Upland Chronicles: First Baptist Church has served Sevierville over 200 years

May. 05, 2013 @ 11:46 PM

Tennessee statehood was seven years in the future when a small group led by Revolutionary War veteran Spencer Clack and Preacher Richard Wood gathered to form a place to worship in a struggling pioneer community.

Gathering where the east and west forks of the Little Pigeon River flowed together the group established a small Baptist church that they named for its location, Forks of the River. The community would soon be named Sevierville and eventually the church would be known as the Sevierville First Baptist Church.

One of the first acts of the founders was to purchase a minute book and to record the basic beliefs of the congregation. On September 29, 1789 the early church members recorded: “to believe in baptism by immersion, original sin, unconditional election, affectual calling, free justification of the righteousness of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the final judgment by Christ.”

Reverend Richard Wood, a Virginia native who moved to South Carolina where he was ordained as a Baptist minister migrated to Sevier County after the Treaty of Dumplin was signed in 1785. 1789 was a busy year for Rev. Wood when he established two churches in Sevier County, Forks of the River and Providence. He served as pastor of both churches.

The first log church belonging to the congregation was located between the present day junction of East Main Street and Court Avenue and the old forks of the river, which was then located close to the junction of Highway 441 and Highway 66.

With the destruction of that building in a fire that destroyed much of Sevierville, the church moved to a lot given to them by Spencer Clack. The property was located near the mouth of Middle Creek on the east prong of the Little Pigeon River. There the congregation built another log church and established a cemetery.

As evidenced by the minutes of the church during this period, the church’s main concern was to allow members to move to sister churches that sprung up in the county and to maintain social and moral order among the congregation.

The Forks of the River Baptist was responsible for the founding of several early Baptist churches in the county such as White Oak Flats, Bethel and Red Bank. Members were allowed to transfer freely from the first church to these new churches.

At age 15, Elijah Rogers moved with his family from Virginia to Sevier County. When he was 20 Rogers married Katherine Clack, daughter of Spencer Clack. In 1796 Elijah and Katherine united with the Forks of the River Church and were baptized by Rev. Wood. Subsequently the church licensed Rogers to preach, but he was not ordained to full work in ministry until he was 36.

The ordination of Elijah Rogers in 1810 afforded Revered Wood a loyal companion in the ministry. In addition to Sevier County, these men of God held meetings together throughout Jefferson, Blount and Knox Counties.

Together they held big revivals, organized churches and baptized multitudes. The first baptism ever witnessed in the city of Knoxville was that of John Hillisman, a convert of these two preachers. He was baptized by Rev. Rogers in the presence of a crowd estimated at 3,000 in August, 1825.

Rev. Rogers served as pastor at Boyd’s Creek, Alder Branch and Forks of the River. At times he served as pastor of two churches at the same time. Following the Baptist custom of the time, Both Wood and Rogers said nothing about pastoral support and both men farmed for a living.

Maintaining social and moral order was just as significant as founding new churches. A number of monthly business meetings held on the first Saturday of each month were devoted to inquiring into charges of misbehavior by church members.

In 1809 a man and his wife were brought forth on charges of being present at a horse race. The minutes record the result as follows: “Brother Clark and his wife came forward and confessed their wrong in going to the horse race to sell cakes and the church forgave them.”

In another inquiry, the transgressor was not as fortunate. The minutes recorded: “It being proved that Polly Leviston confessed pregnant for which the church turned her out of her fellowship.”

Richard Wood died in 1831 after pasturing the church for 42 years, and he was followed by Elijah Rogers and Eli Roberts. These three pioneer preachers piloted the church into the middle of the nineteenth century.

With the approach of the Civil War the church weakened and in the minutes of Sunday March 4, 1860, the clerk noted that the church had authorized any member in good standing to seek a letter of dismission for moving membership to another church. In 1861 the congregation completely disbanded.

17 Baptists, some former members re-established the church at a meeting held at the Sevier County Courthouse on April 4, 1876. With the old log building entirely demolished and used for firewood by Confederate soldiers, the congregation voted to build a new building on the old site.

Reverend W.M. Burnett was called as first pastor after re-organization. During the construction they met first in the old Nancy Academy building and then in the Southern Methodist Church building. The new white-frame building was finished at the cost of $1, 443.29 and dedicated on August 24, 1878.

In 1886, the growing church was instrumental in the formation of the Sevier County Baptist Association. In early 1900s Training Union and Women’s Missionary Union were initiated. The church’s Sunday school program also started at this time.

Under the guidance of Rev. R.E. Corum, the church voted on August 4, 1921 to move forward with a new building program. Construction of a new sanctuary began March 5, 1924.

The congregation was stunned when Re. Corum died during the construction. Completed in 1926, the new building was dedicated debt free on September 29, 1940.

The growth of the congregation forced the need for more room and in 1955 the church authorized the construction of an educational building. Addition of a pipe organ in 1966 enhanced the sanctuary.

In 1975, the church deeded over Forks of the River Cemetery to the City of Sevierville. The city has preserved the burial grounds, the final resting place of founding fathers Isaac Thomas, Spencer Clack and James McMahan as an historical mini-park.

A major renovation of the sanctuary which began in 1984 was interrupted by a fire that severely damaged the interior of the building. The organ was rebuilt, new carpet was installed, pews rebuilt and TV capabilities were installed.

The church observed its bicentennial in 1989 with a year-long celebration. The climax of the celebration was the dedication of a new Family Life/ Education Building. In 1998, the church moved into a new, ten million dollar sanctuary and educational building.

With Rev. Dan Spencer serving as the 36th pastor and a membership of more than 4,000, the historic First Baptist Church of Sevierville – which has been situated in three different states, North Carolina, Franklin and Tennessee – continues to serve the spiritual needs of the community.

 — Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and Sevier County Historian. 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 Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.