Deaf History

Arthur Clayton was guest speaker from December 2014 to March 2015 and was named Interim Speaker in March until June 7, 2015. He is our FBC Pastor of the Deaf and Director of Congregational Missions.

 Arthur Clayton
Pastor of the Deaf
June 1, 2015 - Present


First Baptist Church of Knoxville - Deaf Ministry
147 years (1868 - 2015)

 In 1868 the church first began its ministry to the Deaf.  Church minutes record that April of that year, Four young deaf women (maids -- Misses Martha A. Gorman, Emma Rutledge, Mary A. Pope and May A. Mangum), domestics in the city, came to the First Baptist Church and asked to become members. They would come to worship before going to work.  

A list of questions was written out for them and they were required to sign their names to the answer they had made.  

The church leaders accepted the four deaf women as members. Mark 7:37 said: They were completely amazed and said, “Jesus does everything well. He makes the deaf hear! And those who can’t talk he makes able to speak.” (NCV)  

In 1874, twelve children from the Tennessee School for the Deaf (TSD) were received in the church (FBC).

Thomas L. Moses, Superintendent of the Tennessee School for the Deaf from 1887 to 1917, was a deacon of the FBC.  T. L. Moses' great-grandfather was General James White, the founder of Knoxville. T. L. Moses's father was Judge John Leese Moses who was member of TSD's Board of Trustees for many year, serving as President from 1859-1861. James C. Moses was also on the Board, serving as President from 1865-1867, and John L. Moses, was President again from 1867-1886. 

Thomas Moses

Thomas L. Moses

James C. Moses was first person baptized, first Clerk, first Deacon, editor and publisher of the Knoxville Register, Trustee East Tennessee University, Trustee (former) Tennessee Deaf and Dumb School (Present named - Tennessee School for the Deaf).

James Moses

James C. Moses

John L. Moses joined the church 1843.  Clerk 1844-1955.  Editor of Knoxville Register, President East Tennessee Baptist Convention, President State Line Railroad, Secretary-Treasurer Knoxville-Ohio Railroad.   Judge of County Court.  Trustee East Tennessee University.  Trustee (former) Tennessee Deaf and Dumb School (present named - Tennessee School for the Deaf).  (Thomas L. Moses' uncle or brother John L. Moses - not sure).

John L. Moses

The Moses family had a strong interested in the deaf and encouraged the church's participation.  

During Dr. Ethel Poore’s time as Superintendent, religious training was provided on campus. Many students chose to as members of First Baptist Church, and with their parents’ permission were baptized at the church (FBC).  

Fifty-four years later Mrs. Laura Formwalt would begin giving the sermon in sign to the deaf in the congregation.

Deaf SS in 1920 to 1930

In 1947, The twenty-fifth anniversary of Laura Formwalt's work with the deaf at First Baptist was recognized.  More than one hundred members were at the time in the deaf class, working in three groups:  Sunday School, Training Union and Missionary Society.In 1922, Mrs. Laura Johnson Formwalt, a teacher at TSD, began interpreting services at the church. A Sunday School class, first called the Silent Bible Class, then called The Formwalt Bible Class, began with only seven members. It grew to a membership of over one-hundred. She was teaching and interpreting in 1922 until 1967. She served FBC for 45 years.

The year 1973 saw a week-long celebration for the Golden Anniversary of the church's Ministry to the Deaf.  Rev. Carter Bearden from the Home Mission Board spoke in the Chapel for two Sunday services.  Faye Ianham, niece of Laura Formwalt, spoke at a banquet, and James D. Fain, of Houston, lead Bible study.  The deaf program at First Baptist was started by Mrs. Laura Formwalt and was under her caring leadership for forty-four years.  Since 1967 Rev. William E. Davis had been First Baptist Ministry to the Deaf.

Laura Formwalt

Laura Johnson Formwalt

During this period Mrs Helen (Trentham) Duncan gave many years of inspiring assistance for the deaf in the community.  She was often signing the sermons, assisting the deaf in finding employment, accompanying them to hospitals, to doctor's and lawyer's offer and to court when necessary.  Her Christian concern endeared her to all the silent people of Knoxville and helped to make the Deaf Department of First Baptist Church a model for others.

Helen Treatham Dunan

Helen (Trentham) Duncan

Rev. William Ed Davis was first Pastor as the first full-time Minister to the Deaf in September 1, 1967 until 1973. He resigned his position in 1973 to become Superintendent of Tennessee School for the Deaf.

Ed Davis

Rev. William "Ed" Davis

In 1967 the church recognized the first-year anniversary of the Deaf Department's program for younger children from the Tennessee School for the Deaf.  The Deaf Department had an enrollment of 336 and was organized into five groups:  Adults, Young People, Intermediates, Juniors and Primaries.  Dr. J. Wayne Waller was Coordinator of the program.

Wayne Waller

Dr. J. Wayne Waller

Mrs. Doreen (Maxfield) Howell, sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, came as a missionary in August 1973. She directed the program for the deaf under Mr. Dave Ward’s leadership. Mr. Art Nine was elected to be the director of the deaf department in 1974. There were several pulpit guests and an interim minister until 1975. 

Doreen's comment:  I remember my two years at FBC very fondly.  I especially enjoyed the "Feelin' Alright" coffee house we had in the basement for the young deaf adults and all the captioned movies we watched together.  Thank you for the memories.

Doreen (Maxfield) Howell

At the same time another eight-member committee chaired by Andrew Edmondson was searching for a Minister to the Deaf since Rev. Davis had resigned to become Superintendent of the Tennessee School for the Deaf.  For a year Jerry Hefin, from the faculty at Harrison-Chilhowee Baptist Academy, served as Interim Minister to the Deaf. 

Then in 1975, Dr. Jerry Seale came from Texas was elected Assistant Minister, especially as a worker for the Deaf, on July 23, 1975. 

Dr. Jerry M. Seale

Counseling has become a significant part of Dr. Jerry Seale's work with the deaf.  Parents of deaf children often seek help, and there is real need for marriage and family counseling among the deaf.  First Baptist Church is proud of its 112-year history of working with the deaf in the community and remains strongly committed to this work. He served as Deaf Pastor in August 15, 1975 until August 15, 2008. He retired. 

Drama at dollywood

Rev. Greg Johannsen was Interim Pastor in August 2008 until December 31, 2008. He became first Deaf Pastor on January 2009 until August 26, 2012. He retired.  August 25, 2012 until December 28, 2014, He was re-retired from Interim Pastor.

Rev. Greg Johannsen
2008-2012 (Pastor)
2012-2014 (Interim Pastor)





1)  First Baptist Church Deaf Congregation - Knoxville, TN (140th Anniversary - April 5, 2008) by Jerry M. Seale

  • Jack r. Gannon, Deaf Heritage, 1981
  • Lillian McPherson, an essay on the history of the Deaf Ministry, 1959
  • Edith Pell Chandler, an article from The Silent Worker, 1959
  • 150th Anniversary Book of The First Baptist Church, 1993
  • Photos from the Tennessee School for the Deaf, 2008
  • Southern Business Guide, 1879-80 Illustrated

2)  First Baptist Church - Knoxville, TN - 1843-1993 by Nancy J. Siler

3)  Photos and inform from the Tennessee School for the Deaf, 2014

At First Baptist Church Knoxville, we are two congregations but one church family.  For more information on the founding and ministry of the First Baptist (hearing) congregation, please read here.

Thank You

The FBC Deaf Congregation members want to say "Thank You" to Jerry Seale and Nancy J. Siler.

Jerry Seale, who was minister for the Deaf from 1975-2008, 33 years. He wrote the book "First Baptist Church Deaf Congregation (1868-2004), Knoxville, TN -- 140th Anniversary (April 5, 2008)".  Also, Nancy L. Siler, who is member of FBC.  She wrote the book "First Baptist Church, Knoxville, TN - 1843-1993".

Contact: Arthur Clayton (Minister with the Deaf)