Presbyterian Foundation, Presbytery of Charlotte team up to produce a new video explaining the importance of Catawba Presbytery
March 22, 2023
Fresh off his appearance in a 12-minute video explaining the historical importance of Catawba Presbytery, the Rev. Dr. Ed Newberry told “Leading Theologically” host the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty he’s been enjoying his retirement in part “to have the leisure time to explore what I’ve been curious about.”
Newberry, who retired in 2016 after serving as pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, for some 38 years, and the Rev. Dr. Jerry L. Cannon, Vice President for Ministry Innovation with the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), are the main speakers in the video produced by the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbytery of Charlotte. Also making brief appearances are Cannon’s mother, Corine Lytle Cannon, and the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Charlotte.
Watch “Leading Theologically” here.
Catawba Presbytery, an all-Black presbytery in portions of North Carolina and South Carolina, was in existence from Oct. 6, 1866 — the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War — until Dec. 31, 1988, five years after the northern and southern Presbyterian churches reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after splitting in 1861 over slavery and other issues. Cannon, the brother of the late Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, was the last pastor ordained by Catawba Presbytery just three days before it was no more.
“To understand how important and unusual Catawba Presbytery was, you need to know its history,” Cannon says during the informative and lively video, “The Legacy of Catawba Presbytery.” Enslaved Africans freed following the Civil War left plantations “with only the clothes on their backs. They had to start their new lives without the benefit of an education, without a dime to their name and without property,” Cannon says. “While they would be tolerated in their former masters’ churches, it would be only under restricted conditions and inferior status. This was not acceptable. Former enslaved people needed entire new systems to support their lives.”
Once it formed in 1866, Catawba Presbytery continued to grow, and had 49 churches in its bounds by 1927. “The presbytery was powered by volunteers who tool on vital roles,” Cannon says.
“The focus was to prepare people to become preachers and teachers,” Newberry says. “The ‘preacher’ part of it had to do with the assumption that the church and Christian faith were essential for the well-being of people.”
Following reunion in 1983, presbyteries were given six years “to work out new arrangements, reshape their boundaries and decide which presbyteries would join which ones,” Newberry says. “The question was, what will be the relationship between the formerly all-Black presbyteries and the white presbyteries? Some people hated to lose the identity of being Catawba Presbytery.”
“It was fraught with tensions, but we finally brought it about,” Newberry says. “The unity of the church was a big issue pushing reunion. How can we proclaim reconciliation to the world when we can’t even get together ourselves?”
“Admittedly, it was sad for those who were part of Catawba Presbytery to join a much larger organization where their voices would be a minority,” Cannon says. “They had understandable questions: How would reunion provide for the full participation and representation of minorities in the life and leadership of the church? And when?”
Cannon’s sister, the first Black woman to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church, wrote these words about four decades ago: “Reunion will provide more flexibility and placement for seminarians and indeed for all of us. Although I have apprehensions about specific aspects of the plan, I again affirm reunion, for it will provide a greater unity and mission with our Black colleagues” in the southern church.
“Anytime you make a change that drastic, you have to think about what you’re leaving behind,” Corine Lytle Cannon says during the video. “We had pleasant memories of Catawba Presbytery. In other words, we did it our way. … Everybody felt a part of it.” However, she adds, “you don’t hold back progress.”
“You can see the influence of Catawba Presbytery throughout Charlotte and the PC(USA) still today,” Jerry Cannon says. “There are pastors raised in Catawba Presbytery churches who are serving throughout the denomination and far beyond.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Catawba Presbytery
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Let us pray
Lord, we thank you for this presbytery. Continue to bless, guide and inspire us all to serve you faithfully so that the world may turn to you in praise. Amen.