The History of O'Kelly Chapel Missionary
I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my
church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
When Christ spoke these words, O'Kelly Chapel Missionary Baptist Church was in the making.
O'Kelly Chapel Missionary Baptist Church was founded in 1813 by African American families during the Slavery Era, when African Americans did not have the freedom of worship. O'Kelly Chapel is a testament of their faith and a monument of their courage and tenacity.
The Brush Arbor Meeting Place
It is unknown where O'Kelly Chapel held its worship services, but is believed to be beside a clear running spring beneath an arbor of trees. Their "meeting place" was just over the hill from our current church. This was not an unusual start for many African Americans churches in southern rural communities. Before and after Emancipation, they conducted their praise and worship services in secret places in the woods. These clearings were commonly referred to as "brush arbors", "bush arbors" and "hush arbors". Their floors were covered with low growing scrub vegetation and they were sheltered by overhanging branches of trees. These forest enclaves provided a meeting place close to God from whom the worshippers sought hope and relief from the pain, weariness and troubles of the world, or the patience to bear them.
The meetings gave the congregation not only rest from continuous labor, but also gave them joy and companionship and permitted them to shift their minds from immediate conditions to the bright future awaiting them reassured of God's saving grace. They united to protect themselves from oppression and the internalization of unflattering stereotypes. This religious culture fostered self-esteem, courage, confidence and hope. From these strong and courageous beginnings, O'Kelly Chapel had its early development. The "handful" of faithful people, who formed that first union included families whose descendants still support the mission of O'Kelly Chapel.
From Brush Arbor to Church Home
The first parcel of land was given by Dr. F. L. O'Kelly on February 15, 1882. On November 05, 1902, his wife, Mrs. Sara D. O'Kelly sold the congregation two additional acres for $24 to build a church. After purchasing the land, the church was named "O'Kelly Chapel Colored Church" and the membership number is unknown. The deacons at this time were: Robert Webb, O. L. Hammond, Monroe Echols and Luke Kimmery.
Construction of the church began on December 18, 1902. Mr. P. C. Upshaw gave the "colored church" right of way to a certain spring in the back to supply water for the church. It was signed at the Gwinnett County Courthouse on April 27, 1903. In the same year, we were blessed with more deacons: Henry Hammond, Columbus Echols, Will Hemphill, William (Bud) Hayes, Jim Whitehead and Gustus Echols.
Ministers that served "O'Kelly Chapel Colored Church" were: Rev. Henry Webb, Rev. Jack Webb (Rev. Henry Webb's son), Rev. Maddox, Rev. Lackey (pastor twice) and Rev. Felt. Sis. Mattie Hayes served as clerk for fifty years.
Families that worshipped at "O'Kelly Chapel Colored Church" included: the Webb Family, the Miller Family, the Lucas Family, the Reid Family, the Echols Family, the Hayes Family, the Hammond Family, and many more.
We pause to salute the fathers of this great effort, who without a doubt, put God first. In spite of their small financial gain, they were able to hold on and push forward with their devotion to God. There was very little heat except, maybe, a wood-burning stove; but deep in their hearts, the warmth of God's love and love they had for each other, sustained them.
"O'Kelly Chapel Colored Church" was the only church in the rural area for African Americans. Our church was a pioneer church, where many of our ancestors were slaves; and from this church, other churches came into existence.
In the mid 1900's, the church name changed from O'Kelly Chapel Colored Church to O'Kelly Chapel Baptist Church.
The Modern Era
In November, 1953, Rev. E. D. Harris, a young dynamic and energetic preacher was called to minister to the needs of hungry people. Under Rev. Harris leadership, the first choir was organized. During the early 1960's, Rev. Harris began working congregation desire to see a new church building. With the land donated by Mrs. Mary Brooks, which is now our present site, the church moved forward with dedication and determination. During construction, worship service was held in the old church building that was once located across the street. This beautiful house of God that we now occupy was completed and dedicated in March 1969. The old church building was torn down and that land is now our cemetery. The O'Kelly Chapel Cemetery is filled with numerous slave graves that are marked with a stone. Our cemetery is listed as one of Gwinnett County Historical Society historic sites for cemeteries.
1988, after 35 years of soul-stirring sermons and teaching "love ye one another"
and to put God first, Rev. Harris decided it was time to retire. He was the first pastor at O'Kelly Chapel to
retire and he served as Pastor Emeritus until his death in May, 2010.
that followed Rev. Harris are: Rev.
Tommy Hall, Rev. David Johnson, Rev. James Russell, Rev. C. E. Brown, Rev.
Anthony Smith. Doctor Michael Woods, and Rev. Brandon Green currently serving
as our pastor.
By the grace of God, O'Kelly Chapel Missionary Baptist Church has come a long way and with Him, we can journey on. A family that prays together, will definitely stay together. We thank God for allowing us to grow and prosper in His spirit for the years of establisment. We will continue to press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. He did not bring us this far to leave us.