Upland Chronicles: Alder Branch among oldest churches in Sevier County
In 1784 a treaty was signed with the Cherokees at Henry’s Station, known as the Treaty of Dumplin.
By the terms of the treaty the Native Americans relinquished their right and title to the land within the boundaries of what became Sevier County. After the treaty, settlement south of the French Broad River increased rapidly.
Among the early settlers were Revolutionary War veteran Thomas I. Atchley and his wife, Lydia Richards Atchley, who moved from Botetourt County, Va., in 1786 and chose to make their home on a farm near the south bank of the French Broad River. Jacob Huff lived on the site that later became known as Catlettsburg, where he built a mill on the Little Pigeon River. Other families soon located in the same neighborhood.
In 1789, The Rev. Richard Woods founded Providence Baptist Church in an area known as Woods Bottom, which was located about a mile and a half above the present-day site of Douglas Dam.
In 1830, Providence Baptist Church sent a group of members to establish a preaching station, which met in the home of Thomas Atchley. The small group met at the Atchley residence sporadically until the first house of worship was built near the “tap alders” trees that grew along a branch near the new church.
Around 1836 when Alder Branch became independent of the mother church, another building was erected on a nearby section of the Atchley farm that was later owned by Samuel H. Sarrett, who married Martha Ann Atchley, a granddaughter of Thomas I. Atchley Sr. It was about 30 feet square in size, constructed of crude logs with no overhead ceiling. Services were simply called off in the event of inclement weather.
The Rev. Elijah Rogers, son-in-law of Spencer Clack, was the first pastor of Alder Branch when the congregation became independent of Providence in 1836. He remained pastor for 32 years.
Rev. Rogers was known to always carry a copy of the New Testament in an inside coat pocket. One time the austere preacher found a pack of cards behind the barn where his sons had been playing.
He put the cards in his coat pocket and went on to church. Much to the surprise of the congregation, when Rev. Rogers reached in his coat pocket for his New Testament he pulled out the sinful cards instead. Turning his embarrassment into an opportunity, he proceeded to deliver a stern sermon to his flock on the evils of card playing.
Alder Branch joined the Tennessee Association of Baptists in 1897 and also became a member of the Sevier County Baptist Association, which was a new organization.
After joining the associations, opinions over missions eventually caused a split in which Samuel Pate and Absolem Abbott withdrew to organize a church at Union Grove called the Primitive or Hard Shell Baptist Church.
The dissenters opposed missions, education and other practices and held steadfast to the practice of foot washing. Finally, the Hard Shell group disbanded.
Another schism over the selection of a pastor caused 15 members to withdraw from Alder Branch to form a church named Sulphur Springs Baptist Church. However the church failed and some of the heretic group rejoined Alder Branch while others moved their membership to Boyd’s Creek.
In 1858 the congregation voted to build a new frame church building on the farm of William O. Atchley near the home of C.A. Kyker. By this time the church had grown from about 20 members to around 100.
Under the leadership of Pastor William Willis a Sunday school was established. The congregation worshiped in the frame structure until Pastor Noah Corum decided a new building was necessary but for the third time some members withdrew to begin Powder Springs Baptist Church which soon failed and the dissenters returned to Alder Branch.
Members decided to build the new church in 1881 while Rev. D.L. Manley was pastor. The new frame building was built near the community burying ground which possibly began with the interment of Thomas Atchley in 1836.
The Rev. Jesse Baker, president of Mossy Creek College (forerunner of Carson-Newman), served as pastor from 1889-1892. He led the church to accept giving of means to support Christian education.
Worship services were held in the new white frame building for 46 years when the structure was destroyed by fire.
In 1928 a new church was constructed on the same spot. The building is one of the county’s finest examples of a brick Gothic Revival-style church. The cemetery has grown to encompass the entire churchyard.
In 1934 the Rev. James A. Clark became the first full-time pastor and Alder Branch was the only rural church to have a full-time pastor in Sevier County at that time.
Upon first glimpse of the church today, a first-time visitor could easily be reminded of the famous poem written in 1750 by British poet Thomas Gray: Elegy written in a Country Churchyard.
Several descendants of Thomas and Lydia Atchley became Baptist ministers including their grandson, Rev. William Atchley and their great-great-grandson Rev. Sam Cornelius Atchley. Both were widely known and respected ministers within the Alder Branch community and beyond.
Today the stately church surrounded by an historic cemetery which is the final resting place for nearly 1,000 individuals many who were prominent and contributing citizens of Sevier County. It is a testament to the faith of those Christians who banded together in the home of Thomas Atchley to form a preaching station over 180 years ago.
— Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact McMahan at 453-6411 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to email@example.com.