Harry Cowan 1810-1904 (L-106)

Baptist minister vital to growth of church in N.C. Founder of Mount Zion Church (1867), which is one block W.

Location: US 29/70 (North Main Street) in Salisbury
County: Rowan
Original Date Cast: 2006

Prior to the Civil War there were few enslaved or free preachers seeing to the religious needs of fellow African Americans. However, Harry Cowan, born a slave in 1810 in Mocksville, was allowed by his owner the freedom to travel and preach—distinguishing him as a pioneering black Baptist preacher in the state. In acknowledgement of his importance, Baptist historians and contemporaries called him the “father” of black Baptist preachers in North Carolina. Cowan’s preaching abilities served him well and, by the time of his death in 1904, he was credited with organizing forty-nine churches and baptizing 8,500 individuals plus preaching thousands of funeral and marriage ceremonies. Cowan became a leader in the Baptist Church following the Civil War and quickly rose to prominence, leading in the formation of the North Carolina Colored Baptist State Convention in 1869. Cowan’s personal congregation at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Salisbury was part of the Rowan Baptist Association, which he served as the first moderator. The Rowan Association was organized in 1877 and was one of the strongest Associations within the statewide Baptist Convention.

Mt. Zion, organized in 1867, flourished under the care of Cowan, who served the congregation from 1867 until 1891. Following Cowan by a few years was Fisher Robert Mason. Mason oversaw construction of the current sanctuary, completed in 1907 to replace an earlier structure. A late Gothic Revival style building, the church has been the home of one of the most powerful congregations in Salisbury and the Baptist State Convention for many years. Mason served the church until 1929 and focused on educational programming, including the creation of the Sunshine School in 1920. The church was altered in the early 1970s. The church has had only six pastors in its long life, with most of the men serving the congregation in excess of twenty years.

Moses Williams and George Watkins, Who’s Who among North Carolina Baptists (1940)
Rev. J. A. Whitted, A History of the Negro Baptists of North Carolina (1906)
John Bell Jr., “Baptists and the Negro in North Carolina During Reconstruction,” North Carolina Historical Review (Oct. 1965): 391-409
Carolina Watchman (Salisbury), February 27, 1873
Salisbury Post, various articles
Rowan County Deeds

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