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First Baptist During the Tumultuous Civil War Years

Posted by Patrick Walsh on

Union officers in Knoxville after escaping confederate prison in 1865

Knoxville Baptist’s (later renamed First Baptist) plight during the Civil War was poignantly described as follows:

“…the tragic war years were a prolonged struggle for mere survival—a contest in which it seemed more than once as if the church had perished. During these years as the constant marching of armies’ feet trampled the fertile plowed fields of Tennessee into hard-packed, unproductive wasteland and the war-borne twin passions of fear and hatred in a region of divided loyalties snapped the ties of fellowship and community, the Knoxville Baptist Church, its ranks decimated by the departure of young men to fight and kill and the flight of refugees to the North and to the South, faced its test alone.”1

In describing “the dangerous and divided town of Knoxville” in the Civil War’s early years, Knoxvillian historian Jack Neely noted, “…. the old capital became more a staging ground for army operations than an economically vital town; the businesses that thrived were those that served the Confederate soldiers. By 1862, [houses of ill repute] in Knoxville reportedly outnumbered legitimate businesses.” The old Market House was commandeered as barracks and ammunition storage.As the war continued raging, overcrowding resulted in food shortages and disease.

Unlike Knox County as a whole, Knoxville overwhelmingly supported secession. Given the political circumstances and with slavery being a point of church controversy, Knoxville Baptist could no longer count on the support it had once received from the neighboring counties’ churches. From 1860 until 1867, the church also lost ties with the Tennessee Baptist Association. From April 1860 through June 1862, the church had a pastor for only three months. In July 1862, Reverend Lucien Woolfolk arrived in Knoxville, where all but one of the pastors were Confederate supporters. Rev. Woolfolk remained true to the Confederacy when the Union invaded in September 1863, but left town in December of that year. During the war, people fled as did church co-founder John Moses, who returned to New Hampshire after his house was burned. Others were subject to conscription. Thus, church rolls, including Knoxville Baptist’s, dwindled as congregants left to flee from or to fight in the war. Those who fought once prayed alongside one another and may very well have raised their swords against each other on the battlefield, so strong were their beliefs.

When Confederate officials took charge of the city in 1861, they required churches to pray for the Confederacy’s success. Sometimes “union” (i.e., combined) services were held solely for worshipping God. For one such service, posters advertised a “Union Prayer Meeting.” However, when the Southern soldiers thought the service’s purpose was to pray for the Union cause, they shot at the posters, indicative of the turmoil plaguing the city. During this time, the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Thomas Humes, who staunchly defended his Christian belief in all men’s freedom, refused to comply and resigned. When the Union army later occupied Knoxville in September 1863, General Burnside rewarded Humes by reinstating him in his pulpit and allowing his church to resume services, rather than being occupied by Union troops as was the other churches’ fate.

The Union occupation resulted in the return of several of the Northern sympathizers who had fled, including the editor of the Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator2, William Brownlow, who had been imprisoned by the Confederacy for his “treasonous” political views. Bitter toward Confederate sympathizers, he expressed his angst in a November 1863 article: “There has been no religion in Knoxville since the rebellion …, and we Christians were driven [out]….” This diatribe intensified in a January 1864 article: “The Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches here would be used for better purposes if turned into grog shops selling mean corn whiskey for rebel money, than to be used to preach and to pray such treason, blasphemy and blackguardism, as have disgraced their walls and pulpits for the last three years.”

By then, however, the Union army had seized all of Knoxville’s churches, except St. John’s Episcopal, to use for the war effort; thus, church functions were suspended. Knoxville Baptist was used as a hospital for the wounded until 1864, when it became a school and housing facility (under the auspices of a Northern interdenominational organization) for freedmen who had streamed into the city.

During the war, Northern churches saw conditions in the South, including the abandoned churches and the needy freedmen, as opportunities for missionary work. As a result, the Baptist Home Mission Board sent Dr. Daniel Phillips to Knoxville in September 1864 to reorganize Knoxville Baptist, a daunting task because only nine or ten members remained. At those members’ request, Dr. Phillips successfully petitioned to have the church turned over to them in October 1864, when—despite that success—Dr. Phillips voiced his discouragement to the Home Mission Board: “There has been no Baptist preaching here for nearly a year. Only one of the former pastors of the city remain[s]—the Episcopal minister—all the rest have gone, and the churches have been turned to other uses.” In describing what happened before his arrival, he provided valuable insight regarding the interconnectedness between the political and the religious: “When the Federals came in, all the ministers and nearly all the members of these churches were rebels. Some of the ministers were exceedingly violent, indeed all were except the Baptist minister [Rev. Woolfolk], who was as much a secessionist as any, but was more careful in public.”

Lamenting the Baptist church’s deplorable condition, including the many missing pews, Dr. Phillips also wrote, “Very much must be done to the whole place before it will be fit to worship God in.” Finally, he reemphasized his concerns about the church and the community in general:

“I have been advised that the times are not propitious for denominational work exclusively, the churches and civil society have been so completely upheaved and broken to pieces that the very first thing to be done is to preach the gospel. … I should much rather preach in the Baptist House, but I have no idea when the house will be cleaned and set in order.” In fact, during the few months he was in Knoxville, Dr. Phillips never preached in the Baptist church, but instead delivered sermons to multiple denominations in the Presbyterian church, which had been returned to its congregants and repaired. Regarding his role in that church, Dr. Phillips explained, “There was one pulpit and no preacher to occupy it, and I stepped into it.” He left Knoxville in late 1864, a few months before the war ended. Knoxville Baptist was not officially reorganized until 1866, when the hard work of restoration began.

1From Cecil Egerton’s 1960 thesis on the church’s history. Cecil was the grandson of Reverend Montraville Egerton, First Baptist’s pastor from 1899 to 1904.

2Brownlow “intended to ‘ventilate’ the rebels,” publishing “lists of persons who were given notice to leave Knoxville and not to return until after the war” (The French-Broad Holston Country, p. 141).

Sources not otherwise noted are from First Baptist’s archives.


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