Houstonville, North Carolina is a little community on the north end of Iredell county. It hasn’t always been as small as it is now- today it’s most notable feature is a crossroads where a few buildings still sit on NC highway 21, but it’s history is much larger than what that modest little crossroads can convey, and today, we’re going to take a look at one small part of it.
The story of the church building at Houstonville really starts with a man named Blum Hiliary Vestal. “B.H.” Vestal was a Yadkinville evangelist who had been making the rounds through Iredell and surrounding counties for a number of years prior to his entry into our story.
Vestal had started in the Holiness movement, which was seeing growth around the turn of the century, but had (through means I can’t discover) eventually become associated with the Moravian church in North Carolina. The particulars of this might be quite interesting, especially since Holiness/Wesleyan theology could be at odds with traditional Moravian teachings, but the details are lost to the ages.
At any rate, the 1920’s find Vestal traveling all over the area, preaching wherever anyone would have him. This included outdoors along the road, under brush arbors, at regular meetings, and in schools and church buildings.
The earliest mention I can find of Vestal at Houstonville dates to 1916, when he was preaching at a “Brush Hill Church” in the area. He would visit at least once a year and maybe more, preaching under a tent and at the Virginia Dare School, which would have been just down the road near where Mt Carmel TPC sits today.
Through Vestal’s evangelism, a small group of people in the community were either converted or brought in from other denominations to start an actual church under the Moravian denomination. By 1924, a man named James E. Hall, a seasoned Moravian preacher is also coming to Houstonville and is encouraged by what he sees, deciding to assist in the establishment of a congregation there. This was solidified in the minds of everyone on October 22nd, 1924 with 5 married couples being the core of what would be the new church and J.E. Hall its appointed minister.
In these early days, the group would likely have been meeting in the school house, but the thought immediately in the minds of those committed was to ultimately construct a building of their own.
Between October of 1924 and the end of the year, 10 new members are added to the group, bringing the number or communicants (or “members” as most would call them) to 25 souls.
Vestal and Hall would share duties among the members in Houstonville, with Vestal taking time to continue evangelism in far off locales and Hall ministering to other Moravian congregations. Many of the smaller Moravian churches at the time had no dedicated minister, but were supplied by men who traveled among churches. Some of these men might have two or three other congregations to visit and assist each week. Sometimes they would only see certain congregations monthly. However, in the beginning, Hall and Vestal seemed most committed to Houstonville.
Wednesday December 3rd, 1924 sees the establishment of the church on paper and a church committee is elected from the local people. This is done in the home or Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Hayes, with 16 people meeting with Edgar A Holton, a “field agent” of the Moravian church, and Vestal and Hall. L. Ellis Hayes, Thomas S. Creason, and Noah E. Goodin are elected to the committee. A couple weeks later, the first Christmas service for this new congregation takes place in the schoolhouse where they had been meeting. Including the 25 members, there are a total of 80 people present for a Moravian candle service.
January of the next year the idea of constructing a building is still heavy on the minds of the communicants, and L.E. Hayes agrees to donate an acre of land for the building. However, rather than simply giving up the land, it is donated with the stipulation that if the Moravians fail to build a church, or leave after the church has been built, the land will return to the Hayes family.
A “standard design for small frame Moravian churches” drawn up by Northup and O’Brien architects and is approved by the local congregation for the building. It will consist of a 30×50 wooden structure with space for possible Sunday school classrooms in the back.
On Tuesday, February 24th, Vestal and several others meet on the land to lay off the foundation lines and begin digging out the space for walls to be built. This work continues on for days, and on the 28th, a total of 58 men, women, boys, and girls with the help of four wagons meet to gather up stones to be used for the foundation. By March 2nd, the stone and concrete foundation walls are finished.
On the 14th, men and boys met in an unknown area of woods where a local man who “had served the devil long enough and thought it was time to begin to serve God” (his words) had donated timber for the construction. 120 logs were selected and the same man in service of God gave the congregation a discount on having them milled.
Despite fervor and materials, money was in short supply among the rural people, and word was sent out in the Moravian newspaper for help. The Houstonville congregation figured that if a third of the cost could be offset by donations or other aid, the church could be completed. Congregations and various groups within the Moravian church were encouraged to help with the effort, to the tune of at least $1,600 initially. The paper noted that the front door and larger windows would cost $40 each with twelve total large windows. Two small windows would cost $5 each and two small doors would cost $15 a piece.
Boys and girls in the church fattened hens to be sold at market in Winston-Salem in order to raise money for nails.
By March 29th, the cornerstone was ready to be laid with much pomp and circumstance. 1,600 people gathered coming in 400 automobiles to watch as the stone containing names of the people who had worked on the church and those who had donated funds was set in place. For 2 hours the people stayed, and J.E. Hall and the Moravian bishop Edward Rondthaler both spoke to the crowd, the former speaking of what it took to get to the point where they were, and the latter giving a short sermon from Ephesians titled “Jesus Christ Himself the Chief Cornerstone.” All this was done from a platform specially constructed for the occasion in front of the church where speakers might stand and bands and choirs might make music within easy sight of the gathered crowd. The Moravian paper proclaimed “…our first work in Iredell is well under way, under the evident blessing of God.”
By the second Sunday in May of 1925 the building was not completely finished, but had come close enough that the first service took place inside with Vestal preaching. The fourth Sunday, Hall was present and began the organization of a Sunday school. It would start with 52 people registered but would swell to 96 by the end of the month. Noah E. Goodin was elected as superintendent of the Sunday school with Ruby Hayes as his assistant, and David Harris as secretary and treasurer.
It seems after this only minor things were needed to complete the church. The pulpit, communion set, hymnals, and other items were donated from Moravians around the state. The members themselves had a “hanging gasoline lamp” added to the central part of the building for illumination on dreary days and on Sunday nights when prayer meetings were held.
During these months leading up to the church’s consecration, we find Hall and Vestal in and out of the pulpit, and numerous mentions of various “Billy Sunday Clubs” coming through. These were groups associated with popular evangelist and former baseball player, Billy Sunday.
1926 begins with improving numbers. Houstonville could boast 34 members, 4 non-members, and 18 children for a total of 56 people in the pews on a good Sunday. The church was growing.
Sunday, April 25th, consecration of the church was undertaken with bishop Edward Greider officiating over the event. Vestal, Hall, Edgar A. Holton, and George Bruner were the other ministers in attendance. Music was provided by the Friedberg Male Chorus of Friedburg Church, the choir of Center Methodist Church from Yadkin county, and the “Trinity Church Band” which I believe to be from Trinity Moravian Church. No number is given on the size of the crowd, but one would assume it was fairly large and probably had representatives from various Moravian congregations in the area as well as locals from other denominations.
1926 is also the first we hear of a death in the church. Generally, deaths among Moravian congregations were reported in the Wachovia Moravian, but as I have delved into this story, I have come to realize that there are a lot of questions about who died while the church was active, and where they were buried. The death recorded in the paper, though unnamed, may be Mary Isabelle Brown, a member who died May 4th, 1926 had a funeral at Houstonville but would ultimately be buried at Holly Springs, a larger church less than a mile down the road. At this time Houstonville die not have it’s own burying ground laid out.
The end of the year sees the church’s first “Love Feast” in December. Again, no numbers are given, but it is noted that in addition to members, people from the towns of Olin, Sheffield, and Smith’s Chapel Church, and “all the intervening territory” are present.
March 1927, Hall and Ellis Hayes and Noah Goodin are reported as having “laid off four plots” for “graveyard purposes.” Where these plots are or were is uncertain. How many were ultimately used is also uncertain. This may have been done as a reaction to the 1926 death and the realization that there were no available grave plots for members of the church.
Vestal and Hall are in and out of the church in ’27, with both managing to miss Easter Sunday, and so no service was held. In their absence, other local ministers sometimes filled the pulpit. It was a pattern that would continue all the way to the end.
One notable name was Professor Zeno Dixon. Dixon was a graduate of Vanderbilt and a leading educator in the Yadkinville area where Vestal was from. He addressed the congregation on the last Sunday of the month in April, when Vestal and Hall were also available to be in attendance and an Easter celebration was held.
Little is mentioned of the church after this in the Wachovia Moravian paper for a couple years. There are the Love Feasts and holiday services. The numbers seem to grow a bit more. The Billy Sunday teams show up a couple more times. Vestal and Hall are still in and out and the church doesn’t have a full time dedicated minister.
In July of 1930 we have our first confirmed burial at the church. “Joanna” Cloer, a 55 year old woman, wife of J.W. Cloer, member of the church, and “much thought of” in the community was laid to rest in the Houstonville cemetery. According to the Wachovia Moravian, a large number were in attendance and J.E. Hall was present to preach for the funeral. Her husband would be laid to rest next to her in 1940 when he died as well.
October of 1931 is the next major news from the little church. Due to the absence of both Hall and Vestal, services are had on only two Sundays in September. The letter to the Wachovia Moravian telling of the church’s news is penned by a man named Ernest Hall Stockton, another Moravian minister who may have assisted with services at the church that year. By 1932, Stockton is listed as the church’s only minister, a position he would also fill for Hope and Bethesda Moravian church. Vestal seems to pass out of the picture at this point, and Hall becomes the minister of Wachovia Arbor. Nothing is said to explain Hall’s departure from Houstonville, though it likely had to do to his failing health, but the Wachovia Moravian would say of Vestal that in June of 1931 he was “…granted permission to relinquish active pastoral service in our Province that he might devote his entire time to general evangelistic work to which he felt the special call of God.”
That month, the congregation’s organist and a Sunday school teacher, a Mrs. Witherspoon loses her daughter, a Mrs. Edmonia Cheshier to appendicitis a week after Mrs. Cheshier and her husband visit the church. As a result, Mrs. Witherspoon moves to Forsyth county to be close to family and the church is left without anyone to play the organ.
1933 sees more activity in the graveyard, as due to the work of Mrs. Hayes, it is “…laid off into squares with suitable walks, and Arbor Vitae bushes have been set out at the corners of the squares. A splendid rock wall has been built separating the graveyard from the rest of the church property.” Moravian burials at the time were done in a certain manner. Stones were all similarly sized, laid flat on the earth, and put in neat rows. Maple and cedar trees are also planted. Those cedar trees remain today.
The next year, J.E. Hall’s health would finally deteriorate fully, and he would die in November, 1934 at 79 years old. The Wachovia Moravian would devote two full pages to his work and memory. This would have no doubt been a blow to the congregation at Houstonville, as Hall had been with them from the beginning.
In 1935, the man who replaced Hall and Vestal, E.H. Stockton, dies as well. In his 21 years of ministry he found himself in 14 different pulpits, and the Wachovia Moravian proclaimed that his old Buick was to be preserved by friends to show the future generations “..how the Moravian minister traveled in the 1900’s”.
His successor would be H.G. Foltz, who had another church besides Houstonville, and would split his time between the two. At the close of the church’s tenth year, some months might only see two Sundays with a minister in the pulpit. Foltz noted himself that he was sometimes having to travel 85 to 100 miles to reach the congregation in Iredell county.
This seems to be the beginnings of decline. It’s notable that Foltz didn’t even write regular updates in the Wachovia Moravian for much of 1936, but mentioned the Houstonville congregation in an update about his other church, almost as an afterthought.
The church building did receive an upgrade to it’s lighting as the old gas lamps were replaced by electric lights.
The end of the year also sees Vestal return for a visit during the Love Feast. H.G Foltz, in his somewhat pessimistic style, writes that the service was “…somewhat encouraging”.
1937 marks the second confirmed burial in the Houstonville graveyard, but due to Foltz’s inattentiveness, I almost wasn’t able to figure out who it was. In his letter to the Wachovia Moravian in February, 1936 he calls the person “Jane Clore.” There are no graves for such a person in the area, and I know for sure there were no people with the surname “Clore” in the area, but there were many “Cloers.” As it turns out, the woman who died and was buried Sunday, January the 3rd was Lillian (Lily) Cloer Morrison. She was the sister-in-law of the first person buried at Houstonville, Jundra Cloer. How such a grievous error was committed by Foltz is beyond me. I can only postulate that the man was bad with names, spelling, or didn’t know the congregation very well.
Whatever the case, toward the end of 1937, Foltz is removed or removes himself as pastor of Houstonville, and in his place, G. Edward Brewer, newly ordained minister, is brought in. Brewer is already pastor of the Macedonia congregation where J.E. Hall was when he died, but now also will take responsibility for Houstonville as well. The Wachovia Moravian notes that he does not have a college or theological education, but “knows how to deal with people,” and seems less a scholarly minister and more a people’s pastor.
Writing in March of 1938, Mrs. L.E. Hayes, who has held numerous positions in the congregation, and who has been a champion for the small church writes to the Wachovia Moravian as church secretary.
“We do believe if we had a pastor living in our midst we could move forward much more rapidly, but we are not able to have this kind of arrangement. As it is, we are grateful for the help we have received, and wish to take this opportunity of thanking the Church Aid Board for bearing with us so long, and continuing to send us a pastor twice a month.“
It’s hard to judge the tone of written words, but they seem to me to carry a sadness. The congregation has never had enough money to support a pastor, and so the Church Aid Board has been paying salaries to whoever consents to make the trip to Houstonville in addition to whatever other responsibilities they have.
Another interesting note from this year is also from Mrs. Hayes, who mentions in June the injury of Amelia Kennedy. Kennedy is 13 at the time and was hurt in a bus accident in Charlotte. She is also the church’s current piano player. More than that, her family is noted for owning hundreds of acres local to Houstonville as part of the Daltonia Plantation.
Toward the end of 1939, Brewer ceases to be the minister for Houstonville. Why this happens is not recorded, though maybe it was too complicated a situation for a newly ordained minister. He also leaves the country with other Moravian ministers at the beginning of the year to visit Moravian missions in Jamaica, and is absent for a time. When he returns, he spends time going to other churches in the state showing “moving pictures” that were taken in Jamaica.
Whatever the case, his replacement is William Clyde Davis, who will be one of Houstonville’s longest serving ministers. He will make his first visit to Iredell county on the second Sunday of October and will spend the 18th “calling on” members of the church to get to know the new congregation. In addition to Houstonville, he is also responsible for the Enterprise congregation as their lay-pastor. All of this before even being ordained as a deacon in December, 1939.
By the end of the year, the church has suffered another death, but no details are ever printed. Because of this we don’t know who they were or where they were buried.
1940 holds little by way of news or changes. That July, vacation bible school is organized as it has been for a number of years, but in this instance we have more names tied to the event. Ellis Bullins, a theological student at the time, is present to help with organization, and for the duration of his stay is “put up” in the homes of church members. He will be assisted by the aforementioned Miss Amelia Kennedy, Mrs. Nannie Ray, Miss Pauline Auberson, Marvin Ledford, and “Rouston” Kennedy, who I believe was actually Roderick Kennedy.
Electric heat is finally installed at the end of the year, which means the “fireman,” the member tasked with showing up early on cold days and getting the building warm by way of a wood stove no longer has to toil. It also means that the wood smoke is no longer an extra guest in the sanctuary.
Average attendance during this time is about 40 people.
This year, 2 more members die, but again, are not mentioned by name in the Wachovia Moravian, though through research I have discovered one was the aforementioned J.W. Cloer. It’s currently unknown to me who the other might be.
1941 is notable for the first mention of W.C. Kirkman, a local Apostolic Holiness minister who has assisted the church off and on and who had preached the funeral of Lillian Morrison with A.G. Woodruff (who I believe was a Baptist minister) when no Moravian ministers were available. He will preach a series of “evangelistic meetings” beginning in May. The services would go on for a number of weeks and eventually Pauline Auberson (“Orberson?” It’s spelled both ways in the papers.), Louise Harris and Amelia Kennedy and a Cecelia Kennedy are baptized into membership.
2 more members die in 1941, again, unlisted, unknown.
November 1st, 1942 W.C. Davis is replaced as the church’s minister. No reasons are given, but it seems he remains lay-pastor at Enterprise. In his place, Henry A. Lewis is called to Houstonville and is installed November 8th, 1942. Unlike past ministers, Lewis is able to preach every Sunday in December, and notes somewhat dejectedly that average attendance is now only 9 souls. The Macedonia congregation would also later become his responsibility as well and by September 1943, he would leave both. His obituary would later state that “He soon found that the young ‘city’ preacher was not yet prepared to handle the nuances of leading one rural congregation, much less two at the same time”. Lewis leaves the state entirely to take up churches on Staten island in New York.
1944, Edgar A. Holton is listed on paper as the minister for Houstonville Moravian Church, but also serves at least two other churches and may have been helping as many as 5 or 6 total. He will be the final man in the pulpit.
One of the last mentions of the church is a simple notice related to money that was being used for “the Houstonville work”- money set aside for paying for the congregation’s minister. The church will be listed at the end of 1944 as having had 35 members, with 26 of them “dropped.”
No mention is made by the Moravians of the church closing date, its conditions, no mention is made of what becomes of the building, the equipment and supplies therein, or the people buried in Houstonville’s graveyard. It seems they just wash their hands and walk away. It’s not mentioned again in their papers or archives.
But a little bit can be inferred and speculated on. First, if the Moravians abandoned the church, it would pass back into ownership of the Hayes family, which we know for sure it does. Whether or not the various “equipment” of the church (love feast mugs, pews, pulpit, hymnals, etc.) left with the Moravians is unknown.
What became of the remaining members is unknown as well. Many of the names associated with the church find their final resting place at Holly Springs Baptist Church, less than a mile down the road, and it’s assumed in the absence of the Moravians, these people simply started attending the next closest church or found another farther off.
What happened to those who were buried at the church during the Moravian years is a little more complicated, and will require it’s own article.
The history post-Moravians is also somewhat hard to pin down. With the Hayes family in ownership of the building, it was used off and on for various revivals and by various preachers, but it never seems to be a fully functioning church again while the Hayes family own it.
However, If you’ve read this far and seen the modern pictures, you’ll have probably guessed that the church building of course did the impossible. Rather than fading away and becoming a derelict building or a distant memory of the local people, ownership passes from the Hayes family to a group of Baptists, who bought the church and land from them and began to make the old chapel their own.
Sometime between 1958 and 1961, as fewer and fewer uses were found for the building, hay was stored in the main space by the Hayes family, and the group of Baptists who came into this former church must have had a good bit of work to make it useable again.
Some of the physical changes you can note today are the addition of an awning over the front door, a drop ceiling in the main church space, the addition of colored glass to the original windows, and a partition for bathrooms just inside the front door.
Despite all these changes, the church probably doesn’t look much different than it used to. Carpet covers what was probably bare wooden flooring, and newer pews were added.
Today the Houstonville Baptist Church congregation is also small, but have been faithful stewards of the property.
Houstonville Moravian Church never had a very large membership either. Maybe the people there weren’t thought of as particularly wise, powerful, or wealthy. They were mostly just local farm families, elderly couples, children, widows, but these, even these same people were, for a time, a church.
Visiting the current church on a Sunday night in July 2022, I couldn’t help but hear the singing echo in the building and think over the fact that whether there are 10 voices or 100 singing from the hymnals, a church is not and never has been a building, a true church is its members.
But our old buildings have been and continue to be a means by which we tell the stories of those congregations past. And I’m glad Houstonville is still here to proclaim the faith and lives of a rural band of people almost 100 years removed from us.
I could not have assembled this history without the ability to access the Moravian Archive’s collection of the Wachovia Moravian newspapers. Without them, we wouldn’t know as much as we do about Houstonville.
My thanks to Terry Bullin, current deacon of Houstonville Baptist Church and his wife Ellen for being so welcoming and helping fill in details that simply can’t be found in writing, and allowing me to photograph the church.
A small amount of information and a photo was gleaned from two books: With Courage For The Future by Crews and Starbuck, and Moravians In North Carolina by Jennifer Bean Bower.
Amelia Kennedy, who was mentioned several times came from a prominent family in the area would go to school to become a chiropractor later in life. “Dr. Kennedy” as she was known contributed to the book “We Well Remember” and accounts of various things happening in the local community can be found there, including some history relating to her ancestor’s use of slaves on Daltonia Plantation. I’m convinced this little book might be one of the most important written about this portion of the county.
Houstonville Baptist Church was in the news in 2017. I didn’t see the story at the time, but one of the members told me the about it and I had to look it up. The boy was eventually caught and made up for what he did, which was the result of a dare. There’s not a lot to do when you’re a teenager in the middle of nowhere.
There are still questions about Houstonville to be answered, and I hope to continue the search, but it’s possible that the information that’s needed might no longer exist.
However, if you know anything about the church’s Moravian years or have photos or documents, I would love to talk with you.
Rather than publishing a lengthy “sources page” for this article, I will be creating a collection for the church that will include materials from both the Moravian and current Baptist years. This will be donated to the Iredell County’s local history collection, and if you would like to see a large collection of articles about the church from the Wachovia Moravian, they will be there for the public to have access to, as well as Crews and Starbuck’s book.
I would also be happy to scan any documents or pictures you might have for the same collection.