The Christians of Alabama and Georgia

JamesOKelly
James O’Kelly

The Chattahoochee River does not inspire romance in the way that the Mississippi does, nor  is it heavily industrialized, as the Tennessee and Ohio are. But the surrounding territory along its central-most reach hugging the Alabama and Georgia border had fertile enough soil for extensive cotton, and in later generations, pine tree, planting. Its settlers were hardy, industrious farmers of English and Scotch-Irish ancestry and, by and large, professed the two major religions of the South, Methodism and Southern Baptism. However, thanks to an evangelist who settled in the region, a tradition little known outside the region and often confused with other similar groups called the “Christian Connection” took root and, for a time, provided a system of relative doctrinal freedom and congregational government to the faithful who believed earnestly that God intended for the Church to be composed of equals, with no hierarchies compelling action other than the internal witness of the Spirit.

The Connection dates back to a dissenting Virginia Methodist preacher, James O’Kelly, whose complaint was against supposed tyranny by Bishop Francis Asbury over local pastorates in the late 18th century. As historian Ellen Eslinger put it,

(O’Kelly’s) influence probably owes more to the power of a straightforward, plain style of expression … the peculiarities in his beliefs appeared to be more a product of (his) limited education than true theological error. His ideas about God, salvation, and sin were fairly conventional. Likewise, little if anything was original in his ideas about government and power … His main contribution to southern religion was to bang the drum against “ecclesiastical monarchy”—to work toward a system of worship in keeping not only with early Christianity but also more appropriate for a country where, within living memory, popular notions of power and leadership had become much more democratic. [1]

The tradition of democratically-governed churches with no theological requirements of believers other than simple acceptance of Scripture as the rule of faith and life and demonstration of Christian character had analogues throughout the United States that seemed to rise synchronically with each other, [2] but the specifically O’Kelly flavor, one might call it, of preaching and church life, founded in the warm-heartedness of Methodism rather than the logical constructs of the Campbell-Stone wing of the Restoration Movement, was confined mainly to the tidewater region of Virginia and the Fall Line and Piedmont areas of North Carolina. Some generations later, though, an evangelist by the name of W. J. M. Elder, whose remains are in the churchyard of New Hope Congregational Christian Church near Roanoke, Alabama, started, often in brush arbors or other such shelters in the open countryside, churches whose members were content to call themselves “not the only Christians, but Christians only.”

New Hope Congregational Christian Church, Roanoke, Alabama
New Hope Congregational Christian Church, Roanoke, Alabama

Eschewing tight organization and fearful of setting precedents that might bind future generations’ consciences, legend has it that early leaders either did not take minutes of meetings or destroyed them shortly afterward. Be that as it may, it was preferable to its adherents to the practice of early Methodist circuit riders of preaching on days other than the Sabbath when they happened to be in a settlement, and above all, to elites on the Eastern seaboard dictating to western frontier people what they should do. This latter point would prove to be enduring after all the other distinctives of the Connection fell away over time. One might say that Elder was the Elisha to O’Kelly’s Elijah, taking his mantle into a new generation and place. Needless to say, an evangelist was a spiritual hero to a poor and struggling people as those two Biblical figures were, and all of them left their imprint upon each congregation founded.

Eastern Alabama and western Georgia, on both sides of the antebellum divide, were rugged territories, not suited to the plantation agriculture to either their east or west. Put that together with the isolation and insularity of subsistence farm life prior to the Great Depression, and the resources were simply not there for evangelizing further west. This was somewhat in keeping, surprisingly, with the main base of the Southern Christian movement in North Carolina and Virginia (much of the geographical gap between the two clusters can be accounted for by the success of the similar Campbell-Stone movement). What likely distinguished the “Elder Christians” from their neighbors was a refusal to engage in name-calling and accusations of heresy or apostasy against other groups. There was neither any dominance of the anti-mission movement that had fractured other denominations. The common person had as much right to grace and salvation as the next person, the Christians of Alabama and Georgia believed, and no one was going to tell them otherwise. They were free to think as they pleased, so long as they sought to earnestly live by the dictates of the New Testament.

Subsequent decades brought mostly economic change to parishioners, but not institutional changes to the Elder Christian movement. Many formerly self-sufficient farmers were forced to turn to sharecropping as the prices of cotton and other commodities plunged due to industrialization and prosperity. But others found themselves turning to work in the textile mills in towns like LaGrange and West Point in Georgia and Lanett and Langdale in Alabama. The Connection would follow its people to those communities, supplementing the rural base, whose churches usually met for worship only monthly or at most, twice per month.

These new town churches especially created a demand for greater education on the part of Connection clergy, to whom the only alternative available previously was Elon College (now University) in North Carolina. To fill that need, the conferences in Alabama and Georgia created Bethlehem College, later named Southern Union, in the Randolph County, Alabama village of Wadley. The two-year institution operated under Christian, and later Congregational Christian, control until 1964, when it was transferred to the State of Alabama to join that state’s community college system.

The merger with Congregationalism did not cause the Connection to disappear into the imagery of Pilgrims, covenants, and thanksgiving, as usually happened in the North [3]. It brought the Elder Christians mainly into fellowship with Co

Congregational Christian Church, Lanett, Alabama
Congregational Christian Church, Lanett, Alabama

ngregational Methodist-heritage churches (see Part 5 from May) that had a similar reason for their founding, namely, freedom from episcopal control of clergy and churches. Within several years, clergy were circulating between both traditions with ease and no defensive self-consciousness, facilitated in part by the lack of formal dogmas [4] but, in the main, by their similar demographics of an Anglo-Saxon farm population. By the time the Southeast Convention of Congregational Christian Churches took shape in 1949, the loyalty of the Elder Christian movement to the transformative ethos of American Congregationalism was secure—for a while at least.

When the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1954, though, the clear, untroubled stream of the Elder Christian wing of the denomination began to muddy considerably, as did that of the Congregational Methodists. Despite some paternalistic concern for black Christians in Virginia and North Carolina in past decades, there was no ongoing heritage of concern for racial justice in the tradition, much like other Southern religious bodies at large, and the previously smooth relations the Alabama and Georgia churches had with national entities began to fray somewhat as fears rose about eventually breaching the racial barrier on the inter-church level.

The insular nature of this fellowship prevented abrupt change in its ranks, as beloved pastors helped to keep the churches together, names like Olin Sheppard, Jesse Dollar, Joe French, Wallace Roberts, and others. With only a few churches opting out of the new UCC in the early and mid-1960s, it looked like a traumatic, large-scale separation had been averted. And at the outset of the Southeast Conference’s formation in 1966, most churches at least tolerated the denomination’s pursuit of goals many did not understand, let alone approve of.

But that spirit diminished with the passage of time and the incursion into many pulpits of men from other traditions, some of whom had no appreciation whatsoever for the Connection’s background and instead substituted fundamentalist doctrine for the covenantal style of days gone by. Many churches, perhaps unintentionally at first, lost contact with the main body of the Conference and the larger UCC, and when occasions came such as Annual Conference Meetings where they had to confront sister churches with different sets of priorities, conflict occurred, as exemplified by a resolution put before the 1992 meeting by the East Alabama-West Georgia Association to denounce people in same-sex relationships entering the ministry. As one pastor put it simply, “We believe that those who openly prefer to live in sin or engage in sinful activities should not be called to spiritual leadership in the church.” [5] The resolution, not surprisingly given the staunchly liberal proclivities of most of the other churches, did not pass in the form in which it was originally presented.

Oak Grove Congregational Christian Church, Pine Mountain, GA
Oak Grove Congregational Christian Church, Pine Mountain, GA

In an increasingly hostile scenario like the above situation, in the 1990s, many Christian Connection-heritage congregations opted to leave the UCC for either independence or the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. By the time the 25th General Synod in 2005 affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry (a meeting held in the Conference’s bounds itself), most had gone, with the East Alabama-West Georgia Association, once home to all the Connection’s congregations, left with only a handful of churches. With the de facto cathedral of the movement, the Congregational Christian Church of Lanett, Alabama, departing in 2010, only Oak Grove Congregational Christian Church near Pine Mountain, Georgia was left, with another congregation, Sandy Creek UCC near LaFayette, Alabama, consisting of loyal members of several other departing congregations.

The Southeastern wing of the movement which showed so much promise toward bringing about a semblance of Christian unity came to its end, a victim of its disappearance into the landscape of Southern evangelicalism. As a group of churches held together mainly by family loyalties and not by either the original vision of founding or by constructive response to the new demands of an industrializing, then de-industrializing society, the Christian Connection has  largely gone down as a footnote to the larger Restoration movement of the Disciples of Christ, the Independent Christian churches, and the Churches of Christ. But its blending of fervent preaching, heartfelt piety, and good works nonetheless left a mark upon the present-day Southeast Conference that should not be forgotten or dismissed lightly.

NOTES

[1] Ellen Eslinger, “James O’Kelly: Father of Christian Fundamentalism in America,” in The Human Tradition in the Old South, ed. James C. Klotter (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 73-74.

[2] See Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale  University  Press,  1989)  and  Paul  K.  Conkin,  American  Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997) for greater context about the Restoration Movement and its social setting in post-colonial America.

[3] Willis Elliott, “Forgotten Legacy: The Historical Theology of the ‘Christian’ Component of the United Church of Christ.” Historical Intelligencer: Historical Journal of the United Church of Christ 3, no. 1 (1984): 12.

[4] Richard H. Taylor, “Christian Church Perspectives,” in Theology and Identity: Traditions, Movements, and Polity in the United Church of Christ, ed. Daniel L. Johnson and Charles Hambrick-Stowe, rev. ed. (Cleveland: United Church Press, 2007), 36.

[5] Southeast News, August 1992, 2.