O’Kelly’s Chapel Christian Church | Chatham County, NC | Organized c. 1794
O’Kelly’s Chapel is named for Reverend James O’Kelly, influential Methodist minister and founder of the Christian Church movement during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The reverend became a respected leader of the Methodist Episcopal Church in southern Virginia during the decade following the American Revolution but around 1794, O’Kelly had differences with other church leaders over the control of the church by the bishop in England.
As a result, he left the Methodist tradition around 1793 and founded a movement that became known as the Christian Church. in 1794, he moved to Eastern Chatham County, North Carolina where he purchased a small farm and established the first of these churches in the South. The congregation first met in O’Kelly’s home until 1803 when he gave 2 acres of land for a church and cemetery.
O’Kelly seems to have been an outspoken character in his civil life as much as in his clergy life. He was well-known as an abolitionist, having written an anti-slavery tract in 1789 called ‘Essay on Negro Slavery’ that implored other ministers to release any enslaved persons. This couldn’t have been a popular stance in the area where James settled. At his new farm in Chatham County, O’Kelly would’ve been about 30 miles down the road from one of the largest plantations in the South that at its height, enslaved nearly 900 persons.
James O’Kelly is thought to have been born in Virginia about 1736. He married Elizabeth Meeks in 1759, and they had two children, John and William. James O’Kelly was listed as a homeowner in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, in 1787. When he led the withdrawal from the Methodist Church in 1792 – 1793, O’Kelly was the Methodist district superintendent in southern Virginia.
O’Kelly had been a circuit-riding minister since the 1770s and wanted to continue this work in his new area so in 1803, he also founded Martha’s Chapel and in 1804, Damascus Christian Church. Back then rural congregations were small, their size limited by the distance worshippers could travel by foot, on horseback, or in wagons to attend a mid-day service and be able to make it home before dark.
The churches, five or six miles apart, easily could share the pastoral services of the aging O’Kelly whose home was a short distance from O’Kelly Chapel. In his later years, the reverend would deliver his sermons seated.
In 1826, Reverend James O’Kelly passed away and was buried in the family cemetery on the farm that he had purchased near O’Kelly’s Chapel. Each of the congregations he founded remained active after O’Kelly’s death in 1826 and in 1910, they built this building, the 4th church structure on this property. The modest one-room chapel has Gothic Revival Features, including a steeply pitched roof and lancet windows.
O’Kelly’s Chapel remained open until the early 1980s when regular worship services ceased. In 1985, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but despite the occasional wedding and holiday service, use of the chapel continued to diminish and the building fell into disrepair.
In 2013, the Southern Conference Board of Directors initiated the process to determine the chapel’s future. Since there was no money or will to repair or improve the building, the Board decided in 2016 to sell the property and on July 29, 2018, a decommissioning ceremony was held in the chapel to return the land and chapel to secular use.
The brief service included some discussion of history, the abolition movement, the creation of black churches in this faith tradition as well as some stories from recent visits to the chapel by past congregants. At the conclusion of the service a hymn penned by James O’Kelly (hymn 617 in the New Century Hymnal) was sung, composed to the tune of Amazing Grace.