New Bern's ANDREWS CHAPEL: A Story of Race, Faith & Culture in 18th Century New Bern, No. Carolina
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
Originally published in the New Bern Historical Society's Annual Journal, this story was re-published in February 2020 by the New Bern Sun Journal. Prepare for a remarkable and thoughtful presentation by Brenda Carter George and Bernard George.
Andrew Chapel was the second oldest church in New Bern and for many years the largest in number of congregants. In the first four decades of the 19th century its congregation was racially mixed. Later it devolved into two prominent and historically significant churches, one white and one African American, neither of which have retained the Andrew Chapel name. For this reason and since no physical evidence of it a remains, its role in New Bern’s history has largely been forgotten. Only a state historical marker in the 400 block of Broad Street, directly across from the Firemen’s Museum, denotes its existence.
The story of Andrew Chapel begins with the founders of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother Charles (1707-1788). Early in their careers they were sent as Church of England missionaries to the colony of Georgia, arriving in March 1736 for what would be their only visit to America. John Wesley’s commission from the governor of the colony of Georgia gave him authority to preach to the white settlers, Indians, and Negroes. Their mission was not very successful, and both returned to England disillusioned and discouraged. After Wesley had his “heartwarming experience” on Aldersgate Street in London in 1738, he returned to his hometown of Epworth and attended St. Andrew Church where his father Samuel had served for nearly forty years. John Wesley had been baptized in St. Andrew Church, and when the rector who replaced his father refused his offer to preach there Wesley delivered sermons from atop his father’s grave in the church cemetery and for two weeks drew increasingly large crowds. This open air preaching is said to have launched the Methodist movement.
To strengthen the Methodist work in the colonies John Wesley sent two lay preachers to America in 1769, Richard Boardman 33 to New York City and Joseph Pilmoor (sometimes Pilmore) to Philadelphia. In 1772 Pilmoor made his way south and reached New Bern on December 24th. He arranged to preach for several days at the County Courthouse, then on the northeast corner of Broad and Middle Streets. He recorded in his journal that he was well received by the “genteel” and respectful residents in New Bern, more so than he would have expected in his native England. Indeed, the residents gratefully provided him with a gift of money on his departure to help defray his forward expenses. Shortly thereafter he continued toward his intended goal, Savannah, Georgia. In his returning journey to Philadelphia the following March he stopped again in New Bern. The result was the formation of an informal Methodist Society in New Bern, which met in various locations. Circuit riders and other Methodist leaders visited New Bern often. Between 1785 and 1807 Methodist bishops also made occasional visits to the town. Among the most influential church leaders to visit New Bern during the formative years were Richard Wright and Francis Asbury, both sent by John Wesley to assist the growing American Methodist societies. Bishop Asbury, a leading figure in early American Methodism, preached in New Bern fourteen times. On December 15, 1796, Bishop Asbury reported “I had never viewed the situation of this town before: it is the image of Charleston, (S. C.) Neuse and Trent have a likeness to Cooper and Ashley rivers. This is a growing place. Our society here, of white and coloured members, consists of one hundred… Should piety, health, and trade attend New Bern, it will be a very capital place in half a century” (Francis Asbury, Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church In three volumes, New York, 1852. Volume II, pp. 325-326). “Newbern” is recorded in 1797 as having a membership of 296 whites and 387 coloreds (Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Years 1773-1828, Volume I, T. Mason and G. Lane, for The Methodist Episcopal Church, New York, 1840).
The early eighteen hundreds were a period of substantial growth and development for Andrew Chapel. After visiting New Bern in late January of 1802, Asbury recounted that he “judged it needful 34 to make some temporal and spiritual arrangements for the society in Newbern” and that “We made a public collection which amounted to nearly sixty dollars; and parted from our brethren, whom we left full of good resolutions to finish the house of God: the African Methodists also were about to build a place of worship” (Asbury’s Journal, Volume III, p. 50). With Asbury’s enthusiastic endorsement a formal Methodist organization was established, and a church building was erected in 1802 at the corner of Hancock Street and Pleasant Alley (later Church Alley) on a lot acquired by the Methodist Society in 1795. This was only the second church to be built in New Bern, the first being the (Anglican) Christ Episcopal Church from a century before. (Text accompanying Andrews Chapel historical marker.)
According to a local newspaper account of the church and its history, “The original building was soon found to be too small for the congregation, and it was enlarged by adding to its length, hence its long narrow appearance.” (“Hancock Street Church. Formerly Andrew Chapel,” The Daily Journal [New Bern, North Carolina] 24, April, 1892, p. 1). Prominent local historian Miss Gertrude Carroway in Crown of Life states that an article written in 1818 reports “The Methodists, the most numerous society of Christians in the place, have a very large and convenient chapel, and are supplied with a regular succession of able and evangelical preachers” (Gertrude Carroway, Crown of Life: History of Christ Church, New Bern, NC 1715 – 1940, New Bern, O.G. Dunn, 1940, p. 133). The Methodist church building was further described in an 1819 account as a rudimentary two-aisle structure with neither steeple nor bell, and according to a description written in 1862 by Vincent Colyer, Superintendent of the Poor under Union General Ambrose Burnside, “The church had a gallery all round, and seated about six hundred” (Vincent Colyer, “Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United States Army in North Carolina, Civil War Era NC,” 1864, p. 36).
The structure was initially referred to locally as the Methodist Meetinghouse or Methodist Church. Minutes of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South show the name first as “Andrew Church” in 1847 and then as “Andrew’s Ch.” in 1848; from 1849 forward the name consistently appeared as “Andrew Chapel.” 35 Previously Andrew Chapel Numbered Churches: 12 Episcopal Church 13 Presbyterian Church 14 Catholic Church 15 Baptist Church 16 Methodist Episcopal (Col) 17 St. Cyprian’s Church (Col) 18 Methodist Church C.A. Nelson map of New Bern, 1864. Courtesy of Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library with modifications by John Klecker. 36 (W. Carleton Wilson, Conference Secretary and Journal Editor, Condensed North Carolina Conference Minutes from Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church 1837- 1882 and of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South 1845-1882).
Though it is possible the church was named for John Wesley’s home church in England, timing indicates that most likely it was named for Bishop James Osgood Andrew of Georgia (1794- 1871). Andrew, who was elected bishop in 1832, was asked by resolution of the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church to desist from exercising the office of bishop so long as he owned slaves. Even with blacks and whites in the same church, the ideal of brotherhood in Christ could never quite breach the determination of some whites to keep blacks subject to First Centenary Methodist Church, ca. 1901. The action sanctioning Bishop Andrew escalated existing tensions within the church over the question of slavery and led to the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. After the split within the church in 1844, Andrew continued as a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and presided over its first General Conference in Petersburg, Virginia in 1846. Soon thereafter many churches across the South were named after Bishop Andrew, and according to the history of one such church in Virginia, because the churches were named after a person, not a saint, they were named chapels. This seems to account for the aforementioned change from “Andrew Church” to “Andrew Chapel.” Assuming the church was initially named for Bishop Andrew also provides a likely explanation for why the church name appears to have changed to “St. Andrews Chapel” or “Andrews Chapel” around 1862 when New Bern came under Union occupation during the Civil War.
(In the interests of simplicity and broad consistency with this history, the reference in this article is to Andrew Chapel up until around the time of the Civil War, and Andrews Chapel thereafter.) Somewhat surprisingly, no photographs or serious drawings of Andrew Chapel are known to exist. The accompanying map shows its only known portrayal. This map was drawn in 1864 by C.A. Nelson, a Union soldier serving in New Bern during the Civil War occupation. The portrayals of other surviving churches—First Baptist, First Presbyterian, Christ Church, and St. Cyprian’s—are somewhat like the actual structures, suggesting that Andrew Chapel also resembled the way it is portrayed. As is evident from the sketch, by this time the Chapel had acquired a low steeple or bell tower.
In keeping with John Wesley’s views on actively seeking black members, Methodists professed that blacks and whites were supposed to share a common gospel intended to unite all people in peace and harmony. This optimistic view of the Christian church did not always meet with acceptance in the community. Methodists were persecuted in North Carolina during the early days of the church in part because they made a deliberate effort to preach to blacks. John Wesley and the early Methodists were meticulous in keeping track of their records, so there is ample evidence that many 39 blacks, both slave and free, joined the Methodist societies. From 1758, when John Wesley baptized two blacks, and 1766 when a black woman participated in the organization of the first Methodist society in the United States, black people have been a part of Methodism. For the first several decades of the nineteenth century both whites and blacks worshipped together in Andrew Chapel, although by some accounts the black congregants occupied galleries above the main floor. Conference minutes show that in 1839, prior to division of the church into two separate congregations, white members of Andrew Chapel numbered under 200 while black membership was nearly 600. This was quite significant as the congregation was by far the largest in town, and it compared favorably with churches in the largest cities in North Carolina and the South.
According to local church history, in the period 1839-43 white members of Andrew Chapel departed and in 1842-43 built a sanctuary on the south side of New Street (now 511 New Street), known from the beginning as Centenary Methodist Church (now Centenary United Methodist Church). (James H. Miller, Jr., Pastor, A History of Centenary United Methodist Church, New Bern, O.G. Dunn, 1972.)
A major factor in the growth of the Andrew Chapel congregation prior to the Civil War was the large and growing free black population, especially in the 1840s. According to Catherine W. Bishir, author of the well-regarded Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900, Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 2003, p. 28), “the number of free blacks in town rose from about 418 to 800—more than 17 percent of the population. In 1850 both the number and the proportion [to the total population] of New Bern’s free people of color surpassed those of any other North Carolina town…and that of nearly all southern cities, including Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans.” Moreover, many of the enslaved artisans enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom, working on their own without supervision, contracting for their services directly with customers, and the like. In addition to providing a population base for the Andrew Chapel congregation, these free blacks and enslaved artisans possessed the leadership, organizational, and business skills needed for a church to grow and flourish.
Andrew Chapel also served as a crucible for the development of blacks to assume their future roles in public life, including politics. Bishir writes (p. 110):
Within the meetinghouse walls, as a white New Bernian recalled, enslaved and free blacks learned to ‘exhort, with great earnestness and power and to present the Gospel with simplicity and truth.’ …they could put aside performances of racial deference to interact freely with one another; worship according to their own preferences and traditions; and develop their confidence and skills as community leaders.
By 1853, membership at New Bern’s “Colored Charge” reached 1135 (W. Carleton Wilson, Conference Secretary and Journal Editor, Condensed North Carolina Conference Minutes from Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church 1837- 1882 and of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South 1845-1882).
Following the Union occupation of New Bern in 1862, minutes of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South show that no pastor was assigned to the “Andrew Chapel Mission” in that year. Their need for a pastor is reflected by Vincent Colyer, who writes about the church (by that time known as Andrews Chapel) in his report to the Chairman of the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission (Colyer, pages 35-36):
On two occasions I was offered a salary by the freed-people, if I would take charge permanently of the congregation of St. Andrew’s Colored Church, in Newbern, which fact plainly proves they were no ‘paupers.’ … Soon after our arrival in Newbern, I was invited by the Elders of the African Methodist Church to hold services with them. The local preacher, a white man, who had formerly presided over them, was still there and preached every Sunday morning; and at three in the afternoon, they had their class meeting. Notwithstanding these two meetings were well attended, the services over which I was invited to take charge at five o’clock were usually crowded.
Andrews Chapel became the site of one of two evening schools established by Colyer for the freed people. The larger school met at Andrews Chapel and the more advanced students were placed in the school at the Baptist Church. In his report, Colyer writes: “… over eight hundred pupils, old and young, attended nightly, and made rapid progress. In the larger school of six hundred, I placed those who did not know the alphabet, who could hardly spell; in the smaller of two hundred, I had the most advanced, those who could read… The two African churches at Newbern, were used for our school rooms.” Colyer’s report of the closing of the two schools by order of the Governor includes a reporter’s account (Colyer, pp. 43-47):
At the Methodist church in Hancock street in this city, Mr. Colyer addressed the contrabands, saying: ‘These schools are now to be closed, not by the officer of the army, under whose sanction they have been commenced, but by the necessity laid upon me by Governor Stanley, who has informed me that it is a criminal offence, under the laws of North Carolina, to teach the blacks to read, which laws he has come from Washington with instructions to enforce.’ The old people dropped their heads upon their breasts and wept in silence; the young looked at each other with mute surprise and grief at this sudden termination of their bright hopes. It was a sad and impressive spectacle. Mr. Colyer himself could hardly conceal his emotion. A few moments of silence followed, when, as if by one impulse, the whole audience rose and sang with mournful cadence, ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow,’ and then shook hands and parted.
Colyer’s assistant secretary during his time in New Bern was Amos Yorke, an escaped slave whom he describes as an intelligent and worthy Christian and a leader among his people. In a letter to Colyer dated August 27, 1862 Yorke sent greetings from his church: “The Elders of St. Andrew’s Chapel, J. C. Rev. Louis Williams, William Ryol, R. M. Tucker, give their best respects to you and your family.” (Colyer, pp. 59-60). Yorke was ordained an elder in the AME Zion Church in 1865, and in 1869 was elected one of New Bern’s first black city council members (Bishir, p. 290).
As the Civil War drew to a close two northern black Methodist denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) of Philadelphia with its origins in the ministry of Joseph Pilmoor, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion), founded in New York City in 1796 by a group of congregants as an outgrowth of the Methodist church begun originally by Richard Boardman, were actively seeking to enlist southern black congregations to join their associations. With its large number of members, Andrews Chapel was regarded with particular interest. A group of former Andrews members living in New England appealed to Bishop J. J. Clinton of the New England Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America to send a missionary to Andrews Chapel. In response, Clinton sent one of the most talented and dynamic nineteenth century leaders of color, James Walker Hood.
Hood was appointed as missionary to North Carolina in December, 1863, and reached New Bern on January 20, 1864. On the following Sunday, Hood met with the official members of Andrews Chapel, who decided to unite with the AME Zion Church and receive Hood as their pastor. The white northern Methodist mi
nister assigned under the Union occupation to hold occasional services at Andrews Chapel protest
ed, but Hood made a secret trip to Washington, gained Federal authorization for the congregation to choose its own association and minister, and the deed was done. No less than the Secretary of War, the Honorable E. M. Stanton, wrote the following memorable words: “The congregation of the colored Methodists worshipping in Andrews Chapel, New Bern, N. C., shall have the right to decide their own church relations, and select their pastor.” On Easter Sunday, Elder Hood preached his first sermon in New Bern (John Jamison Moore, The History of the AME Zion Church in America, Founded in 1796, In the City of New York, York, Pennsylvania, Teachers’ Journal Office, 1884).
Thus, Andrews Chapel became the first officially recognized AME Zion church in North Carolina and the first in the South. “Andrews traditionally is viewed as the mother church of all AMEZ churches in the southern United States” (Text accompanying Andrews Chapel historical marker).
Hood remained as pastor of Andrews Chapel for three years, supporting and expanding spiritual, educational, political, and fraternal programs for the congregants. In addition to his role in the church, Hood also sought to become involved in politics as a vocal and successful advocate for the rights of blacks. He held several government positions including assistant state superintendent of public instruction, magistrate, and assistant superintendent of the North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1865 Hood presided over the statewide freedmen’s convention and later participated in the 1868 state constitutional convention and the national Republican convention of 1872. He became a church bishop in 1872 and moved to Fayetteville. As part of his role in the church, Hood helped to establish Zion Wesley Institute, now Livingstone College, as a school to train black students for the ministry and to become good citizens of the state as teachers and artisans. He presided over the school’s board of trustees for over thirty years. (A historical marker paying tribute to Hood is located at the northwest corner of Broad and George Streets; the text accompanying this historical marker is the source of this information.)
In the early 1870’s New Bern’s white Methodists made known to the leaders of Andrews Chapel that they wished to reclaim the Hancock Street property and building. Trustees Southey Fonville, Moses T. Bryan, Stephen Johnson, Virgil A. Crawford, Edward R. Dudley, Clarence Stanley, Jerry Thompson, Edward Downes and John G. Sutton purchased a new lot in 1874, approximately one-third acre, for $306 on the south side of Queen Street. The congregation dedicated themselves toward building a new church, which was dedicated on August 22, 1886, and named St. Peter’s AME Zion Church. The congregation continues today, and in 1997 the building was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in commemoration not only of the historic church but also of the lives and courage of those Andrews Chapel congregants of color who worked diligently over the prior two centuries to advance their people and community (United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form submitted April 29, 1997 by State Historic Preservation Officer Jeffrey Crowe and entered by the Keeper of the Register on June 30, 1997).
The Hood historical marker in New Bern states “[he] founded St. Peters. 1864,” but this is an interpretation that belies the history of St. Peter’s as part of a long-standing Methodist congregation with roots dating back to the eighteenth century.
Andrew Chapel stood for nearly a century and weathered many societal changes. Although maps indicate that the old Andrew Chapel building on Hancock Street was razed in the late nineteenth century (Bishir, pp. 338, note 92), the legacy of Andrew Chapel still serves as a symbol of Methodism’s relevance to the condition of oppressed people, and of its early witness against slavery, which won a tremendous response from free and enslaved blacks as they struggled for personhood in this country.
Some 200 years after Joseph Pilmoor first preached in New Bern Dr. Joseph B. Bethea, an African American who would later be elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church, wrote that it has never been easy for black people to be a part of that Methodist tradition which began in this state just as the thirteen colonies were ready to declare their independence. “The Methodists of North Carolina are not one people. Their hope to be such cannot be realized until black Methodists and white Methodists and all other Methodists can live out the freedom which the Gospel brings to all who would follow Christ” (Joseph B. Bethea, “Black Methodists in North Carolina,” Methodism Alive in North Carolina: A Commemorative Volume for the Bicentennial of the First Carolina Circuit, edited by O. Kelly Ingram, Durham, NC, The Duke Divinity School, 1976, p. 97).