March 17, 2024 at 12:55 a.m.

Unity & Machpelah Presbyterian Churches and their Ties to the American Revolution

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Unity & Machpelah Presbyterian Churches and their Ties to the American Revolution

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

Sunday (March 17th) is/was (depending on when you are reading this article) St. Patrick's Day.  You can read the history of the celebration,  of St. Patrick, etc. from multiple sources.  Since the day is largely a celebration of everything Irish, it seems appropriate to talk a bit about the history of  the Scot Irish who were among the early settlers of Lincoln County. Many of these folks were Presbyterians and established churches here – Unity and later Machpelah are among the earliest and their cemeteries hold the final resting place of these pioneering families who were also patriots of the American Revolution.

Unity Presbyterian Church was originally established as “Beattie’s Meeting House” in the year 1764. The first settlers to this area were Scot Irish and of a Presbyterian faith. The pioneer, John Beattie, established the first religious center in the area, built of logs beside a grove of oak and hickory near a spring. This church saw these pioneers through the turmoil of the Revolutionary War with many having to choose sides against friends and relatives as staunch patriots.

The first pastor of record at Unity was Rev. Humphries Hunter, who came to Unity in 1796. He was born in Londonderry, Ireland and came to Mecklenburg County in 1759. He served with distinction in the Revolutionary War.

In 1808, it was decided to build a larger building. Several acres were deeded to “Unity” church for this purpose. This was a building with elevated seats near the doors, which graduated to a high, raised pulpit covered with a hood on each side. Hooded pews also stood on each side of the pulpit, occupied by the more prominent families of the time. The pastor at the time was the Rev. Henry N. Pharr, familiarly called the ‘high priest’ on account of his size.

Rev. Patrick Sparrow succeeded Rev. Pharr. Rev. Sparrow became the first professor of languages at Davidson College and later became President of Hampton-Sidney College in Virginia. That building was quickly replaced by a third building. Records indicate that the population of the area was growing rapidly, and the church was growing in numbers and influence. This was the model of a conventional church of the era, a large clapboard building with a high pulpit facing the congregation with a gallery at the rear for slaves. This building, built in 1833, stood for almost 100 years. * Shortly after this building was completed, Rev. Sparrow left to be replaced by Rev. James Adams, who married Eliza Burton, daughter of area pioneer Robert H. Burton.

Multiple Revolutionary War patriots are buried in the Unity Cemetery including Colonel Archibald Little, Captain John Reid and Privates Charles Reggin, John “Fiddler” Abernathy, Robert Barkley, Robert Knox, and Thomas Bell.

*Note: In 1963, Duke Power completed work on the Cowan’s Ford Dam across the Catawba River and filled Lake Norman for the first time. This drastically changed not only the landscape but the makeup of the area. Highway 73, which once ran by Unity Presbyterian Church over to Davidson, was diverted south to cross at the dam, so Unity Church Road now ended at the lake.

Nearby in the Tucker’s Grover area is the current building for the Machpelah Church, which was built in 1848. It has only been opened for sunrise services since it closed in the 1970s. This church could well have crumbled into ruin, but a group of dedicated individuals and organizations have continued to maintain the historic property. Walter Clark, who lives not far from the church, became its caretaker in the early 1990s after the former caretaker, Lewis Ballard passed away.

“Machpelah Church and graveyard has a long history of being loved and cared for by local residents,” Clark said. “Both of my parents are buried here. It’s a privilege to count myself among that group.”

The Machpelah Cemetery was started in 1801 with the burial of Polly Graham, daughter of Joseph Graham, an American Revolutionary general who was also the first sheriff of Mecklenburg County and a state senator, according to an Application for Historic Landmark Designation prepared by local historian Jason Harpe.

Graham and his brother-in-law, Capt. Alexander E. Brevard were both local manufacturers of iron who owned large tracts of land in eastern Lincoln County. The cemetery is located midway between Graham’s home at Vesuvius, now Vesuvius Vineyards, to the north and Brevard’s home at Mount Tirzah to the south. They placed the cemetery near the road now known as Old Plank Road, which led from Lincolnton to Beatties Ford and to Charlotte and enclosed the cemetery with a rock wall.

Rev. Dr. Robert Hall Morrison, while serving as the pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Denver, became the first pastor of Machpelah, according to Harpe’s research. The church held services under Morrison from 1848 to 1889, although they were briefly halted near the end of the Civil War in 1865. From 1865 to 1892, the church’s membership declined due to the death of many of its members and other members moving to other churches. Pastors from neighboring Presbyterian Church’s used Machpelah intermittently between 1892 and 1901. The congregation resumed services in 1903 under Rev. W. H. Wilson, the church’s second pastor, but Wilson died one year later. Wilson was succeeded by several pastors until the church closed for good. *

*The Machpelah Church Foundation, a nonprofit organization, accepts donations to help maintain the church. Contributions can be mailed to P.O. Box 9, Lincolnton, NC 28092.

There are at least three known officers of the American Revolution buried at Machpelah - General Joseph Graham, Colonel Joseph Taylor, and Captain Alexander Brevard.

The Lincoln Landmarks organization will present a Spring Tour of four historic sites on Saturday April 20th.  Among the four historic structures included in the tour will be the Machpelah Church on Brevard Place Road just off NC Highway 73. 



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