|Greensboro News & Record
SMALL LOCAL TOWN HAS LARGE PAST
JAMES THORNER Staff Writer
January 29, 1996
"Down the Road" is a series of stories running each Monday in the News & Record that focuses on your neighbors. Next week, "Down the Road" gets to know an Asheboro man whose love of Harley-Davidsons shows in his museum, service shop and - most recently - his cafe.
"What is your life?" Pastor Anderson Hughes intoned to his congregation at Cross Roads Presbyterian Church. "For you are a mist that appears for a short time and vanishes."
That Sunday, 125 years ago, the Lord seemed to take Hughes at his word. After finishing the reading from the Letter of James, Hughes descended the pulpit and keeled over dead.
The Rev. Jim Rissmiller, Hughes' successor at Cross Roads 100 years later, is still tickled by the story.
"What a great passage, to then go out and die," says Rissmiller, now pastor at Communion in Christ Presbyterian Church in Guilford County. "Some folks might think that unkind of me, but it really illustrates what he preached."
At most other churches an account of a pastor's scripturally preordained plunge would top the list of historical reminiscences. At Cross Roads, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the tale hardly rates a mention.
A brick church hugging the intersection of N.C. 119 and Dickey Mill Road in Alamance County, Cross Roads is known as the birthplace of the early 19th-century religious revival called "The Second Great Awakening."
Presbyterianism, known then for its severe Scottish outlook, would never be its sober self again.
History, however, had more fame to ladle out. When author Alex Haley reached a crossroads in his research for his family chronicle, "Roots," Cross Roads Church pointed him in the right direction.
"It's one of the two oldest churches in this part of North Carolina and one of the most important historically," says William Murray Vincent, director of the Alamance County Historical Museum.
Scotch-Irish settlers from Pennsylvania and Maryland started the church in 1783. For the first century, the congregation met in a wooden church tucked away in an oak grove. In 1876, members replaced the wooden building with a church made of handmade bricks.
It was in the wooden church that "The Second Great Awakening" exploded onto the scene in North Carolina.
The communion service that took place one August weekend in 1801 had been a model of solemnity. So dour was the congregation that Pastor William Paisley, not the most cheerful-looking man, judging from his portrait, couldn't mask his disappointment.
That all changed in seconds.
As Paisley paused in silence before dismissing his flock, a young man from Tennessee stood up, raised his hands and shouted: "Stand still and see the salvation of God."
The proclamation set off an emotional chain reaction through the church. People began singing, groaning, moaning, praying, shouting, crying and yelling testimonials, the history books say.
"Presbyterians have a tradition of being rather stoic, so it's kind of odd that this wild behavior would creep in," Vincent says.
North Carolina had never seen its likes before. As fast as a horse could gallop, news of the meeting spread across the state. Soon churches from the Piedmont to the Appalachians were reporting similar outbreaks of religious zeal. Jerking heads, flailing arms and barking weren't uncommon.
"Some of my neighbors fell at my feet like men shot in battle," one anonymous pastor recorded. "This the people called being struck down."
The revival kept up steam until the 1850s, when it lost its way in the choppy historical currents before the Civil War.
The timing seemed right, for those years brought Cross Roads' next brush with historical fame. At the time, however, few would have recognized the event as noteworthy.
A tobacco planter named Andrew Murray bought a family of slaves from his relations in Caswell County. About 120 years later, Alex Haley immortalized these slaves - Miss Kizzy, Chicken George and Tom Murray - in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning saga "Roots."
Andrew Murray was a prominent member of Cross Roads whose pillar-shaped marble tombstone still dominates the church graveyard.
Haley's great-grandfather, Tom Murray, was a blacksmith in the Murray household. Like many slaves at the time, he took his master's surname.
After emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy, Tom Murray and his extended family climbed aboard wagons and trekked westward to Henning, Tenn., the town in which Alex Haley grew up.
Haley collected much of this information in 1974, while researching "Roots." He already knew of Kunta Kinte, the African founder of the family, and was pretty clear about the family's captivity in Virginia.
The last chapter of the book - which would recount the family's stay in Alamance County - was still one big gap.
Haley got in touch with Ila Murray Bryan, a white descendant of the slave-owning Murrays. Haley was home in California when Bryan located a 96-year-old black woman named Effie Murray White.
White's husband was a longtime custodian at Cross Roads. She herself was the daughter of slaves who lived in a log cabin near the old Murray plantation.
"We called California with the news," Bryan recalls. "Alex flew out here on the next plane he was so excited."
The old woman's knowledge helped Haley plug the genealogical gap. The author rushed off to Jamaica to finish his manuscript.
"Roots" sold 6 million copies in hardcover, inspiring the hugely popular, 12-hour mini-series. An international celebrity, Haley returned to Cross Roads in 1977 for a Murray family reunion that appeared on ABC-TV as the documentary "Roots: One Year Later."
White Murrays and black Murrays, descendants of the former masters and slaves, worshiped and shared a meal together.
Haley toured the church graveyard, directing the cameras to an unmarked gray stone next to Andrew Murray's monument.
The stone marked the grave of Enoch Wright Murray, Haley's great-great uncle.
Crowds packed the church and grounds for Haley's visit, but members say the documentary exaggerated the fellowship between the races. There were no follow-up reunions, nor had there been any before Haley's appearance.
"People tended to segregate themselves when they came into the church," says Vincent, the museum director. "The producers went through the crowd and spread them out so you had a nice racial mixture throughout the church."
But a sincere effort had been made to bridge the two races. The church still owns a copy of "Roots" signed by Haley, who died in 1992.
"With the most sincere, warm wishes of the entire family of Kunta Kinte. In shared faith, Alex Haley," the book-cover inscription reads.
Today the church has an active membership of 150, down from a former high of about 275. Older parishioners can remember carrying in extra chairs to handle the overflow on Sundays. Today the pews suffice.
Over the years, droves of young people have left the rural community still known as Cross Roads to locals - in pursuit of jobs, education or adventure.
Cross Roads continues to exert a pull on the faithful, particularly when the countryside blooms with honeysuckle and mimosa.
Henry Roney left church and community in his younger days for a successful career in New York. But when retirement beckoned, Roney gave up Manhattan for Mebane.
"When your family's been here a couple of centuries," Roney says, "you really feel like you belong here.