Back Creek ARP Church |
Dr. William H. Huffman
The old brick sanctuary of the Back Creek Associate Reformed Church, located just off University City Boulevard (N.C. Highway 49) on Back Creek Church Road in the northeastern part of the county, was constructed by the local members from about 1869 to 1871. The church itself, however, had been in existence for seven decades prior to the finishing of the rural brick structure.
What eventually became Back Creek originated with a small congregation in Clear Creek Township which organized as an Associate Presbyterian church about 1801 and took the name of Bethany. Located between the Robinson Presbyterian Church and Allen Station, the site of the new church was about ten miles from the present one. For twenty years, from 1802 to 1822, the small rural congregation was without a regularly assigned minister, but was furnished supply pastors by the Associate Presbytery of the Carolinas. In 1822, the governing church body installed Dr. Abraham Anderson as the pastor of Bethany and Steele Creek (presently Central Steele Creek Church), and he served as the church's first permanently assigned minister for the next ten years. 1
As happened with many church denominations in the South, disagreements with the national church body over the issue of slavery led to the withdrawal of Bethany and other local congregations from the Associate Presbyterian Church in 1833, followed by union with the Associate Reformed Synod of the South, which had been organized in 1803 near Winnsboro, S.C. The first pastor under the new alignment was Archibald Whyte, who served from 1833 to 1840. 2
The next year after the end of Rev. Whyte's tenure, in 1841, the Presbyterian minutes reflect that the congregation appears to have split into a North Bethany and South Bethany. The available evidence suggests that South Bethany occupied the site of the original church by that name, and North Bethany was housed in a log building located just south of the present Back Creek Church on the other side of the creek about a thousand yards away. Local folklore has it that when the log church was under construction, some of the black workers suggested Back Creek as a name for the church, since it was being built near the creek known by that name. It was, as the story goes, "a name not welcomed but which stuck fast." 3 This is born out by the fact that it shows up already in the minutes in 1843, and for the next five years Back Creek and North Bethany were used interchangeably in the Presbytery records, but the former finally prevailed. South Bethany apparently did not have a regular pastor, and seems to have gone out of existence after 1852. 4
It appears that it was during the tenure of the next duly ordained and installed pastor of Back Creek, Rev. John Hunter, who served from 1844 to 1855, that the church was moved to its existing site. Since that oldest known deed for part of the present church property is that of James Query to the Rev. John Hunter, William Alexander and Will Caldwell (trustees of Back Creek Church) dated May 21, 1853, it is likely that the log church was built in that year. 5 The following year, 1854, John Quincy Cochran left the church some additional land in his will. The church minutes for that year show that four white members were received by examination, five black members were received and five other blacks were baptized. In the spring of 1847, Back Creek is recorded as having 35 families and 90 communicants. 7
On October 24, 1856, Rev. I. G. McLaughlin began fifty years of service to the country church when he was installed as pastor of Back Creek, a post he held until 1896, when he continued for ten more years as a supply pastor. It was during his term of service, following the Civil War, that the members resolved to replace the old church building with a new brick one. When his pastorale started, the church had a "stand" located on the side of the hill where he could preach, weather permitting, when there were too many worshipers for the small auditorium. 8
As was common for rural brick structures of the time, the bricks were made on the site by using local clay and Back Creek water, then shaping them in hand-made wood molds. Work on the church, which began about 1869 and was finished about 1871, was no doubt carried out on a part-time basis by the members as the demands of their own farms permitted. The "commodious" brick church was nearly two stories in height and had large windows along the sides and two in the rear to provide ample light by day. The two entry doors in the rear of the building just below the two windows led to an entry area separate from the sanctuary. Just above the entry area was a balcony extending all the way across the back of the sanctuary, which could be reached by the side door and narrow steps leading upstairs. It was here that the black members worshiped. 9
A longtime member and church elder, John McLaughlin, who recently retired after many years as the postmaster of Newell, recalled that when he was a child, the sanctuary was heated by two wood stoves. The seats were long benches, except for two short ones by the stoves, and gas lights were used, which had to be supplied by a hand pump. He also recounts that the Charleston earthquake of 1886 severely cracked the brick walls, and subsequently an iron rod was placed across the building behind the pulpit and anchored in both side walls to keep the building sound. 10
In 1929-30 an annex for Sunday school rooms was built on the back of the sanctuary, and in 1940 there was a major remodeling of the building which gives it its present appearance. 11 For more than a century, the original Back Creek Church brick building has served the needs of its members. Over the years, additions and remodeling were carried out on the structure, but it is still basically intact in its original form. The old sanctuary has been integrated into the complex of buildings which make up the modern Back Creek Church (the new sanctuary was dedicated in 1971), but it still serves as the Sabbath School. As one of Mecklenburg County's oldest rural church buildings still extant and in use, the old sanctuary of Back Creek Church has clearly earned a distinct place in the County's history.
1 Rev. A. C. Bridges, "History of Back Creek Associate Reformed Church," undated typescript (c. 1972), p. 2; The Centennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. 1803-1903 (Charleston, S.C.: The A.R.P. Church, 1905), p. 411; The Sesquicentennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church 1903-1951 (Clinton, S.C.: General Synod of the A.R.P. Church, 1951), pp. 341-2.
4 Sesquicentennial History, p. 342.
6 Will Book I, p. 253. Reference supplied by Mrs. Shirley Johnson, Charlotte, N.C.
7 Bridges, p. 3.
8 Ibid.; Sesquicentennial History, pp. 342-3.
9 Ibid.; interview with Rev. A. C. Bridges, Back Creek Church, 7 December 1983.
10 Interview with John McLaughlin, 7 Dec. 1983.
11 Sesquicentennial History, p. 343.