Life of James O'Kelly Chapter 13 Thomas Jefferson

by W. E. MacClenny
Some Incidents in O'Kelly's Later Life and Work--His Preaching Tours--His Friendship With Thomas Jefferson--Preaches in Washington, D.C.--How Thomas Jefferson Came to be Known as an Infidel--O'Kelly's last Meeting with Bishop Asbury--His Open Discussions--Historical Statements of 1809 and 1829.
Rendered From an Early Sketch
For a number of years, just prior to his death, Mr. O'Kelly lived in Chatham County. North Carolina; his name appearing in the records of of the county as early as 1797. He was the owner of some property in that county, and there his family resided, but it seems that he was still a traveling preacher, and from the records of his contemporaries he did a great deal of preaching. Near his old homestead the first new Christian church in the South was organized in 1794. It was named O'Kelly's Chapel after its organizer . This was the same year the Lebanon Conference was held. Mr. O'Kelly began his work at home. How much better it would be for us if we began to do the work that is next to us, instead of trying to reach for something farther off! This church is about eight miles south of Durham, North Carolina.

Rev. James O'Kelly seems to have been a great missionary worker, and did a great deal of traveling in connection with his work. From a deed on record in Chatham County we find that he bought from one John Scott, an acre of land where the Martha's Chapel [170] church now stands, in 1803, and there the new denomination built a church. We give a sentence from this as showing how devout the fathers were. After describing the piece of land Scott says: "I say I do hereby give, grant and convey the said acre of land with all that appertaineth thereto on the said premises to the said O'Kelly and the Christian Church collectively for the particular purpose of erecting a meeting house to be occupied by way of preaching and explaining the Word of the Lord therein, together with any other part of divine services for the benefit of the settlement, according to the true intent and meaning of these presents."

It is said that O'Kelly's wife would see at times that he was restless, and she would say to him: "Go on and preach, I will attend to home." He would make tours of the early Christian churches, and often preach at private houses when there was no church convenient, and one writer adds that he would often preach for three hours at a time. Often times he would define his plan of Church government. He would start from his home and visit all the churches from there to Petersburg, Virginia; and all those east of that town and Richmond, on what is known as the "Southside" of Virginia, as the churches have always been somewhat numerous in that section. Occasionally he would go up in the mountains, and sometimes as far as Washington, D. C.

It was said that he was an intimate friend of Thomas Jefferson, and as Mr. Jefferson was the leader of Republican ideas in Virginia in politics, and Mr. O'Kelly [171] in religious thought, it is not strange that they should have been warm friends, and very congenial.

It is highly probable, that what occurred at a later period, that he visited Mr. Jefferson at Monticello on his preaching tours. The story goes thus:

"On one occasion Mr. O'Kelly visited Mr. Jefferson in Washington. The great statesman, knowing of the preacher's ability, obtained the use of the hall of the House of Representatives and invited Mr. O'Kelly to preach. The invitation was, after some consideration accepted, but to the chagrin of the distinguished host, the preacher fell far below Mr. Jefferson's expectation. Believing this failure did his friend great injustice, the great political leader insisted on a second effort. Mr. O'Kelly agreed. The appointment was again made, and the people urged to give him another hearing. They did hear him again, and were abundantly repaid, for Mr. O'Kelly preached one of the great sermons of his life, and the host was the most delighted man in the audience.   When he had finished Mr. Jefferson arose with tears in his eyes, and said, that while he was no preacher, in his opinion James O'Kelly was on of the greatest preachers living.

"Mr. Jefferson's friendship for Mr. O'Kelly was responsible for the charge that this eminent statesman was an infidel. To this day the facts are but little know to the public, but they are well authenticated.  It is known that the charge was laid against Mr. Jefferson, but the cause and the injustice of the charge are little known. Mr. O'Kelly's leadership in [172] the session from the Methodist Episcopal Church had made for him many strong enemies, who called him an infidel because of his supposed unfaithfulness to his church.   His enemies pressed this charge against him without specifying it's nature, till the impression gained credence that he was an infidel to the Christian faith.

"When Mr. Jefferson boldly showed his friendship for Mr. O'Kelly, it was construed by the enemies of the latter as sympathy for him in his work as a reformer, and at once Mr. Jefferson was charged with being an infidel. His political enemies began to proclaim the charge against him in their efforts to defeat him for the presidency, and in a short time the rumor was generally current among the people. So intense was the feeling thus engendered against him, that in some places, notably in Pennsylvania, the report was believed and it was talked among the people that if Mr. Jefferson should be elected President, he would order all Bibles to be burned throughout the land. An instance well authenticate, is reported of a Christian mother, who, influenced by this talk against him, on hearing that Mr. Jefferson had been elected President, took her Bible and hid it away, declaring that the infidel President should never burn her Bible. There is good reason to believe that this is the origin of the charge of infidelity against Thomas Jefferson, and though having no foundation, many well informed people are not sure, even to this day, that he was not indeed an enemy to the Christian faith. Of course [173] neither James O'Kelly, nor Thomas Jefferson was an infidel"

(This was given the writer by Dr. J. P. Barret, editor of the Herald of Gospel Liberty, Dayton, O.)

On one of his preaching tours Mr. O'Kelly was taken very sick near Winchester, Virginia. He and Bishop Asbury had not seen each other for some time, and it so happened that the Bishop was in the same locality at the time. On learning that Mr. O'Kelly was very sick he sent two of his brethren, Reed and Walls, to ask if Mr. O'Kelly would like for him to visit him. The reply was in the Affirmative. Here on Monday the 23d of August, 1802, we have an account of the last meeting on earth of these to great men. Mr. Asbury, in his "Journal," Vol. III, page 76, has this to say in regard to the meeting: "We met in peace, and asked of each other's welfare, talked of persons and things indifferently, prayed, and parted in peace. Not a word was said of the troubles of former times. Perhaps this is the last interview we shall have upon the earth." This meeting shewed that both of these leaders had great souls within, dough differing so much in many mattes.

During the last thirty years of his life, Mr. O'Kelly labored constantly to promote the interest of the new Church which he had been instrumental in organizing. In all things he is said to have been very energetic man, and especially so in the work of the Church. It was difficult to deflect him from any well-fixed purpose. The result was, he usually carried his point. He had great firmness in his purposes, and this is [174] said to be one of the marked characteristics of the O'Kelly family in North Carolina to the present day.

He must have been a man of powerful intellect, for it is said of him that on one occasion he preached five sermons at different places in one day, and none of them bore any sameness. This seems to be the most wonderful thing, for there are but few ministers in any denomination at the present day who would attempt to do that , when helps and commentaries are being published annually by the thousands. Not only did he preach often, but sometimes he met in open discussion the enemies of the Christian Church--for they were many--and he would explain the principles of Church government, and the Biblical doctrines upon which it was founded. In the early days of the church he often met Rev. Stephen Davis , of Gloucester County, Virginia, in open debate. Mr. Davis was one who withdrew with Mr. O'Kelly in 1792, and then went back to the Methodists to become one of the most bitter enemies of the Christian Church. Not only did Mr. O'Kelly have to preach and organize, but it was a life and death struggle to hold what he had accomplished.

To give the reader some idea of the hot persecutions of the early Christians, or O'Kellyites as they were called, we quote from a sketch of the life of Rev. Joseph Thomas: 'It was not infrequent that the ministers of other bodies came to oppose and ridicule what they styled this 'rotten Arminian mushroom doctrine which was preached by the tail end of the Methodists, the O'Kellyites.'"

We find that Bishop Asbury and the strongest and most popular Methodist preachers followed close on his tracks to win back those who had cast their lot with the Christians. In 1805 Mr. Asbury visited the Isle of [175] Wight and Nansemond counties, Virginia, and wrote in his "Journal": "A reaction has set in against the O'Kelly movement, as General Wells and family have returned to the Methodists, and Willis Walls is coming back, besides twenty others who left the Methodists." When Rev. Francis Asbury wrote those lines in his "journal" he little thought that in this neighborhood, and by the people mentioned, or their descendants, there would be a strong Christian Church organized which would live and flourish for many years; but such was the case.

Soon after the organization of the Christian church in 1794 Mr. John Scarborough Wills, who was an officer in the Revolutionary army, gave the site for a Chapel, and the Christian Church was erected near Scott's Factory, about four miles from Smithfield, Isle of Wight County, Virginia. It was named Will's Chapel, in honor of the man who gave the site. This church was ministered to in the early days by Rev. Mills Barrett, and at one time it had about one hundred and twenty-five members. Later it began to decline, but as late as 1840 there was a Sunday School held there. The membership dwindled away, and some went to other churches, and the house decayed. Perhaps Oakland Christian Church may have grown from the seeds planted there.

By some means or other the report of the new organization was carried beyond the mountains, and some ministers, feeling that there was need of a reform in Church government, came over to the denomination. Prominent among these we find the names of [176] Ogden and Haw, who were the first missionaries to Kentucky, and it is said that in other localities there were recruits. His opponents say that O'Kelly sowed the seeds of discord broadcast over the section in which he was so well known, and that it was not without effect, for the people who were seeking the greatest liberty flocked to his standards, and the new Church, in the face of all the opposition that a strong and well-organized body could bring to bear upon the situation, continued to grow in numbers.

Even when it was known to the world at large that they were gaining as fast as could be expected under the circumstances, the leading Methodist writers and historians circulated reports that they were diminishing. Rev. Jesse Lee, who was the Methodist historian of the time, writing in the year, says: "They the Christians have been divided and subdivided till at present it is hard to find two of them that are of the same opinion. There are but a few of them in that part of Virginia where they were the most numerous." From this statement we infer that Lee had closed his eyes to the painful truth to him, and his brethren, or that he had not taken the pains to inform himself thoroughly on the subject, since at that very time the cause was prospering under Mr. O'Kelly's personal leadership. Another writer in 1829 says that the adherents of James O'Kelly, or the Christians, numbered several thousands, and had many ministers, thus showing that there had been a phenomenal growth during these years, or that Mr. Lee was mistaken in his assertion in 1809. We think the evidence strong enough to show he was mistaken.

Very soon we will have the battle between O'Kelly and the Methodists over their misunderstanding of his views against the Catholic Trinity as being Unitarianism. This was the spot --
Old Rehoboth M. E. Church, Near Union, W. Va.
From The Life of Rev. James O'Kelly
W. E. MacClenny, Ph. B.
Suffolk, Va
Reprint 1950

Chapter 17 - The Battle between James O'Kelly and one-man denominational tyrany from whose opinions there was no appeal.

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