“The history of the First Baptist Church of Knoxville, when it shall be fully written, will present pictures of an [sic] humble beginning, a varying progress, an alternation of light and shadow, of strength and weakness, combined with examples of unswerving fidelity, and of a free-hearted and free-handed munificence.” (John Moses at the cornerstone service in 1886)
By 1873, First Baptist had moved past the “shadow” of the Civil War and was continuing its “varying progress” toward eventually building its second church on Gay Street.
Known for financial acumen, Dr. Jonathan Mays, who became
In 1879, under Dr. George Eager’s pastorate, ten church women established the Earnest Worker’s Society to “…enlist and organize the lady members … in church work and general benevolence.” Through various events (e.g., tea parties, ice cream suppers, and other “entertainments”) and through monthly dues and fines as well as “self-denial,” they raised funds to furnish the church and clothe the poor. After they bought a carpet for the sanctuary, 14 spittoons were installed to protect their purchase. Among other efforts, they furnished the pastor’s study and bought blinds for the church. Including many of the same women, the Woman’s Missionary Society was organized in 1880 to focus on both home and foreign missions. With far-reaching influence, both women’s groups continued into the next century.
Dr. Charleton Strickland, a noted orator, arrived in 1880. One of his first sermons discussed “the duties of wife and husband to each other” and was so impressive that the pastor was asked to repeat it. The following year, the church abandoned its practice of renewing a pastor’s tenure annually, instead offering Dr. Strickland an indefinite call. However, in the spring of 1883, he was called as pastor of First Baptist, Nashville. Attempting to persuade him to stay, the church took extraordinary steps, including doubling his annual salary to $2,400 and asking the Nashville church to release him from his call. Those efforts failed, but he remained until September 1883 and served on the search committee for a new pastor. In his “goodbye” sermon, he opined, “It is better for me to go away when you want me to stay than … to stay when you want me to go.” According to church historian E.E. McCroskey, this beloved pastor “left the church when his work and usefulness was at high tide.”
Replacing Dr. Strickland in 1883 was Dr. Eugene Taylor, known for his 25-minute sermons, relatively brief for that time. Among Dr. Taylor’s first accomplishments was the committee system’s reorganization in 1884. New committees included Special Services, Visitations and Invitations, and Social Reunion. Several guidelines were established, including a reporting system and pastor approval for all committee functions. The church manual was also updated (originally created in 1877, revised in 1880). Along with a membership list, a covenant, and articles of faith, it included rules of conduct such as “… it is, in the opinion of this church, repugnant to the spirit of the New Testament for the members to frequent the Theatre, the Circus, the Races, the Ballroom, and all such places of sinful pleasure, therefore such offenders may be liable to the censure of the church.” Censure was noted in the minutes: “Charges of immoral and unchristian conduct were preferred against Brother….” However, consequences sometimes went beyond reprimands; for example, “The hand of church fellowship was withdrawn from Brother….” (The church’s role as
The Second Church on Gay Street
In 1885, Dr. Strickland returned to preach an extended revival, resulting in 176 additions including 142 baptisms. Although the original church had been expanded and a baptistery installed the previous decade, the increased membership strained the small church house’s capacity, confirming the need for more room. Thus, finance and building committees planned a new church on the same site.
While First Baptist was without a church house, other local churches offered to share their facilities. Prayer meetings and other gatherings were at First Presbyterian. However, Staub’s Opera House was rented for Sunday services because of the congregation’s size; when some members objected to worshipping there, attendance waned.
In June 1886, the first brick was laid; in July, the cornerstone service was held. Prayer services resumed in the new church’s basement in November 1886. Commenting on the construction, one reporter noted, “…. the tall spire went heavenward [176’], and finally the last brush of the painter’s brush on the interior walls announced that the grand edifice was complete [in December 1887].” However, the church wasn’t dedicated until April 1888 because of the organ’s delayed installation. On that “bright and beautiful” spring day, the bell in the church tower beckoned worshippers “with thunderous tones” rattling downtown establishments’ windows. White marble steps led to the brick and marble-trimmed Gothic structure; two front entrances opened into the vestibule with floors of variegated tile. Featuring a white Italian and Tennessee marble baptistery, the sanctuary was 62’ by 65’; the main floor and gallery seated 850. Adorning the sanctuary were frescos, ornamental panels, a brass pulpit, and a set of memorial windows of “the finest illuminated cathedral glass.” Another reporter observed “[t]he lofty ceilings, rich coloring of the windows and walls, the subdued light, and the seclusion from outside sights and sounds.” On that long-awaited day, “standing room was sought in vain.” With so many eager to attend, a special train ran from Maryville. Along with an array of speakers, the dedication service featured glorious organ and vocal music as well as Solomon’s dedicatory prayer (1 Kings 8:22-61). The congregation joyfully proclaimed to be "In the Center of the City with the Savior," a phrase that has been beloved ever since. Sunday school convened that afternoon, and the day ended with evening worship.
Though church co-founder John Moses did not live to attend the new church’s dedication, his funeral was held in the uncompleted sanctuary in April 1887. (In 1849, the Moses brothers’ sister was married in the uncompleted first church.) John Moses and his brother James, the other co-founder who died in 1870, were the subjects of the sanctuary’s largest and center memorial window, donated by their children. The men responsible for First Baptist’s “humble beginning” would have been proud of the “free-hearted and free-handed munificence” embodied in First Baptist’s second church on Gay Street.
Sources from Church Archives
Church minutes and other archived documents provide valuable information incorporated into the articles on our church’s history. Other glimpses into that history include the following:
In June 1873, during Knoxville’s last cholera outbreak, First Baptist participated in a day of fasting and prayer, asking God to spare them from the “scourge.” (2) The invitation at the end of a service was sometimes documented as follows: “At the conclusion of divine service, the doors of the church were opened.” (3) In 1875, a member “came before the church and stated that in defense of his son and himself from a deadly assault he had been compelled to use force and that he had badly punished the person … for which he felt sorry and asked the church to forgive him.” The church unanimously voted to grant his request. (4) That same year, a motion was made that the sexton “be instructed to keep the church clock with the clock on Gay Street and ring the bell for opening services exactly on time.” (5) As beloved as Dr. Strickland was, one member objected to his following wording: “I baptize thee into [rather than in] the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Nevertheless, he didn’t change the wording, and the objector left. (6) The second church included pastor’s study, ladies’ parlor, deacons’ room, Sunday school rooms, and kitchen.
Reviewing decades of minutes and other church-related documents in the process of writing articles, I am grateful to Don Rairdon, who digitized the archives, making them more readily accessible.