The seventh oldest church in the Southern Province was born as a mission to fill a great need. In 1822 Salem’s Female Missionary Society noted the absence of religious opportunity for the “Negroes” — the slaves — “in this neighborhood,” and urged the Provincial Elders Conference to address the matter so that “in the course of time . . . a Church may be built for their own use.”
PEC agreed, and called upon someone who could turn a vision into reality — Br. Abraham Steiner, a veteran of mission service. Br. Steiner held the first service on March 24, 1822, and at the May 5 meeting announced “a beginning of a small congregation of colored people” with three communicants. The following year the church members and others gathered to build a little log church. It was consecrated on December 28, 1823, with dignitaries, church band, and about 90 African Americans in attendance.
In the late 1850’s on the eve of the Civil War, the congregation experienced a renewal so that a larger church was called for. A handsome brick church arose, and was filled to capacity for the consecration service on December 15, 1861. It must have been a grand and proud day for the congregation at war’s end when on May 21, 1865, the Rev. Seth G. Clark of the 10th Ohio Cavalry formally announced emancipation in the now former slave church in Salem.
Still the church did not have a name until at its Christmas lovefeast on December 20, 1914, Bishop Edward Rondthaler gave it the name St. Philips.
The congregation relocated to the Happy Hill neighborhood in 1952, and a chapel was built there in 1959. A highway construction forced another move in 1967 to Bon Air Avenue, where St. Philips continues today in service to the wider neighborhood, complete with day care center.
Meanwhile, St. Philips’ roots in Salem have not been forgotten. The 1823 log church has been reconstructed at the foot of Church Street, and the 1861 brick church — the oldest slave church still standing in North Carolina — is scheduled for careful preservation of the heritage that it holds for its congregation.