Pilgrim United Church of Christ

Our History

old church 31794 James O’Kelly dissents from the Methodist Church and founds a church known simply as the Christian Church. The aim is to restore the simplicity of the original Christian community, and to oppose authoritarian church government. James O’Kelly’s denunciation of slavery attracts many African-Americans to Christian churches in the south. O’Kelly’s Chapel, where today’s Pilgrim UCC congregation worships every spring, is his home church.


early-church31886 Soon after Durham is founded, WT Herndon is sent to organize a Christian church in Durham. A year later, the church has 40 members. By 1889, a church building on Liberty Street is completed.




Jim-Harward21900 Many descendants of James O’Kelly and others who have been attending O’Kelly Chapel move to Durham and begin attending the Durham Christian Church. Jim Harward, and Beth Bowling, his daughter, members of today’s Pilgrim UCC, are descendants of James O’Kelly, and their family also moved to Durham at that time.


Main-street-church1908  The Durham Christian Church moves to the corner of Gregson St. and Main St. In 1924 the name changes to Main Street Christian Church.1931  Christian churches merge with Congregational churches. The name of our church changes to Congregational Christian Church.



UCC-logo1961 The congregation votes to join the United Church of Christ. The same year, the church selects a site for a new church building on Academy Road.




baptismal-font1964 The pastor of our church baptizes an African-American child, and after a period of discussion, the congregation votes to formally welcome integration of African-Americans in worship, Sunday School, and other congregational activities. The vote occurs a few months after Durham desegregates its restaurants, stores, movie theaters and motels, but while the city is still struggling with school desegregation.


churchexterior1967 The congregation moves to its present site at 3011 Academy Road.





Dot-and-Clara1971  Dot Harward and Clara Godwin are ordained as the first woman deacons at our church. (This photo was taken in 2005.)  1975  The congregation adopts the name Pilgrim United Church of Christ.




exchange-pastors1984 Rev. Ron Johnson and Durham UCC pastors Rev. Dan Squires and Rev. JC Cheek begin planning shared worship among African-American and white UCC congregations in Durham. Thus begins the Exchange Program at Pilgrim, Zion Temple and Mt. Calvary UCC.  Members of each congregation attended a “sister” congregation for 3 months, serving in the same roles as their home churches. Later, congregations gathered for joint worship, picnics, offerings, and community service.


gissucc200x1501999 Pilgrim adopts a Welcoming Statement and becomes an Open and Affirming congregation.




Jane22000 Jane Neufang from Germany’s EKU becomes the first international pastor to serve on Pilgrim’s staff for a year.




MarionStanley22001 Marion Stanley is ordained as the first African-American deacon at Pilgrim.





Pilgrim UCC is a member of the United Church of Christ, which was formed when the  Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches united in 1957.  Since 1957, the United Church of Christ has been the church of firsts, weaving God’s message of hope and extravagant welcome with action for justice and peace.  The UCC’s many “firsts” mean that we have inherited a tradition of acting upon the demands of our faith.  When we read in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”—a demand is made upon us. And so we were the first historically white denomination to ordain an African-American, the first to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay man, and the first Christian church to affirm the right of same-gender couples to marry. We were in the forefront of the anti-slavery movement and the Civil Rights movement.  Our response to the demands of our faith is woven into the history of our country.