James O’Kelly (1736?-1826)

Written By J. Timothy Allen

In 1794, James O’Kelly established the Christian Church in the South (then named Republican Methodists), approximately when Alexander Campbell started the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Abner Jones formed the New England Christian Church.

O’Kelly was born circa 1736 in Tidewater Virginia.  In 1759, he married Elizabeth Meeks, who bore him two children, John and William. This lower gentry family lived in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, from the early 1770s to 1787, when they moved to Chatham County, North Carolina, where James O’ Kelly lived until his death in 1826.

Although an Anglican by birth, O’Kelly was influenced by Methodist revivalists in Virginia, and in approximately 1775, he converted to Methodism; in particular, he adhered to Francis Asbury’s teachings and identified with Asbury’s Methodist Society. By 1778 he was a minister on trial, riding the New Hope Circuit in North Carolina. He rose quickly in the Methodist ranks (many ministers took ten years or more), and by 1780 he was district elder over circuits in Tidewater Virginia and in eastern and central North Carolina.

O’Kelly was a prolific (yet mediocre) writer, who was inspired by republican antislavery rhetoric.  In 1789 he published, for instance, An Essay on Negro Slavery. Although modern scholars consider the pamphlet an abolitionist manifesto, it primarily served as a means for O’Kelly to defend his honor after a prominent slaveholder and pro-slavery itinerants questioned the motive of his altruism.

O’Kelly and Asbury disagreed over the right to place itinerants (circuit-riding pastors). Receiving no support from his fellow ministers, he left the Methodists in 1792 and formed the Republican Methodists in 1794.  (The Republican Methodists claimed the Bible as their rule, decried episcopacy, and believed in the equality of all people, lay and ministerial.)  The group’s membership encompassed Tidewater Virginia and Piedmont North Carolina. In the late 1790s, the denomination faltered, however, because O’Kelly’s vitriolic, anti-Federalist preaching against Asbury had angered many. It became the Christian Church in the South in 1802.

Humiliated by the 1792 conference and his denomination’s dwindling numbers, O’ Kelly initiated what has been referred to as the O’Kelly Schism.  He castigated Asbury’s “despotic episcopacy” in The Author’s Apology for Protesting Against the Methodist Episcopal Government (1798).  For Asbury, Nicholas Snethen, ironically an O’Kelly sympathizer, wrote A Reply to An Apology for Protesting Against the Methodist Episcopal Government for Asbury (1800). That same year, O’Kelly fired back with A Vindication of the Author’s Apology, and Asbury, again through Snethen, replied in 1802 with An Answer to James O’Kelly’s Vindication of his Apology.

After this pamphlet war, O’Kelly turned his attention to administrating his Christian church (similar Christian churches were begun by Alexander Campbell in Kentucky and Abner Jones in New England) and continued his writing. His ecumenical dream of union for all Christians was summarized in an article in the 1809 New England publication The Herald of Gospel Liberty.  O’Kelly also used the pulpit to explain his views regarding church government and encourage the unity of emerging Christian denominations.  Hoping to unite all Christians through music, he compiled Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Use of Christians (1816), which contained many of Isaac Watts’ hymns. Despite this ecumenicity, O’Kelly disagreed with the theology and practice of Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists regarding baptism rites.

O’Kelly also published two brief commentaries on the Bible, The Divine Oracles Consulted: Or An Appeal to the Law and Testimony, in 1820, and Letters from Heaven Consulted, in 1822. He also published An Address to the Christian Church Under the Similitude of an Elect Lady and Her Children (date unknown).  O’Kelly’s final publication, The Prospect Before Us, appeared in 1824 warning his flock about the evils of immersion baptism and Unitarianism.

O’Kelly’s inconsistent theology led to incorrect allegations of Unitarianism. He inspired North Carolina itinerants, such as Joseph Thomas (known as the White Pilgrim because of his white overcoat) and Rice Haggard, who joined Barton Warren Stone’s revivalistic Springfield Presbytery that eventually became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). O’Kelly’s theology of baptism divided his denomination in 1810 and stalled the unification with the New England Christian Church. O’Kelly retired from the circuits and settled at his home in Chatham County, where he continued leading his denomination and planning missionary trips to organize new churches.

O’Kelly’s teachings were widely adopted in southside Virginia and North Carolina, the region in which the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ still has a large presence.  Although Methodists decried O’Kelly’s constant harangues against Asbury, they eventually adopted aspects of O’Kelly’s democratic style of church government, including the right of the itinerant preacher to appeal his appointment.

O’Kelly died in Chatham County on October 16, 1826.

James O’Kelly’s chapel, shown above, was founded in 1794 and lies a few miles south of Durham, North Carolina. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC. 
Bishop Francis Asbury, whose ordination is depicted above, influenced James O’Kelly, but disagreements between the two ministers fomented a rivalry between them. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.