First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton turns back the clock to celebrate its 225th anniversary.
By JOHN THOMPSON Elizabethton Bureau Chief firstname.lastname@example.org
ELIZABETHTON — First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton took a step back in time to celebrate its 225th anniversary on Sunday. Many in the congregation wore clothes from another era, with women in long skirts and some men wearing overalls or even 18th century breeches. Pastor John Shuck wore the garb of a circuit-riding preacher and delivered a fiery sermon from a less ecumenical century. The high points of the sermon were punctuated with loud shouts of “amen” from the congregation. The sermon was authentic history. It was first preached in 1876 by Shuck’s predecessor in the First Presbyterian pulpit, Horace Cowles Atwater, who pastored the church from 1870-1877. The sermon was one of more than 100 that had been rescued for posterity by church member Peter Hampton, who found them in the abandoned house where Atwater had lived prior to his death in 1879. Most of the sermons were donated to the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University, but five sermons were kept by the church and maintained in the church
library. The sermon Shuck chose for the anniversary was delivered by Atwater in the summer or fall of 1876, after he had returned from the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian church. In an interview with the Johnson City Press last week, Shuck said he chose the sermon because Atwater was obviously still inspired by the Presbyterian fervor he had experienced at the assembly and also because of the nation’s centennial celebration being held that year. There was also a feeling that the nation was finally coming together again after the catastrophic Civil War. “The enthusiasm of that largest Christian body of delegates ever assembled in America, from which I have lately returned, and the cheering reports from all parts of their greatly extended and constantly extending work, tells a different story, our wayward Southern daughter of the South has affiliated with the mother church,” Atwater preached in 1876 and Shuck echoed in 2007. The reconciliation of North and South was something both Atwater and his congregation yearned to see. Atwater was a Northern clergyman who had come south after the Civil War to shepherd a Southern church. Although a Northerner who was against slavery, his quest for understanding led him to tour the South in years immediately before the war and to write a book about his impressions: “Incidents of a Southern Tour or The South as Seen with Northern Eyes.” Shuck said First Presbyterian has also been badly divided by two different national movements. Robert K. Johns, in his book “A History, First Presbyterian Church,” said a division began in 1837 between the Old School and New School movements. Johns said the two groups differed over “evangelism, interpretation of the Westminster Confession, support of interdenominational missions, support of prohibition, sabbath observance and slavery.” The second division of the church was between the North and South over the issue of slavery. There was little question the members of First Presbyterian had strong feelings on the issue. Johns said members of the church owned 86 of the 330 slaves in Carter County. A decade had past since the end of the Civil War when Atwater attempted to focus the attention of the church on their great heritage in Presbyterianism. In the sermon, he traced its roots back nearly 2,000 years to the time of Paul. He argued Presbyterian teaching not only made a man more religious but a better citizen. “Men thus conscientiously trained, as the early settlers of America, always make good fighters in a just cause. Men trained, as Cromwell trained his invincible ironsides ‘To trust in God and keep their powder dry’ will obtain great victories. I do not wonder that the descendants of such men, won the freedom of the nation, whose 100th anniversary we have so lately celebrated. Thus we learn that the early settlers of the Atlantic states, by their strong Calvinistic Bible and theology, from the memories and bitter persecutions and tyrannies of the Old World were wisely fitted in God’s providence to become the apostles and defenders of freedom in the new.” First Presbyterian has a wide range of projects to celebrate its anniversary. Appropriately, one project is to restore the broken headstone of Atwater’s grave in Highland Cemetery.