Shults Grove United Methodist Church celebrates centennial

May. 03, 2014 @ 11:40 PM

When Paul McAlister answered a knock on his door on New Year’s Day 1965, he saw a man standing on his porch whom he had never seen in his life.

The stranger quickly introduced himself as the Rev. Ralph Cline, a Methodist minister. The preacher’s purpose for the unexpected visit was to inquire whether there was interest in reopening Shults Grove United Methodist Church. At that time, services had not been held in the picturesque country church in several years.

McAlister told the preacher that he had seven children, and there were several other young people around. Therefore, he felt they desperately needed an active church in the Rocky Flats community again. Rev. Cline had recently been appointed pastor of the circuit that included Burnett Memorial, Webb’s Creek and Shields Mountain churches.

Immediately, McAlister, along with neighbors and family members, began readying the church house for worship services. They dug out a basement and underpinned the building, installed duct work and moved a coal burning furnace from Baldwin Clinic at the Pittman Center Community Center.

The furnace was used until it was no longer in working condition, at which time Rev. Cline secured an oil furnace and tank from a house that was being torn down at the Pittman Center Mission.

Rev. Cline conducted services in the little white clapboard church on Feb. 14, 1965.  The next project was painting the interior and exterior of the building. The rusting tin on the roof was replaced.

A litany of other necessary projects followed, including replacement of pews, floor repairs, construction of a new outhouse, building new steps, and the purchase of a piano, which McAlister drove all the way to North Carolina to pick up.

Tragedy struck the little congregation later that year when Ronnie McAlister, son of Paul and Erma Shultz McAlister, drowned. Ronnie, 13, left immediately after church service to go swimming with some friends on that fateful Sunday, Aug. 1, 1965. The family was thankful that the congregation and Reverend Cline were there to offer their support.

Sadly, it was not the last time the McAlister family would require the comforting words of their pastor and fellow church members. On Oct. 1, 1971, Ronnie’s sister, Audrey Ann, died as a result of a tragic automobile accident. She was only 16.

Since 1965, the doors of Shults Grove United Methodist Church have been open to worshipers. Located 1.4 miles off Highway 321 on Rocky Flats Road, the idyllic little church has caught the eye of artist and filmmakers. Artist G. Webb created a beautiful painting of the church that he called “a genuine country church.”

Jack Rouse Associates of Cincinnati, Ohio, chose the unique church as a setting in the production of “Heartsong,” a Dollywood film about the beauty and wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains and its people. The film is seen by thousands of people at Dollywood every day.

The church was established in 1914. George Shults donated the land and furnished timber from his property to build the church. Known as Brooksie, George Shults was born Aug. 13, 1884. Apparently despondent over marital problems, George committed suicide a year after the church was built, but his descendants, who include his nine children and numerous grandchildren, have attended services at the church throughout the years.

On Aug. 4, 1938, Shults Grove Church was spared when a disastrous cloudburst struck the area near the church. Neighboring Rock Springs Church of Christ was struck with such force that the building was torn from its foundation and completely demolished. Rescue operations that included 50 CCC men used the Shults Grove churchyard as temporary headquarters.

Due to the number of churches in the Pittman Center circuit and the miles between them, Shults Grove sometimes relied on lay ministers such as Samuel Scott Wilson. Known as Sammy, he was a schoolteacher, farmer and rural mail carrier.

The congregation remains active, and Rev. Alta Raper conducts worship services every Sunday at 2 p.m., although attendance has dwindled to only eight or nine. A homecoming celebration is held the last Sunday in August each year. This year, a special program is planned to commemorate the founding of the church 100 years ago and to honor those who have kept the “genuine country church” afloat.

The deed conveying the property to the church describes the agreement as follows: “Situated in District One of Sevier County, State of Tennessee lying on the waters of Dunn’s Creek {sic} the trustees of the said house shall at all times permit such Ministers belonging to the Methodist Episcopal Church as shall from time to time be duly authorized by the General Conference of our church or by the Annual Conferences to beseech and expound therein God’s Holy Word to execute the Disciplines of the church and administer the sacraments therein according to the true meaning and purpose of our deed of settlement.”

Efforts are underway to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Carroll McMahan is special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

If you have suggestions for topics, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org.