by Roland Matthis (1938-2009)
Along about 1820 the so-called “Great Revival” was going strong in South-Eastern North Carolina. But there were a few people who weren’t buying its message. They couldn’t conceive of a God who would purposely and knowingly condemn the larger portion of his creation to an eternity of torment. Influenced by itinerant preachers from New England they embraced the new idea called Universalism and began holding meetings at a little log meeting house at Red Hill.
The Robinson and Ward families were among the leaders of this courageous group and six of their members were at Kenansville in June of 1827 to witness the first organization of Universalists in the South. Soon after, legend tells us, a majority of the Baptist congregation at Red Hill were converted to Universalism. The Baptist minority withdrew and went down the road, building Mt. Gilead Church, leaving Red Hill to the Universalists.
Professing an unswerving belief in a God of love and the ultimate salvation of all humankind, this valiant band experienced both periods of growth and times of decline. Served by several devoted and forceful preachers, they reorganized the church in 1845 and again in 1855 when they built a new church building. This one room frame structure housed the growing congregation until the present brick building was completed in 1954.
The present church was organized in 1884 under the leadership of the Rev. D.B Clayton. Known as “Father Clayton” he was probably the most dynamic and influential Universalist evangelist ever produced in the South. He continued to preach at Red Hill and throughout the South until his death in 1906. Another itinerant evangelist, by the name of Quillen Shinn, was also a favorite at Red Hill. It is a mark of the congregations’ willingness to embrace diversity of opinion and outlook, that the beloved Father Clayton had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War while Shinn, who many respected so much that their children were named after him, had fought for the Union.
The years following 1884 saw a period of growth in numbers of members and influence in the community. In spite of the great depression and two world wars, Red Hill continued to prosper. However, as farming methods changed and population shifted, membership began to decline leaving what historian Russell Miller has referred to as “a small but determined band”.
Although small in comparison to our orthodox neighbors, Red Hill has had an enormous influence for good on its members, friends and the community. This corner of the world is a better place due to this church which has aptly been called “an oasis of liberalism in a desert of orthodoxy”.
Letter from Marshall Matthis to his Orthodox Church in 1875
(When Red Hill Universalist Church was charted in 1884, Marshall Matthis was a charter member and the church’s first treasurer. From 1875-1884 he declined to attend any church. Read why below:
“Having been informed that charges will be preformed against me for violating the idles or creed of the church and feeling it my duty as a member of the church to defend myself against said charges I therefore wright you this letter. Had I violated or transgressed the laws of god I would repent of the crimes so called and confess the sin that I am to be charged with. I am aware that many of you think and honestly think that to play the fiddle or even to dance is a violation of the laws of god because you have been taught so by the tradition of men—but men is fallible and subject to err. let us take the bible as our counsel. It is a rule or creed of the church that its members shall not play on the fiddle as our esteemed and learned pastor lately informed me. but where in all the bible does it say thou shalt not play on the fiddle? can any of you show me that chapter and verse? do you think my brothers whom I am informed prefer the charge against me can show that I have violated any law of god? now if he cannot have I not the right to bring accusations against him for falsely accusing me of being guilty of a sin which is no sin according to the scripture. may I not say brother first cast the beam out of thine own eye than thou canst see clearly to pull the mote out of thy brothers rye, well to settle the question we refer to the bible which should be out only guide. according to what I have read the bible rather favors than opposes the fiddle. the psalmest david played on a stringed and I have as good a right to say it was a fiddles as anything else for a fiddle is a stringed instrument. the same inspired author also says praise the lord and dance. Solomon says and he has more wisdom than those who are so self righteous that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh and a time to mourn and a time to dance which last exercise could not be done so well without a fiddle. our savior in the parable of the prodigal son says and there was much music and dancing. had some christians of the present day been there on the happy occasion they would have been like the elder brother and would not go in and some of the dancers and musicianers might bow out to be turned out of the church. but I regret to say we have too many elder brothers in our midst too ready to find fault too much given to bickering and strife and endevering to injure the character of their brethren. the wise man says he would enjoy life and see good… let him refrain his tongue from evil and his lips that they may speak no guile let him seek peace and pursue it. in conclusion let me say I esteem many of the ladies and brethren as high-toned ladies and gentlemen and christians and I further say that my name be erased from the church book. some may be disposed to keep ignominy on my name but none of these things will move me. I intend to read my bible so that I may have the truth that it may make me free that I may deal justly love mercy and walk humbly that I may have a mind free from self reproach and an honest fame.
Verry respectfully yours