By the 1880s, formal religion was becoming well-established in Scott County. The settlers who were transforming this remote, rugged terrain into small, loosely-connected communities had always been a religious people, of course, but they were not well organized. It was in the 1880s that the New River Baptist Association was formed, which immediately sent a delegation to Oneida to start a Baptist church there.
While Baptist congregations were taking root across the county, Presbyterian organization had been much less defined — even though there were strong Presbyterian roots all along the northern Cumberland Plateau. Many of the settlers in this region were of Scotch-Irish descent, and many Scotch-Irish immigrants to America were of the Presbyterian faith, which had its roots in the Church of Scotland and incorporated the doctrines of John Calvin.
In fact, Scott Countians of Presbyterian faith had established the Huntsville Academy — one of Scott County’s earliest schools — in the 1850s. The Presbyterian Church supported the academy financially, and its principals were Presbyterian ministers. The private school continued until 1909, shortly after Huntsville High School was established and its need was diminished.
In 1880, however, there was no Presbyterian church in Huntsville. In fact, there was not an established church of any kind. So when a Reverend Dunlap — Scott County historian Esther Sharp Sanderson recorded his arrival but not his first name — arrived from Stanford, Ky., in 1880, he began holding worship services in the county courthouse.
Dunlap arrived with his wife in a horse-drawn wagon, according to Sanderson’s writings. Among the items in the wagon was a small organ. Dunlap’s mission: to establish a church in this remote corner of the world.
The lack of churches in Huntsville at that time was not due to a lack of interest in religion. And when Dunlap began delivering his sermons, people came from miles around to hear them. “Consequently,” Sanderson wrote, “many were converted or renewed in their faith.” Some of them were lifelong Presbyterians. Some came to consider themselves Presbyterian simply because Dunlap was a Presbyterian.
And the First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville was established.
After two years of meeting in the courthouse, Dunlap encouraged the congregation to build a church. They did, and a one-room, wood-frame building was put into service in July 1882.
The Huntsville church was a member of the Kingston Presbytery. Organization was conducted by Rev. T.H. Allen, who became the church’s first official pastor. There were 28 members. The elders were John B. Brasfield and James M. Keen, and deacon Daniel Jeffers.
Among the charter members of the Huntsville Presbyterian Church were James Sexton, Julian Sexton, Daniel Jeffers, Sarah Jeffers, James M. Keen, Virginia Keen, Wiley Carroll, John B. Brasfield, Martha Brasfield, Elizabeth Lewallen, JJ Newport and Millard Newport.
For many years that followed, the Huntsville Presbyterian Church was also used by the Baptists, the Methodists and other denominations. One such example was Tom James Taylor, a Methodist evangelist who was also a blacksmith, who held a two-week-long revival in the Presbyterian church.
The Mossop Memorial School
In 1909 — the same year the Huntsville Academy closed — the Presbyterian church organized the Mossop Memorial School. It was named for the wife of Dr. Henry Butler, then the pastor of the church. Her maiden name was Mossop. The Mossop school was a boarding school for girls, allowing its students to work for their tuition as a way of obtaining higher education for young women in Scott County who were often receiving only an elementary-level education at best.
A dormitory was built on the church lot, accommodating up to 40 students. As was the practice in Presbyterian schools in those days, Butler — as the church’s pastor — was also the school’s principal.
The Mossop school didn’t last long in Scott County. Butler retired from the ministry in 1915, and the school was moved to Harriman a short time later. There, it occupied a building on the side of Walden Ridge and became the Mossop School for Girls. It was one of Harriman’s earliest high schools, and remained open until World War II.
In 1942, the Mossop School closed. Staff and students traveled to Asheville Farm School in North Carolina, another Presbyterian-established private school. They were joined there by students and staff from the Dorland-Bell School in Hot Springs, N.C., which had also recently closed. Together, the three schools became the co-educational Warren Wilson Vocational Junior College, named for social reformer Warren H. Wilson. Today, Warren Wilson College is a four-year liberal arts college that remains affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.
The Women Keep the Church Alive
The First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville may well have disbanded in the 1930s and 1940s if not for a handful of women in the church who were fiercely dedicated to its survival. Amid the Great Depression, there was a lack of interest in the church. The church did not have a pastor from 1931 to 1940, and had not had a permanent pastor since 1927. Some suggested joining other churches in town, and some did.
But, as Sanderson recorded it, three women in the church — Ella York, Orlena Foster and Lina Doisy — refused to let it die. Sanderson’s story tells that York’s husband tried to get her to stay home on one particularly cold and snowy Sunday morning. But, she said, “The little Sharp and McDonald children will be there, and I must go.” Sunday School was held as usual that morning, just as it had been every Sunday morning since the early 1880s.
Both York and Foster served as elders in the church during that period, as there were not enough men interested in filling those positions. Foster was an elder through 1955, and York served as an elder through 1957.
A New Church
By the end of World War II, interest in the Presbyterian Church was again strong. In fact, the church grew so much that the size of the original church building — as well as its age — necessitated a new facility. The current, brick structure was built in 1948, on the site of the old Mossop Academy. When it opened in 1948, it consisted of a chapel, Sunday School rooms, a nursery and a basement. Two years later, a manse was built beside the church.
Among First Presbyterian Church’s most notable pastors through the years was Rev. Verne E. Coapman, who served from 1943 to 1945. Coapman was renowned for his missionary work in India, where he spent three decades. In fact, he was so well respected in India that he and his wife were allowed on the boat that carried the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi for burial in the Indian Ocean.
Coapman had come to East Tennessee in 1918. He set up several Sunday Schools throughout the region, in Wartburg, Lancing and other places. They were often held in school houses and were well-attended, often with membership in the hundreds. Coapman endeared himself to the moonshiners who were prolific in the region in those days. In fact, in one instance a Sunday School was led by one of the region’s leading moonshine-makers. In another instance, a moonshiner offered to pay a minister’s salary in exchange for being allowed to sell whiskey on the grounds where services were being held, according to Sanderson’s writings.
Coapman also served as pastor of the Helenwood Presbyterian Church, which later disbanded.
In 1995, Rev. Martha Anne Fairchild became the church’s first woman pastor. She was also the church’s longest-tenured pastor. She recently retired after more than 20 years at the church and moved to North Carolina. Rev. Jim Gray currently serves as the church’s interim pastor.
This article is the March 2019 installment of Focus On: Religion, presented by Huntsville Manor on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Focus On series. A print version of this article can be found on Page A3 of the March 28, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.