PILGRIMS IN PARADISE
Ernest Edward Carrier
The Story of Baptist Pioneers of Upper East Tennessee
When the first Baptist congregation was organized in Johnson County in 1794 the constitutional government of the United States was experiencing the pangs of its birth. George Washington was serving as President of the new republic, and the wilderness territory of East Tennessee was being claimed by the state of North Carolina.
The First Church of Mountain City was organized as the Roan Creek Church of Christ on April 20, 1794, the first organized church in Johnson County, Tennessee.
The name of the congregation has been changed three times during the nearly two hundred year history of the church. In 1843 the church moved to the new community of Taylorsville and the church voted August 3,1867, to change the name to the Taylorsville Baptist Church. When the community name was changed from Taylorsville to Mountain City, the church voted February 6,1904, to change the name to Mountain City Baptist Church. By 1950 the church had become known as the First Baptist Church of Mountain City.
In a brief history of the First Baptist Church, the sponsoring church was given as the Cove Creek Baptist Church, Watauga County, North Carolina. A review of the facts makes this impossible. The Cove Creek Church was not established until 1799, five years after the beginning of the Roan Creek Church. (1)
The Three Forks Baptist Church of Watauga County, North Carolina, founded in 1790, four years before the Roan Creek Church, was the sponsoring congregation of the Roan Creek Church. James Tompkins, the first pastor of the Roan Creek Church, was an active member of the Three Forks Church during those four years, 1790-1794. In a brief history of the First Baptist Church, by John A. Lowe, a long-time clerk of the church, given on the occasion of the one hundred and thirty-second anniversary of the church reported: "The Three Forks Baptist Church of North Carolina established a branch church near Shouns Crossroads and held services each month.., and upon April 20, 1794, and what was known as the Roan Creek Baptist Church was organized."
This infant Baptist congregation elected Benjamin Brown, moderator; William Jackson, clerk; and George Brown, elder. The church elected James Tompkins as the first pastor. (2)
There is no description found in the church records of the first house of worship. It is assumed that the congregation had one; however, there is evidence that the congregation often met in the homes of the members. The following references are found in the early church minutes: September, 2nd Saturday, 1800, "church met at Cobs Creeks"; September, 4th Sunday, 1800, "church sat at Roan Creek and received five new members by experience"; December, 4th Saturday, 1800, "church met at Little Doe Creek"; January 17,1801, "the church met at Bro. Gentry"; February 28, 1814, "church met at Wm. Darigherty [sic]."
During the church business session, February, 4th Saturday,1817, the congregation instructed Joseph Gentry to get "saw plank for meeting house." It is uncertain if the lumber was for a new church or for remodeling an existing one. When the Church met March, 4th Saturday, 1824, the clerk recorded: "the church enter into a resolution to try solicitation of C____________Rose property to build a Baptist meeting house on the head of Roan Creek."
That the Baptists built a house of worship on the North Fork of Roan Creek, near the foot of Rainbow Mountain, is certain. A few gravestones remained for many years to bear mute testimony of the church cemetery and the location of the building. Mrs. Edith Hill, Shouns Crossroads, had a section of an old log that was taken from the log building, which she gave to the First Baptist Church.
After the church was built, the congregation continued to conduct services in different places: July 10, 1843, the church met at Joseph Robinson's on Little Doe; December 11, 1843, the church met in the meeting house near Col. Howard's; February 24, 1844, the members met at Little Doe Creek in the house of Thomas H. Johnson; April 22, 1845, the church met at sister Crosswhite's.
The church met for worship for the first time in Taylorsville on March 25, 1844. It soon became a popular meeting place. The location of the meetings is not given in the records. The church decided in February, 1849, to build a house of worship at Taylorsville. A committee was appointed, consisting of MM. Wagner, J. Moore, and Joseph Johnson, to superintend the construction of the building and receive pledges for the expenses. As to how soon the construction was begun or when the building was completed there is no record.
In a history of the church published in the Elizabethton "Star" newspaper on April 20, 1952, it was reported that the building was nearing completion when the Civil War broke out. Money became tight, and the church was unable to pay for the completion of the building. A balance of $575.00 was due, and when the debt was not paid the church was sold at auction to the highest bidder. M.M. Wagner, a member of the congregation, bought the property for $550.00.
On August 2, 1884, Mr. and Mrs. Wagner presented the congregation the deed to the church property. P.P. Shoun, Asa Reece, and N.J. Wagner were appointed trustees.
The preface to the deed reads: "For the interest we have and entertain for the cause of Christianity and for the love we have for Christ and for the purpose of a place of worship of almightly God, we, M.M. Wagner and wife, M.S. Wagner, hereby transfer. . ."
In deep appreciation of the gift the clerk entered the following note in the minutes: "That while other churches of our denomination are making heavy sacrifices and are struggling to build houses of worship that we have been blessed in the gift of a church building in every way suited to our wants as a congregation having all that we could desire as to capacity, location and comfort."
When Mr. Wagner died on June 30, 1887, the congregation deeply grieved over the passing of their brother. Recorded in the minutes: "A consistant, pious and devoted Christian, a valuable member and always at his post of duty."
The beloved meeting house of the Baptist congregation began to show the wear and tear of the years and in March, 1905, the church had to move the services to the county courthouse. The building had fallen in. Several weeks would pass before the building could be repaired and the congregation return to its place of worship.
This unhappy experience spurred an effort for a new church building. In April, 1908, a motion was put before the congregation to build a new church but the motion failed. Two years later, February, 1910, the church appointed a building committee: J.C. Muse, Allen M. Stout, Mrs. C.T. Lipscomb, Mrs. S.W. Gentry, and Mrs. Rose Fuller. This committee failed to get the congregation moving in the much-needed building program. Another building committee was elected in 1928, but again the congregation rejected the recommendation of the committee.
The membership would not build the much-needed new church until 1951, under the leadership of Pastor W.T. Whittington.
Before the new building was constructed, there was an effort made to relocate the church site. The Donnelly property the present site of the Mountain City Elementary School, was available, but efforts to relocate the church failed because of legal difficulties and the desire to keep harmony among the members.
In 1951 the building was razed and a new edifice was built on the same site.
The Elizabethton "Star," in reporting the dedication of the new sanctuary, announced:
The new Mountain City Baptist Church will conduct special services this week observing the completion of their new house of worship.
Interesting programs have been planned for every evening beginning at 7:30 throughout the week, with guest speakers and special music under the direction of the Watauga Baptist associational officers. The general theme will be "The power of Jesus' name." Monday evening the associational Brotherhood will be in charge of the meeting with Browniow Scalf, president, presiding. Music will be under the direction of Horace Whitson, Brotherhood choirster and the Rev. D.W. Pickelsimer, pastor of the East Side Baptist Church of Elizabethton, with Mrs. Houston Williams at the organ. The Rev. Joe W. Strother, pastor of the Temple Baptist Church of Johnson City will bring the message.
Tuesday, the Associational Women's Missionary Union will direct the meeting.
Wednesday, the local church will be in charge of the regular prayer service.
Thursday, the Associational Training Union will present the program.
Those taking part will be Stanley Brown, Associational Director; Rev. Tom Worley, Associate Director; Rev. Eugene Johnson, pastor of the Little Mountain Baptist Church; Fene Church, Union Baptist Church; Mrs. N.E. Hyder, Young People's Director; Rev. N.W. Finley, pastor of the Big Springs Church; and Mrs. Houston Williams at the organ.
Friday, the Associational Sunday School will be in charge of the meeting. Those taking part will be Charles Moody, Associational Sunday School Superintendent; Rev. Earl Campbell, pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church; and Rev. C.W. Jones, pastor of the Oak Street Baptist Church of Elizabethton.
Among those on the program will be: Miss Ruth Scott with a number of organ selections; Mrs. Tom Carriger, First Baptist Church of Elizabethton; Mrs. O.H. Wilson and Mrs. M.L. Shoun, Mountain City Church; Mrs. Tom Worley, Roan Creek; Mrs. W.B. Mount, Associational Superintendent; Miss Bertie Summerlin, Young People's Leader; and Miss Gertrude Hale, Associational Missionary. The Choir of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church will be in charge of the special music." (3)
A major renovation of the church auditorium was done in 1970, while Thomas Gatton was pastor, at a cost of $31,000. The remodeling included a new arched ceiling, heat ducts, new electrical wiring and light fixtures, wall to wall carpeting, and the installation of air conditioning.
From the founding of the church, the congregation has actively participated in Associational meetings. In 1799, messengers were sent to the Bent Creek Association; 1814, the Mountain Association, North Carolina; 1815, Washington County Association, Virginia; and 1824, the Russell County Association, Virginia.
In the church letter to the Baptist Association meeting in Washington County, Virginia, the church wrote: "The church of Christ on the head of Roan's Creek, Carter County, Tennessee, August, 1823 God had blessed with a gentle breeze since last association, received by experience or letter 2, reclaimmation I, dismissed 2, deceased 1, total members 30."
The Mountain City congregation was a member of the Three Fork Association of Watauga County, North Carolina, from its inception on November 11, 1841. The first delegate to represent the congregation was Jessie Farmer and the church contributed $1.00 for missions.
The Three Fork Association met twice with the Mountain City church, 1843 and 1855. Rufus Moore, the clerk of the church for more than fifty years, was clerk of the association for three years, 1861, 1862, and 1863. The church sent delegates to each annual meeting, 1841 - 1868.
L.L. Maples, pastor of the church, preached the annual message at the 1868 meeting of the Three Fork Association. This long, happy fellowship with the North Carolina Association came to an end on September 4, 1868, when the Association gave letters of dismissal to the Taylorsville (Mountain City) and Pine Grove churches. The Tennessee churches were forming a new association.
The Taylorsville Baptist Church was one of the prime movers in the forming of the Watauga Association in 1868. Perhaps the distance to the North Carolina Association prevented active participation, but more likely the growth of the Baptists in Johnson and Carter counties magnified the need for a local association. Whatever the primary reason, the church voted on November 2, 1867, under the leadership of pastor L.L. Maples, "to invite our sister churches in Carter and Johnson Counties to consider the propiety of forming a new Association." (4) The following year the Watauga Association was formed. L.L. Maples would be elected moderator of the new body in 1870, 1873, 1874. He would preach the annual sermon for the 1869 meeting of the Watauga Association of Baptists.(5) In the more than 100-year history of the Association, the Taylorsville (Mountain City) Church would host the annual meeting six times, and four of her pastors have served as moderators of the Association.
The early members of the church followed a very simple order of worship. Saturday was the business session conducted by the moderator, closed with a scripture and prayer, and with the announcement of the worship hour for Sunday. On the Lord's Day, the congregation gathered to sing the hymns of the faith and hear the sermon. Occasionally the Sunday schedule would be changed to receive new members by experience of baptism. The congregation would gather at a nearby creek at the conclusion of the regular service: "Brother Jones together with the assembly sung an hymn on baptism, Brother Jones prayed and then baptised Sister Bridges." Twice a year communion service would be conducted for the congregation.
The first major change in the worship schedule of the congregation came in May,1850, when it elected to meet the first Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of each month at 11 o'clock. In a brief business meeting on March 6, 1880, the church voted to have Communion services four times each year, March, June, September, and December. When the appointed time for the service came, invitations were sent to nearby Baptist congregations to join them in the Communion service.
A major change occurred in the life of the church with the establishment of a Sunday School program. In July, 1884, the church voted to "enter into the ministry of providing a Sunday School program." The Sunday School added greatly to the outreach ministry and the doctrine stability of the church. The teachers of the Sunday School in 1904 were listed in the minutes of the church:
S.S. Supt., J.J. Hayes— C.F. Jennings, Asst.
Class 1, J.H. Wagner— S.W. Tindell, Asst.
Class 2, Miss Clark— Miss Bessie Blankenbeckler, Asst.
Class 3, J.K. Grayson— (none)
Class 4, Mrs. Allen— L.B. Morley
L.B. Morley, Chorister
Mrs. Allen, Organist_____ Miss Bessie Lewis, Asst.
G.P. Ballew, Treasurer —Miss Laurel Stout, Asst.
To resolve a difficulty that threatened the success of the Sunday School, the church voted on February 4, 1905: "that no one teach in the Sunday School unless a church member and a professor of religion."
The membership of the church was faithful to attend the scheduled meetings of the church. Those who were absent could expect to give an account of their presence at the next meeting. Habitual absenteeism resulted in being expelled from the church for not "filling their seats." Few services were ever cancelled. Those that were cancelled were because of bad weather, illness in the community, or the death of a member. During the Civil War, 186 11865, the congregation voted not to meet: "From this time owning to the state of the country, because of the War we had no church meeting. Only every year to appoint delegates to the Association."
The Mountain City church has been responsible for the establishment of other Baptist congregations in the county. The first congregation to be established was Cobb's Creek. In January,1800, several Baptists living in that area petitioned the church for recognition. The petition was honored and they were instructed: "To meet together and choose their own presbytery and appoint a time for their services." Later a request was granted to the "Holston Brethren" to establish a church. In 1843 the church dismissed members to constitute a church on Little Doe Creek.
Levi Heath, a member with the gifts for singing and exhortation, was given permission in January, 1845, to establish an "arm of this church" at his home for the reception of members.
He was instructed to report to the congregation the success of his efforts at the regular business meetings of the church.
The membership of the Mountain City church grew very slowly. In 1808 the membership was thirty- four, and in 1823 the membership had dropped to thirty. in 1843 the membership had climbed to seventy-nine, including two colored women, but in 1868 the membership had dropped to forty.
Several factors influenced the growth of the congregation: the establishment of new congregations, the sparse population, and the disruption caused by the Civil War. To the annual meeting of the Watauga Association, 1894, the church clerk reported: seven received by baptism, one dismissed by letter, one lost in death, a total membership of eighty-nine. In 1975 the church reported 364 members.
The reputation of the church in the community was of a great concern to the membership. Through the years, many church business sessions were taken up by the reports of disorderly members and their discipline. Members were tried and excluded for a variety of offenses: bigamy, adultery, drunkeness, cursing, quarreling, profanity, lewdness, whiskey making, and carrying a pistol.
Many of the charges brought against the members were groundless. In 1802 the charges and complaints became so numerous that the church had to adopt the following resolution: "The church agrees that from this time forward that no person, who charges another person, as to ruin his character shall be regarded, without a witness."
A typical example of an early church trial was that of William Jackson in 1803. The charge against Jackson was that he had "gone to law" against a fellow church member, Bro. Harper, without the counsel of the church. Harper had promised Jackson fifteen gallons of whiskey by the fall of 1802 and had failed to deliver. The church excluded Jackson on the grounds: one, for saying that he had sought to settle his complaint against Harper with the "legal steps of the gospel," when in fact he had not; two, for contracting to sell the promised whiskey to a third party, Mr. King; and three, in the opinion of the church Jackson "aimed to turn the whiskey into money." Jackson repented of his sin and was restored into the fellowship of the church in July, 1804.
There is no record of the church disciplining a member of the congregation in the last fifty years.
In the early history of the church, raising money to meet church obligations was a greater problem than it is today. There was little money in circulation. In August, 1818, the church received an offering of $.75. For years the annual pastor's salary was $100.00, and there were times the congregation had great difficulty in paying the preacher. To the Watauga Association meeting in 1905, the church gave the following financial report: value of church property, $1,500; state missions, $3.50; Foreign Missions, $10.05; Orphanage, $2.70; Pastor's salary, $60.00. In 1974 the church reported total receipts of $53,390.00.
The mountain churches have overcome many foes and controversies in the last two hundred years. The greatest threat to the continued existence of the Mountain City church was experienced in August, 1872, when a controversy developed over sharing the worship house with another denomination.
Mr. M.M. Wagner, owner of the church building at that time and a prominent member of the congregation, allowed the Presbyterians to use the building to organize a church. L.L. Maples, the Baptist pastor, objected to such use of the building. He requested that Wagner give assurance to the congregation that it would never happen again, but Wagner refused. Maples resigned as pastor and led forty-four members out of the Taylorsville Baptist Church into the fellowship of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church at Maymead, leaving the Taylorsville congregation greatly weakened.
Many efforts were made to get the brethren to return. M.M. Wagner made a motion in the business meeting of July 5, 1873, nearly a year after the split, that all those who left be invited back into the church, "assuring them our church, heart, hands are open to receive them." (6) The dissenters refused to return.
The first known pastor of the congregation was James Tompkins, 1796. In the almost 200-year history of the church there have been forty-two pastors. In the early years of the church the ministers served only 1/4 time. In 1895 the church went 1/2 time. The first full time pastor was E.A. Cox in 1928.
Many of the early pastors were local residents and members of the congregation. Their training in pastoral skills was limited, and most had to supplement their living by other means. As late as 1929 the church salary for the pastor was $600.00.
Reading through the minutes of the church, noting the ministry of each pastor, one is forced to agree with the observation of Elton Trueblood:
Though it seems strange that it should be so, it is a fact that one man, rightly placed in ministry, can make an enormous difference in the lives of other men and in the total impact of the church on the world. There are many history examples of the effect which one man can have in the life of a local congregation.... The pastor is important, not because he is wiser or better than other men, but because he is so placed that he may be able to draw out and direct the powers of other men. All of his effectiveness is in the changed lives of other persons. Though there are some structures to guide him, the chief element is his own vision of himself and what his work might be. (7)
There have been a half-dozen such men in the life of the First Baptist Church (men whose abilities inspired the congregation to new heights, dedication and sacrifice for the kingdom of God.)
Few pastors have inspired the First Baptist Church as did E.A. Cox.
On the occasion of the one hundred thirty-second anniversary of the founding of the church, the church clerk, John A. Lowe, wrote a brief history of the congregation. He wrote, "This church for many years had no resident pastor, and as most pastors lived 18 to 30 miles away, the church could not have regular services. Yet the church held together. A little over two years ago we were without a regular pastor and were struggling to maintain a Sunday School and keep up our church meetings. The clouds seemed to hang heavy around us. The way looked gloomy. Yet we decided to venture the Lord being our helper. We called E.A. Cox for one half time. Pleasant Grove agreeing to call him for halftime. Brother Cox proved to be the right man. His strong faith in God and Jesus Christ. Our church began to take on new life...."
The year 1975 has been the greatest in the long history of the church. Records in attendance, giving, and membership have been broken. It is the prayer of the congregation that God's blessings of these first 200 years will be but a hint of the glorious future that our Heavenly Father has for his people who serve Him through the ministries of the First Baptist Church of Mountain City.
1.____________ "Mountain City Baptist Church," Elizabethton, Tn., "Star" Newspaper (April 20, 1952), p. 6A.
2."Minutes," First Baptist Church, Mountain City, Tn. 1799.
3.Elizabethton "Star", Op. Cit.
4."Minutes," First Baptist Church, Mountain City, Nov., 1867.
5."Minutes," Watauga Association of Baptist, 1869.
6."Minutes," First Baptist Church, Mountain City, July, 1873.
7.Elton Trueblood, The Incendiary Fellowship, Harper, (New York, 1967), page35.