Mebane Historical Museum program celebrates history of local church

The rich history of Mebane’s First Presbyterian Church was detailed in an informative presentation at the Mebane Historical Museum the evening of Monday, February 17. Thomas Vinson, a longtime Mebane resident and member of the church for more than fifty years, moderated a detailed discussion of the church’s history, which dates all the way back to 1864. 

On the evening of Monday, February 17, the Mebane Historical Museum hosted a program paying tribute to the 155-year history of Mebane’s First Presbyterian Church in observance of Black History Month. 

Mrs. Iris Chapman gave an introduction to the program, while Mr. Thomas Vinson, a longtime elder in the Mebane First Presbyterian Church, served as the moderator. Vinson worked 20 years at General Electric in Mebane, while also serving numerous years on Mebane Planning Board. In 1967, Vinson became Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church, and he currently serves as the church’s Clerk of Council. 

Although the Mebane First Presbyterian Church that currently sits at the corner of Moore Road and West Holt Street was established in 1972, the church congregation has roots in the Mebane community going all the way back to the final years of the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction. In 2019, the church celebrated its 155th anniversary. 

Rev W.A. Scott, a free African-American man who grew up in the Mebane area, organized the Mebane First Presbyterian Church in October, 1864. Rev. Scott went on to be educated at the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1867 as the Biddle Memorial Institute. 

“Rev. Scott attended Hawfields Church. He was not a slave at that time,” Vinson explained. “He organized this church in 1864, and we’re very grateful for Rev. Scott to make this possible. He was prepared for the great task laid before him.” 

The Mebane Historical Museum presentation included photographs of the interior of the present-day Mebane First Presbyterian Church, which includes the original pulpit from the very first Mebane First Presbyterian Church of the 1860s, as well as other original furnishings such as chairs and an old clock from the late 19th century. 

“This is the pulpit that was in the original Mebane First Presbyterian Church in 1864. It was hand-built. It’s not something that is going to fall apart,” Vinson said as he displayed the pulpit on the screen to the presentation’s guests. “The clock, at the time, the Pastor we had, Rev. Gillespie from Duke University, he had it made to match the interior of our church.”

Though Mebane’s First Presbyterian Church was organized in 1864, the congregation’s first permanent structure wasn’t built until 1868 near the location of the present-day church on West Holt Street. The Pastor at that time was Rev. William Donnell, another graduate of Johnson C. Smith’s Theological Seminary, who served dual roles in the community as a Pastor and educator. Donnell’s wife also taught local schoolchildren. 

Yadkin Academy came into being not long after Mebane First Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church’s emphasis on education founded the Yadkin Academy. It was the only institution in the years immediately following the Civil War devoted to the education, training, and development of black youths in the Mebane area. 

“They (the Presbyterian Church) furnished the funds to make these academies available, for African-Americans to have a place to continue their education. Rev. Donnell was the Master of the Academy of that time,” Vinson said. “Rev. Donnell was pastor of Mebane First Presbyterian and head of Yadkin Academy at the same time.”

Many students from Yadkin Academy went on to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and Barber Scotia College in Concord to obtain degrees.

“Barber Scotia also came about in 1864, during Rev. Scott’s time,” Vinson said. 

In 1938, a new structure was built on the Holt Street property that would come to be known as Mebane Second Presbyterian Church. Although the congregation was still considered to be the Mebane First Presbyterian Church, the “Second Presbyterian Church” name held for nearly three decades - through World War, the 1950s and much of the 1960s. 

In 1966, Mebane Second Presbyterian Church and the Scott Elliot Presbyterian Church of Graham merged. The two congregations became the Yadkin United Presbyterian Church, and permanently located itself at the corner of Moore and Holt Street in Mebane. 

“At that time, we would go back and forth there (to Graham) on Sundays,” Vinson recalled of the merger. “We’d meet in Mebane on first and third Sundays, and in Graham second and fourth Sundays until the merger was approved. Scott Elliot had about 13 members at that time. We had 70. We just went back and forth to familiarize ourselves with that congregation. When we merged, we didn’t want to bring anything from Mebane Second Presbyterian or Scott Elliot. We unanimously agreed to name it Yadkin United Presbyterian Church.” 

Rev. James E. McMillan, another Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary alumnus who was initially ordained at Mebane First Presbyterian all the way back in 1918, came back to the newly-named Yadkin United Presbyterian in 1968 and accepted the congregation’s mission to build a new church. The parishioners raised approximately $15,000 over the next few years, leading up to the establishment of a new church in 1972. 

“Rev. (James A.) Cannon pursued that (the new church edifice), and after he moved on, Rev. McMillan came in and fulfilled what Rev. Cannon left off. During his ministry, we built a new church under his leadership,” Vinson remembered. “He (McMillan) was retired. He came to us, and he fulfilled what Rev. Cannon started.” 

Some of the church’s other Pastors over its long history include Rev. Phillip John Augustus Coxe (1918-1923), I.J. Russell, D.D. (1928-1936), Rev. J. Lee White (1939-1948), Rev. L.V. Lassiter, Jr. (1979-1982), and Rev. William Lawrence (1986-1996).

The Mebane Second Presbyterian Church structure built in the late 1930s would be sold to Mebane's Mount Calvary Living Word Church on Tate Street in the early 1970s, and the new structure that would be erected nearby still serves the people of Mebane First Presbyterian Church nearly half a century later.  

“We sold the (Mebane Second Presbyterian) church to a neighboring church in our community. We sold it to them for $1,000, and that church was moved. Our cemetery is where this building existed,” Vinson explained. 

Recalling the sale of the old Mebane Second Presbyterian Church to Mt. Calvary Living Word Church, Vinson remembered how the old church was jacked up and toted away by 18-wheelers to its present location along Tate Street. 

Mt. Calvary Living Word would eventually add a fellowship hall to the old structure, while the parishioners of Mebane First Presbyterian Church held a series of votes and meetings to make sure their new facility met their specific needs. The current seating capacity of Mebane First Presbyterian Church is approximately 140 in the sanctuary, with another 100 people capable of being accommodated in the fellowship hall. 

“Everything you see (today), the congregation voted on it unanimously,” Vinson recalled of the 1972 transition to the new church. “When it got here, the contractor wanted us to take a wing and go to the right. We got it like we wanted. We told them we wanted a steeple so it wouldn’t look like a schoolhouse.” 

On December 31, 1997, Rev. Gale Porter Nelson assisted the church elders in restoring the original name of the church from Yadkin United Presbyterian Church back to Mebane First Presbyterian Church. 

“We organized in 1864, and built the church in 1868. We were Mebane’s first Presbyterian Church,” Vinson said emphatically. “It was Yadkin for 31 years, but we buried Yadkin.” 

The church, under Rev. James Brown, celebrated the paying off of its church facility - and the burning of its mortgage - on September 24, 2006.

“We killed that note,” Vinson said to laughs from the audience. “He (Rev. Brown) came to us, and during this period, we were able to renovate, burn the mortgage in 2006, increase membership, renovate the sanctuary, buy new pews and hymnals, and upgrade our maintenance.”

Beyond spiritual and educational contributions, Mebane First Presbyterian Church has functioned over the years as a meeting place for some of the area’s other local churches, including Saint Luke and First Baptist, just to name a few. 

“We had Mebane First Baptist in the midst of building, Saint Luke in the midst of building. So we shared our church with them,” Vinson recalled. “You do great things for God. You see great things from God.” 

The church’s current Pastor, Rev. Nita Henderson, thanked Mr. Vinson not only for his informative presentation, but his decades of service to Mebane First Presbyterian Church.

“I stand before you humbled. But just to be in your presence, and say a special thank you to Mr. Thomas Vinson. He’s taught me more in this short period of time (at this presentation) that I’ve learned in the whole nine years (serving the church),” Henderson said. 

“Mebane First Presbyterian Church might be small, but it’s mighty and great in spirit and love,” she continued. “I thank you for the opportunity to come and just say thank you, and especially thank you to Mr. Vinson. He’s been a real trooper. He never misses a Sunday - know that. I’m grateful to him for his service. His service to his church, and his service to God." 

“We might be small - some might say we’re dying - but we’re not dead yet."