Hopewell Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest churches in the region. Before the Revolutionary War there were only seven churches in the area. They were all Presbyterian because the first European settlers were all Scottish or Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Hopewell was officially founded in 1762 although it was started in the late 1740’s or early 1750’s by an Evangelist named John Thomson.
The first gatherings were about a mile north of the present sire in the house and yard of a founding member named Richard Barry. A new historic marker has been placed on Beatties Ford Road to call attention to this site which has been preserved from development.
The first building on campus was probably a log house. From the copy of the seating chart drawn by the well know patriot, John McKnitt Alexander, one can see how benches or pews were arranged around the pulpit in 1778. The numbers and initials show which members subscribed to which pew and the accompanying cost for a year which might help to pay the preacher. The next building was weatherboard. Either the log structure had wooden siding added or a whole new building was erected.
In 1831 a campaign was begun to construct a brick “meeting house”, but apparently the actual building wasn’t started until 1833. Hopewell would thus become only the second bricked Presbyterian Church in rural North Carolina. The record is unclear, but either all or part of the old wooden structure was moved onto the farm of the pastor at that time, the Rev. John Williamson. That road is now known as Patterson Road which is off Hambright Road between McCoy Road and Highway 11S. The minister’s wife, Sarah, transformed that building into the first female academy in the region.
In 1859 this meeting house style was remodeled into a Federal Style building with very little change since then. A new front was added which lengthened the building and game more room for the balcony which was then the slave gallery. The roof was literally raised with the windows doubling in height. These changes are clearly visible in the fact that the additions employed a darker shade of brick . The accompanying photograph is from 1911. The exterior of the church looked like this between 1860 and 1928 when the first Sunday Church building was added on to the back of the structure. The original “Scotch-Stack” style wall is clearly visible in this photograph too. It extended in front of the church and surrounded the cemetery which sits in front of the building. The diminutive gentleman on the steps is E.L. Baxter Davidson. In 1928, he spared this wall from being crushed and used for the first hard-surface of Beatties Ford Road. Instead he offered to build the present cemented stone wall on either side of Beatties Ford Road.
Before we go inside the church building, let’s take a brief tour of the cemetery. This is the oldest of four cemeteries on campus having been used at least between 1775 and 1840. This burial ground has the third highest concentration of box markers in North Carolina. Those are the grave sites that look like they have stone coffins on top of them. Don’t worry, the deceased were actually buried underground and not in these boxes! Some of the markers were originally table markers. That is, they had six legs rather than panels. The last picture of one has been found in a 1927 newspaper article. These markers were highly fashionable in the first half of the nineteenth century. An expert has estimated that each one was worth about the equivalent of the average house in that era! That value plus the fact that Hopewell was one of the first bricked churches in the rural South demonstrates the wealth that cotton brought to the region in the first half of the nineteenth century. The population of the first cemetery is a veritable Who’s Who of early North Mecklenburg County history.
Also worthy of note before we step inside are the gate posts which still stand from the days of the stone wall around the cemetery. It is known that they were cut by an enslaved mason on the Sample Farm, the successors to the Lattas. His name was Lewis Phifer which is unusual because slaves were generally only known by a first name. He also cut the first steps to the renovated church building in 1859. These steps were moved to a house on Patterson Road in the Twentieth Century. The Upping Block used to help females board and disboard wagons also shows his handiwork as to the step to the so-called “servant entrance” at the church. Lewis Phifer is important because he gives us moderns a hint of the great contributions slaves made to our society. One of the evils of slavery was the anonymity of the people who made such a difference. Lewis Phifer helps to make slavery more personal.
Speaking of slavery; the entrance on the west side of the meeting house was called the “servant’s entrance”. Presbyterians always referred to slaves as servants. This door lead to what is called a “blind stairwell”; that is, it is not visible from the main entrance perhaps indicating that the white portion of the congregation preferred not to see the slaves entering and exiting. These stairs lead up to what is now called the balcony, but in those days it was known as the gallery. There were 142 enslaved members of the church in 1860, and over the course of the Civil War 100 African-American babies were baptized. Records indicate that slaves were examined and received for membership in the same way as whites. Obviously their access to the church was separated. There is evidence, however, that very poor white people also sat in the gallery on the west side although they used a separate stairwell. Additionally, even though they were members, slaves were not allowed to be buried in the cemetery. Some churches allowed them burial outside the walls of the cemetery, but recent archaeological digs have located no such graves.
Other features of note inside the building include the furniture. The Victorian couch behind the pulpit was a gift to the church from Mr. & Mrs. Robert Davidson. The pulpit itself is over one hundred years old, hand-made and regularly loaned-out in the community for graduation exercises, lectures, and stump speeches. The wall clock is about 130 years old. The usual joke asks why it is behind the preacher rather than in front where long-windedness can be gauged.
Several pieces have recently returned from loan at the Charlotte History Museum. The two casket chairs used to sit on both sides of the pulpit. Now they are kept in the foyer. During funerals they were set facing each other so that they would hold up the coffin. The wine jugs also kept in the foyer remember a day when wine was bought in 5 gallon quantities for what was called “communion season”. Before the days of the tiny glasses in trays, the communion wine was served by the goblet with each participant apparently expected to drink most of its contents. One jug is especially esteemed for the thumb-print design on the bottom with served as the craftsman signature. Much more is noteworthy but space does not allow.
For information about group tours call the church office. The women’s group in the church can cater lunch for groups of at least 25. This arrangement works best when such a tour couples with a visit to Historic Latta Place and/or The Carolina Raptor Center which are both nearby.