Chapel in North Carolina Founded by Abolitionist Minister

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.

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Rev. James O’Kelly

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.

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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.

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15 thoughts on “Chapel in North Carolina Founded by Abolitionist Minister”

  1. My friend bought the Mann’s Chapel mentioned here bc they were going to tear it down. She rejuvenated the chapel to now be a wedding venue, but left a lot of the original building materials. With Covid the chapel shut down, so she turned it in to a place for a small group of kids could come to learn. Google The Parlour at Mann’s Chapel. So pretty!

    1. I live about 5 minutes from Mann’s Chapel and I have been meaning to stop in and check it out. What is your friends name? I will ask for her when I visit. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. John N. And Lorene H. Slack

    Thank you for sharing pictures and true stories of forgotten history. We live in Randolph County, NC and very close ti county of Chatham. Wish this old church was still standing si that more people would be able to tour it and hear this true history of local yet part of NC and even US history. We have a old church that we financially support to keep it maintained. It is in Why Not, Randolph County NC. We have Christmas service there every year.

  3. to me there is no future if our history is not preserved. what a shame that yet another beautiful little church is left to the elements.

  4. I love the rich Southern stories and historical buildings that you show on this site!!! I am such a history Buff!!! Thank You for doing this and living out MY dream!!!

    1. I believe the property is owned by the Gardening Store that is located adjacent. I think it’s called For Garden’s Sake.

  5. I live right near this Chapel and pass it many times during the week. I adore its simplicity and beauty. It’s even more special knowing the context of its founder O’Kelly. Right now the chapel has a pretty vignette of pumpkins and mums on its front step. For Garden’s Sake is doing a great job of keeping it up. I hope it remains. Lovely article.

  6. Thanks for posting this. Back in the late 70s, I lived a few houses down O’Kelly Chapel Road from this church. Bicycled past it every work day on my way into Durham. The house I lived in was haunted by a spirit who called out for somebody named “Alton.” For the skeptics, the people who moved in after I left came to experience the ghost, too. Would be interesting to find out who “Alton” might be and if he was associated with this chapel.

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