Norvell Winsboro Wilson

Pastor of FBC Hillsborough, 1866 -
On November 12, 1863 a committee was formed by the church to “correspond with ministering brethren for a pastor next year for two Sundays in each month.”  However, it was not until December 1865 that a call was extended to Elder N.W. Wilson to preach the coming year for $250.  Wilson accepted the call and began “upon his duties on the 4th Sabbath” in January, 1866.1 At the time, he was pastor of the Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. It appears that he served less than ten months as pastor at Hillsborough.

Why it took two years to secure a minister is understandable considering that the Civil War was coming to a dramatic end during this time.  Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 and Johnston surrendered to Sherman at Bennett’s place, just 10 miles from Hillsborough, on April 26, 1865. 

The following is a shorten version of a biography written about Wilson in 1912:
Norvell Winsboro Wilson was born October 20, 1834 at Franklin, Pendleton County, WV (at the time still a part of VA).    His parents, pious Methodists, named him after a well-know Methodist Bishop.  He was converted at age fourteen during a camp meeting near his home and joined the Moravian church.  After much soul searching, he decided to become a Baptist and was baptized, September, 1857, at Laurel Grove Church, Halifax County, Virginia.  Writing about his baptism in the Religious Herald, a correspondent said, “I have met with few young men superior to him in intellect.” After working a year as a colporter, he was ordained at Bethany Church, Pittsylvania County, VA on August 11, 1858.  His first pastorates were in Pittsylvania and Halifax Counties, VA.  He also preached at the Ephesus Church, eight miles away, in Person County, NC. In 1861, he moved to Chapel Hill, NC to take charge of the Baptist Church.  It was in the last year of this ministry in Chapel Hill that he also agreed to serve as pastor in Hillsborough. 

His longest pastorate was at Chapel Hill and from all accounts he was admired and appreciated by the town’s academic community.  In 1864, the University bestowed upon him an honorary Master of Arts degree for his excellence.  He made the welcoming address when President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet came to the University’s commencement in 1865.  Mrs. C. P. Spencer (author of an excellent school history of North Carolina) wrote in her denominational paper, the North Carolina Presbyterian, that “the Rev. Mr. Wilson, of the Baptist Church, at Chapel Hill, can make a better and more graceful ten-minute speech than any minister I know. In fact, there is not a better or more effectual preacher anywhere — a man of spirit, sense, cultivation, and genius. I hope the Baptists are proud of him and know how to appreciate him. If they don’t, then I do wish he was a Presbyterian.”  In a year of coming to Chapel Hill, he married Sallie F. Betts, of Black Walnut, Halifax County, VA.  The ceremony was performed by Rev. William Slate on June 13, 1862.

In 1867, Wilson accepted a call to Farmville, Va., where he had, writes his wife, “two and a half years of sunshine and success.   In 1870, he was called to pastor the Grace Street Church, Richmond, VA. In 1872, the honorary degree of D. D. was conferred upon him by Wake Forest College, NC.  The Grace Street Church prospered during his five-year ministry.  After leaving the Grace Street Church, he spent several more years preaching at meetings of churches in Virginia before moving his family to New Orleans, LA to become pastor of the Coliseum Place.  In the summer and fall of 1878, yellow fever spread throughout the south, including New Orleans.  A friend urged Wilson to move away from the city but he wrote: “my duty is to stay and minister to this afflicted people.”  First his seven children, then his wife, and finally he fell prostrate to the fever.  Before becoming ill himself, he had written to a friend: “They are in God’s hands, the subjects of many prayers, and I am hopeful. Of course I am worn, but well. The fourth chapter of Second Corinthians, eighth and ninth verses, describes our condition. ‘We are troubled on every side, but not distressed. We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.’ I have escaped so far.”  All eventually recovered except Wilson who died on September 6, 1878.  Upon hearing of his death, a learned professor of an eminent institution of learning, not Baptist, did not hesitate to pronounce him one of the best, if not the best, of the preachers whom he had heard.2
His marriage to Sarah (Sallie) Frances Betts produced seven children:  Ernest, Knox, Wins, Lilie, Daisy, Kurtz and Littell.3   On April 4, 1872, Mrs. Wilson met with women from five churches to organize the Woman’s Missionary Society of Richmond, serving as one of the vice-presidents of the organization.4    She was born in 1840 and died in 1928.5  The circumstance of her death and where she and her husband are buried could not be found with a search of the Internet.

  1. Minutes of First Baptist Church Hillsborough, NC from November 19, 1853 to December 2, 1953.
  2. Taylor, George Braxton.  Virginia Baptist Ministers: Third Series.  J.P. Bell Company, Lynchburg.VA. 1912.  Accessed on February 27, 2011 at:
  3. The Norvell Winsboro Wilson Papers, #2957, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed on February 27, 2011 at:,Norvell_Winsboro.html
  4. Mather, Juliette. Light three candles: History of Woman’s Missionary Union of Virgina, 1874-1973.
  5. Genforum Genealogical Database:  Accessed February 27, 2011 at:
Compiled by Reginald Carter, Historian, FBC Hillsborough
Last Updated: February 27, 2011