Southern Christian Convention and White Normativity
The O’Kelly Monument is located in the historic neighborhood of Elon University, adjacent to the Alamance Building, in Elon, North Carolina. The statue was erected in 1929 in honor of one of Elon’s founders: James O’Kelly. O’Kelly was a preacher in present-day Alamance County; he attacked slavery as unchristian and insisted on equal authority among ministers. During the 1792 General Conference of the Methodist Church, he withdrew from the denomination following a disagreement and founded the Republican Methodist Church a.k.a the Christian Church, a precursor to the Southern Christian Convention that founded Elon in 1889.
In 1926, the Southern Christian Convention voted to build a memorial to O’Kelly on the campus of Elon College. Originally the monument included an urn as the centerpiece.
While some of the spiritual forebearers of the Southern Christian Convention publicly held that slavery and White supremacy were wrong during the early days of the country, the denomination that established Elon College in the 1880s had strayed far from these egalitarian ideals. James O’Kelly, after whom Elon’s founders named a street adjacent to the main campus (and that now passes right through the heart of campus) and had a monument erected in his honor, was the most forthrightly antislavery, arguing in his 1789 “Essay on Negro Slavery” that “For us to affirm that slavery harmonizes with the Spirit and religion of Jesus Christ, is—blasphemy!” He recognized and repented of his “prejudice in favour of mine own color”.
The Christian movement that O’Kelly helped to launch eventually abandoned its antislavery principles. After decades of trying to consolidate like-minded believers nationally, White Southerners abruptly withdrew behind sectional lines in the 1850s. By 1854, William B. Wellons, an early advocate of educational initiatives and leader of the Southern partisans within the denomination, acknowledged that almost all ministers in his connection owned slaves. Rather than align themselves ecclesiastically with people who believed in Black equality, Wellons and other Southern White Christians converged on Alamance County in September 1856 to create the Southern Christian Convention.
by 1889, when members of the Southern Christian Convention, North Carolina and Virginia Conference voted to establish Elon College as a four-year coeducational institution, they had already made their branch of the denomination almost completely White, and the parent denomination was on the road to the same outcome, having segregated Black members into a few, small conferences. Elon’s founders established the school for White people, as a matter of course, and the only Black people whom they expected at the institution would be those who labored for its benefit.
Elon Committee on History and Memory report, pages 11-13.
University Archives & Special Collections blog post on the O'Kelly monument.
Information on James O'Kelly and the reports on the creation of the monument can be found at the University Archives, James O'Kelly Collection, Mss.Coll.023