Upland Chronicles: Francis Asbury preached at Shiloh Cemetery
Located within the city limits of Pigeon Forge and only four miles south of Sevierville, Shiloh Memorial Cemetery is one of the oldest burial grounds south of the French Broad River. It is the largest cemetery in Sevier County. On the south is a full panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains, which includes iconic Mount LeConte. The eastern end of Chilhowee Mountain (known locally as Bluff Mountain) is visible looking northwest.
The cemetery was started near the beginning of the 19th century around a small log church known as a “meeting house,” which was erected by the pioneer Methodist people of Sevier County. Although the exact date of the establishment of the church is unknown, it is a recorded fact that on Oct. 12, 1808, Bishop Francis Asbury, first resident Methodist bishop in the United States, preached there in a small log building which had been erected a few years earlier.
However, before the building of the log church, it’s apparent from available records that as early as 1787, Methodist circuit riders were holding services in the homes of early settlers of the region.
Despite rough frontier conditions, the indefatigable bishop made at least three trips into Sevier County when it was an outpost of settlements south of the French Broad. He kept a daily journal of his travels and experiences. On each of his trips to Sevier County, he stayed at the home of Mitchell Porter, which was located one mile south of Sevierville on the east bank of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
Porter, a Revolutionary War soldier, only recently had moved to Sevier County from Virginia when Bishop Asbury came the first time in 1802. Rev. William McKendree, who later became the first Methodist bishop born in the United States, also preached there the same day to a full house.
During his next trip in 1808, Bishop Asbury again stopped at Porter’s residence. But this time, as he stated in his journal, ‘We crossed the river twice” and “I preached in the chapel.” Asbury returned again in 1810 on his last trip and preached again, probably in the new chapel, but he failed to state whether it was there or at Porter’s home.
This chapel mentioned by Bishop Asbury later became Shiloh Methodist Episcopal Church, and for years was the only Methodist church in Sevier County. It was named for the ancient village of central Palestine, a meeting place and sanctuary for the Israelites and the site of a tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was kept until its capture by the Philistines. The log chapel was later replaced by a frame building.
The new frame building stood on or near the site of the first chapel, but in 1856 it, too, was removed, and a third church building was built about 100 yards west of the original site. In 1928 this building was removed also, and a new site nearer the highway was purchased for a memorial church to Bishop Asbury. However, plans to build this church never materialized, and the Shiloh Episcopal Church became history. All three church sites are today parts of the Shiloh Memorial Cemetery.
It is believed that the first person buried in the cemetery is Mary Thompson Wear, wife of Col. Samuel Wear. Born in Antrim, Ireland on Nov. 1, 1758, she died in March 1797.
Among the early circuit riders who served the Shiloh Church were Thomas Ware, John Johnson, Joseph Williams, John Henagar, Nathan Barnes, George Elkin and John Hart.
One of the best known pre-Civil War Methodist circuit-riding ministers in East Tennessee was Reverend James Cummings, who lived on Walden’s Creek. He lived about three miles from Shiloh and was a member of the church.
In the heat of the Civil War, Rev. Cummings was excluded from the Southern Conference because he refused loyalty to the Confederate Government. He became a charter member of the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, when it was organized in Athens in 1865.
According to oral tradition, Rev. Cummings last request was that he be buried beneath the place where the pulpit of the old log chapel had been. His request was granted after he died on June 20, 1869. The position of his monument makes it easy to locate the exact site of the first church building.
The Reverend Ashley Wynn, son-in-law of Mitchell Porter was another circuit rider who belonged to Shiloh and was buried in the cemetery. If the circuit rider was absent, Shiloh was fortunate in having members known as Exhorters who could expound the Holy Scriptures. John Nichols and two sons, A.C.B. Nichols and John W. Nichols were Exhorters, as were A.C. Andes and E.M. Wynn.
About 1890, Henderson’s Chapel Baptist Church was moved from Henderson Springs to a site adjoining the west end of Shiloh Cemetery. The Baptist church, which was organized in 1857, never had affiliations with the cemetery.
Around 3,000 people are buried in Shiloh Memorial Cemetery. The historic cemetery encompasses 11 acres and includes some of the most prominent leaders in the history of Sevier County, from its beginning to present times. In recent years, there has been an average of 45 interments annually.
Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.
The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for topics or would like to submit a column, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to email@example.com