North Carolina. In 1809, the congregation built a small log house of worship, which was replaced by the congregation’s present Greek Revival sanctuary in 1857. This building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.  — From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back_Creek_Presbyterian_Church_and_Cemetery


Back Creek was the church of my white McNeely forebears — John Wilson McNeely and his father Samuel.  In 1905, Rev. S.C. Alexander and John K. Goodman published History of Back Creek Presbyterian Church, Rowan County, N.C., for 100 Years. It is too much to call it a scintillating work, but its dramatic retelling of the church’s founding compels:

During the latter part of last century, infidelity spread like a contagion all over our country, from one end of it to the other. It gathered round the Church, and settled down upon it like a thick cloud of moral death Although far removed from the busy marts and thorough- fares of the world, this retired part of the Lord’s vineyard did not wholly escape the infection. A cold dead formality had well nigh chilled the vitals of true religion. But this state of things was not permitted to remain long. God heard and answered the prayers of his faithful servants. His life-giving spirit was sent forth with power, and breathed upon the valley of dry bones, and an army of living men stood up to praise Jehovah’s name. This was an important era in the history of our Church and country. It was a time when angels in heaven, and men on earth rejoiced together. It was a time when a most powerful and sudden death-stroke was given to the cause of infidelity. So that its hideous form has never since been reared so high in the majesty of its ugliness to pollute and annoy the Church Thyatira with her then widely extended limits, seemed to have been thoroughly aroused in those exciting times.

As in all communities, so in that venerable Church, there necessarily existed a great diversity of sentiment. The time had now come, when this diversity was to be fully manifested, The Revival of 1802, let it be remembered, was accompanied with many strange phenomena, such as “jerking,” “leaping,” “shouting,” “swooning,” and many such-like bodily exercises. Those who were possessed of more ardent zeal and strong affection, thought this a necessary part of the revival, and produced by the influence of the Spirit. While those of a more phlegmatic temperament, and less impulsive nature, looked upon it as dross around the precious metal; or rather, as the work of Satan trying to counterfeit and hinder the work of religion. Thus there were two parties formed, and each doubtless conscientiously thought they were right. Those who favored the “exercises” were called the “revival party,” as if they alone were desirous of promoting the cause of religion. While those who thought differently were called “opposers” or “anti-revivalists,” as if they wished to hold back the Gospel car. One party wished to have profound silence during public worship. It mattered not how eloquent the speaker was, or how powerful the movings of the Spirit, all must be quiet and still. The other party wished to give vent to their feelings in whatever way inclination might lead. If they felt happy they would shout aloud for joy, or if distressed they would cry out for mercy. The congregation ofttimes presenting the appearance of a Bochim-Babel.

Thus the matter went on for two or three years each party becoming more and more sensitive; and owing to the weakness of human nature, one seemed to exasperate the other, until it became evident to all that some final and decisive action should be taken for the welfare of the Church. A day of fasting and humiliation was appointed, that they might pray for wisdom to guide them in the path of duty, and that they might adopt some plan of action which would be for their peace and edification. The day was accordingly observed. At which meeting the Session was publicly charged with a neglect of their duty in permitting what was looked on by one party as disorder and confusion to exist in time of public worship. The Elders defended their conduct in a mild and Christian-like manner, but all to submit to the other. Thus the day seemed likely to close without having bettered their condition. But something must be done was the universal feeling. Whereupon, it was resolved unanimously, that all those who sympathized with the “Revival Party,” and acted under its influence, should be permitted to withdraw from the Congregation, and leave the other party in the quiet possession of their house and minister. This resolution was acted upon immediately, when about thirty families withdrew, including five Elders — all that Thyatira [Presbyterian Church] then had — men of whom the world might be proud. This was the birthday of Back Creek. The mother travailed with pain, and a noble daughter was born. —

Thus the infant colony, springing off from the western part of Thyatira principally, was left without a minister, and without a house in which to worship. But with zeal like theirs, with hearts so large, and hands so willing, all difficulties were soon removed, and their necessities met. They resolved to build a house in their midst, in which they could worship as their conscience dictated.

A year after Back Creek’s founding, my great-great-great-great-grandfather assumed a leadership role:

On the 27th of December, 1806, William Kilpatrick, Samuel McNeely, and George Andrew, were added to the list of Elders — men of whom we cannot speak too highly. Each was distinguished for his own excellency of character. When sitting in council about the welfare of the Church, it is said William Kilpatrick would devise ways and means for the prosperity of Zion. George Andrew would discourse on its practicability. He would present it in one aspect and then in another, in order that it might be weighed well, — while the venerable John Barr and Samuel McNeely who knew their Bible by heart, would decide whether it were right or not, or whether it would be for the general good. Thus each wheel in the machinery performed its part; and the consequence was, the Church like a healthy plant, grew and flourished, and became a praise in the land. In 1833, another addition was made to the Session by the election and ordination of William King, Thomas Mathews, John Houston, John M. Lowrance and Abner Adams. — Only two of this number are spared to be with us now. The other three have fallen asleep. They were men with whom you were all familiar. Their names are embalmed in your memories. Their excellencies are well known. — And you have long since mourned their loss.

Fifty years later, his son was elected deacon:

On August 10, 1856, the last public service, the last sermon was preached in the “Old Log Church,” built in 1811. The first Deacons in Back Creek Church were elected on May 22, 1858, viz:— Col. Alfred M. Goodman, Jno. F. Clodfelter, Jacob P. Goodman, Moses Lingle, James Miller and J. Wilson McNeely; and on the following June 27 they were regularly ordained and installed. Prior to this the financial,and temporal affairs of the Church were administered, (under the session) by a board of trustees elected by the Congregation, but not regularly ordained and installed into office as is now the more scriptural practice with Deacons.

Given the close association of the McNeelys with Back Creek, it is likely that their slaves also attended the church.

Before the emancipation of the Southern Negro he worshipped with his master in the same church, and enjoyed all the church privileges, consistent with the relations existing between the white and negro races; many of them being worthy members of the church. The gallery in this church was built for their express accommodation. Faithful attention was given to their moral and religious training. Frequently the minister in charge would preach a sermon specially to them; they leading and furnishing the music, of no inferior quality. And they were not forgotten in the Sabbath-School; separate classes were formed of them, taught by the whites. This relation and condition continued for some time after “freedom;” finally, they changed order of relation, and natural trend of events led to their separation from the church of the whites, and to their distinct organization; still, however, some reluctantly took this step.

I don’t know about the “natural trend” or the reluctance. In any case, my forebears remained in the larger fold for, as my grandmother put it, Henry W. McNeely, J. Wilson’s son and former slave — “when he moved to Statesville, when Mama’s daddy moved to Statesville, child, he ran that Presbyterian church.”

The early lists of church members do not determine the proportion of whites to colored.

In regard to the numerical strength of Back Creek, from time to time, complete records fail us. In 1829 the membership was 124, but it is not stated how many white.

In 1850 we numbered 136 white and 26 colored — total 162.

In 1864, 96 white and 74 colored — total 170.

In 1869, 58 white and 50 colored — total 108.

In 1880, 83 white and no colored — total 83.

In 1894, 77 white; in 1900, 90 white; and in 1905, 150 white.

Sometime after 1869, African-Americans left — or were put out of — Back Creek en masse. Hopefully, a little research will reveal their new church home.

Photograph at http://d.lib.ncsu.edu/collections/catalog/buch0494, all rights reserved.




8 thoughts on “Church home, no. 8: Back Creek Presbyterian Church, Rowan County NC.

  1. Joan Price says:

    Very interesting! My ancestors lived in area and we’re former slaves of Margaret Houston, Dr. OP Houston, NA Kilpatrick and others,they were also Presbyterian. I found evidence that some were buried in Oakland Cemetery, associated with Oakland d United Presbyterian Church.
    This was located near Upright & 1/3 mile south Lyery ? Rd. No longer exists. My direct ancestors were living in Coddle Creek by 1900 and attended Reid Memorial in Mooresville. Family names were McCorkle / Barr and
    Graham. Why did blacks leave Back Creek Church?
    Any and all information welcomed. Thank you

    • Hi, Joan. Thanks for commenting. My earliest known enslaved McNeely ancestor was purchased from Mary Kilpatrick in the 1820s.

      As for why African-Americans left Back Creek, my best guess is that, post-Emancipation, they tired of being treated like second-class citizens in the house of the Lord. With few exceptions, the oldest black churches in the South date from the 1860s, when black congregants broke away to form churches in which they could worship more comfortably.

  2. freddymcneely says:

    My mcneely family still stays in this area to this day. Bradshaw Rd mtUlla but still have not found any links to a jt mcneely his mother was selis partee maiden name his daddy was charlie mcneely ,my older brother said some documents were under james, he had 17 children. He was born in 1912, he had two brothers and two sisters. We past this church on my way to my grandmother she was a rankin but her maid name she was a wilson.

  3. Pingback: Roadtrip chronicles, no. 6: Western Rowan County churches. | Scuffalong: Genealogy.

  4. Dale Carrigan Terry says:

    I am interested in any information on early Carrigan families, particularly Rev. John Carrigan in Back Creek Church. I understand some of it might unpleasant, but I would still like to hear it. Thanks so much for any replies!

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