(21) Religion

Religion has been an important aspect in the civil, social, and political order in the Albemarle region since earliest settlement. By provisions of the Carolina Charter of 1663, the proprietary colony of Carolina was Anglican by legal statute. However, it was the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers, who were the first successful religious organization in the area, with Quakers from New England and Pennsylvania migrating into Pasquotank and Perquimans precincts by the 1670s. 

Religious activity in the Albemarle during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were dominated by Baptists and Methodists, although Quakers retained a stronghold in Perquimans County. The Episcopalians were in nearly every county and were particularly strong in the larger towns. 

Few congregations for free blacks or slaves were organized before the Civil War, the largest being in Elizabeth City (which had an unusually large free black population). In 1850 the local Methodist Church organized a “Colored Mission.” By 1860 a large church with a handsome spire had been built on African Street (later African Church Street and now Culpepper Street) and the church had 363 members, the largest of any church in the town. This congregation continues today as Mount Lebanon African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

After the Civil War, black churches were organized in nearly every community in the thirteen counties, many forming directly from mother white congregations that issued letters of a release of transferal for its black members. These congregations often selected their names by adding “New” to the mother white church name, while others were named to recognize the person from who the land was acquired. Many new congregations—black and white alike---met under rudimentary “brush shelters” until land and funds could be raised to erect simple buildings. Like among the whites churches, the dominant denominations among blacks were Baptists and Methodists, or more officially, Missionary Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal Zion. 

Along with the dominant Baptists and Methodists and the town situated Episcopalians, many other denominations became established in the Albemarle region during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While a Roman Catholic Church was formed and built in Edenton in the 1850s, another Catholic parish did not organize until white and black congregations were established in Elizabeth City in 1927 and 1941, respectively. Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Christian, Assemblies of God and smaller denominations have added to the region’s ecumenical climate. In the mid-1960s a small Mennonite community was established in western Hyde County by families fleeing growing Chesapeake, Virginia for a simpler rural lifestyle in keeping with their beliefs.                      

The importance of religion in the region has been enhanced by two private sectarian ministerial preparation schools in Elizabeth City. The oldest is Roanoke Institute, founded in 1896 by black churches in the Roanoke Association in North Carolina and Virginia as a private high school for the training of students for the ministry. Since 1988 it has been known as the Roanoke Theological Seminary. In 1948 Roanoke Bible College was organized to train ministers in the Church of Christ and Christian denominations in North Carolina and Virginia.