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Chapter One:  A Time to Plant -- 1873-1886

"Papaw, why can't we have a church in our community like the people in Sugar Loaf?" might have been the question of a young boy living near Long Branch in 1870. He was part of a growing community with no church to bind the residents together or give the community an identity. Families, such as Baker, Bales, Ballard, Bowling, Burnett, Clark, Conner, Evans, Galyon, Gipson, Gossett, Ingle, Johnson, Manis, Nichols, Pitner, and Thomas, lived in the area. 1

By 1870, Sevier County was recovering from the ravages of the War Between the States. Men had come home from battlefields and prisoner of war confinements and reestablished themselves with their families who had also experienced some of the trauma and uncertainty of war time. The only information families had of the location and condition of their loved ones during the war was an occasional letter sent home. Sevier County had no local newspaper so families and neighbors shared what news they heard from battlefields or personal accounts. It was an unsettling time. 2

This rural community, though spared documented fighting, had occasional stragglers from the war who took what supplies they could find, terrifying the community. Lack of respect for personal property forced local residents to hide valuables, including food, for their own survival. During 1863 and 1864, Sevier County was hard hit by foraging. Soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies had devastated crops and fields around the Holston River, so they turned their attention to the French Broad River valley and Sevier County for food and sustenance. The Caleb Jenkins farm in the Whites community was taken by Confederates for Gen. James Longstreet and his army. Men encamped there raided barns in the area to feed their horses. They also stole chickens, pigs, and cattle to feed themselves. The army had left the area, but memories of their devastation and harsh treatment remained. 3

After peace was signed, war weary soldiers began returning to their homes throughout Sevier County, not knowing what they would find when they got there. Among those returning to the Long Branch area were Isam Thomas and James Pitner. Both men served in the Union Army, Thomas in Company K, 2nd TN Infantry, and Pitner in the 1st TN Light Artillery. 4

When they arrived home, Thomas and Pitner found family life much as it had been before they left for war, centered around the farm. Almost everything the family needed they grew themselves, from broom straw and cotton to food crops, like corn, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, onions, and many types of beans and peas. Everyone worked on the farm, planting or plowing or tending livestock from sun-up 'til sun-down. In the fall, farmers were busy making molasses and harvesting sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and turnips before frost. Women were busy drying fruit and stringing beans for use all winter. 5

Tedious manual labor ceased on Saturdays and Sundays, however, as families gathered to worship the Lord and to give thanks for His many blessings. Unfortunately, there was no local church for them to attend, so they either walked, rode horses, or rode in wagons to a neighboring church. They attended Sugar Loaf, established 1855; or Antioch, established around 1868; or Gists Creek, established 1869, for preaching services once a month. 6

From this group of families, who had to travel some distance to attend church services, came the nucleus to form a church in their own neighborhood. In October 1873, members of the local community gathered with members of Sugar Loaf Baptist Church to organize a new body of believers they called Zion Hill Baptist Church. (Unfortunately, there are no records of charter members available because a fire destroyed the church building and the oldest records in 1943.) 7

Members of the newly organized church built a one-room log structure for worship services. The first church building was located near the creek on the present-day Lewis Byrd property. The building was constructed by men in the community who cut then hewed the logs by hand. The worshippers sat on benches made of logs. Some early church histories indicate that the first building had a dirt floor. It later had a puncheon floor, made from split logs, flattened side up for the floor with the rounded side underneath. 8

Members reached the church the best way they could. Some walked, others rode horses, or came in wagons with their families. Trees near the church were used to tie horses during church services. When Zion Hill was organized, preaching services were held once a month, Saturday and Sunday morning. The pastor would usually come to the community on Friday night and spend the week-end with a family near the church. The first pastor of Zion Hill offered this hospitality was probably Rev. N.H. Haggard, a well-known preacher in the area. (This assumption comes from the fact that he was the first pastor of Shiloh, started by Zion Hill in 1874.) 9

One of the first items of business for the newly established church was choosing a site for a cemetery. This became necessary when Margaret Clark, one of the members of the church, died January 15, 1874. (She was possibly a charter member of Zion Hill Baptist Church along with her husband, James.) At any rate, she was the first person buried in the Zion Hill Cemetery. The cemetery has remained in the same location ever since Mrs. Clark was buried there. It was not located next to the earliest church building because the location near the creek flooded many times a year and was not suitable for a cemetery. The hill nearest the church and easiest to access was chosen by church leaders for the cemetery's location. 10

Early in the church's history, Zion Hill was petitioned by a "Number of Brethren & Sisters living near what is known as Whittles School House in Sevier County, being remote from Churches & having held meetings in said school house for a time." They petitioned for the "purpose of doing business and/or as an arm of said church." This petition was granted January 1874 and in May 1874, Shiloh Baptist Church was constituted. The minutes of their organization meeting listed six members from Zion Hill who helped establish the church: William & Mary Odem, Mary, Margaret, & Matilda Nichols, and Nancy Sexton. As aforementioned, N.H. Haggard was Shiloh's first pastor. 11

Another early pastor of Zion Hill was Rev. P.M. Atchley. He was born in Sevier County, February 22, 1827, to Noah and Elizabeth Atchley. His life had been deeply saddened by the untimely deaths of two wives and four children. In 1864, "recognizing in his many sad losses and sore bereavements the hand of God and a voice calling him into the ministry, and to repent of 'vows and promises unkept,' to preach the everlasting gospel, he yielded to his 'impressions to preach,' and was accordingly licensed by the Alder Branch Baptist Church." In 1866, he was ordained to the full work of the ministry by Alder Branch with Elders Robert S. Atchley, N. H. Haggard, and Hiram S. Blair acting as Presbytery. 12

Atchley was an excellent choice for a new church. He was a student of the Bible and lived what he preached. On the character of Rev. Atchley, one writer said: "He is a strong advocate of Baptist principles; is much beloved and highly esteemed by his brethren. He is tender-hearted, ready to sympathize with his fellow-beings in their afflictions or distress, laying himself out to minister to their wants. He is a social and pleasant companion, greatly delighting to converse with his brethren upon the subject of religion and the prospects of future rest and happiness in heaven. He is a good and useful minister in the cause of God." 13

Rev. Atchley was followed as pastor by Rev. Benjamin Langston. He was born September 12, 1835 to Thomas and Louisa Langston. In 1856, he married Mary Atchley, described as "a woman of strong character, lovable disposition, genuine piety; she was a Christian indeed, a 'helpmeet' for the Lord's servant in his ministerial labors and sacrifices." When the War Betweeen the States broke out, Langston enlisted in the Union Army and was promoted to sergeant. He was in Company B, 9th Regiment, TN Cavalry, USA. He was involved in fighting in East Tennessee from Knoxville to Greeneville to Cumberland Gap to Salt Works, Virginia. He was captured by Longstreet's force, November, 1863 and held 12 hours before being released. He was later discharged at Knoxville, September 11, 1865, and returned home to his wife. 14

Langston was ordained into the gospel ministry by Providence Baptist Church, Sevier County and became known as a solid, instructive gospel preacher. He urged his churches to go forward in doing the Lord's will, always following the teachings of the New Testament. He helped the members of Zion Hill continue to build on a solid Bible-based foundation. He was considered a missionary, a man of good judgment, a good citizen and a useful minister of Jesus Christ.15

(The reason war records are mentioned is because war experiences changed these men forever. Many found solace in religion and trusted God to take care of them and bring them home again.)

In 1886, Zion Hill Baptist Church joined with 23 other Baptist churches in the county to form the Sevier Baptist Association. J.M. Thomas represented Zion Hill at the organizational meeting held at the Sevierville Church, November 5-6, 1886. Other churches represented: Antioch, Bethany (now independent), Evan's Chapel (closed when Great Smoky Mountain National Park was formed), Friendship, Gist's Creek, Holly Springs (now Little Cove Baptist Church), Hill's Creek, Henderson's Chapel, Laurel Grove, Lebanon (Glades), Marshall Grove (no longer in existence), Millican Grove, Mt. Olives (in the Wilhoit area, now independent), New Era, New Salem, Olden's Creek (Oldham's Creek), Powder Springs (disbanded), Providence, Rocky Grove (now independent), Sevierville (now First Baptist Church Sevierville), White Oak Flats (now First Baptist Church Gatlinburg), Wear's Cove (now First Baptist Church Wear's Valley), and Walnut Grove. 16

One of Zion Hill's former pastors, P. M. Atchley, was appointed to serve on a committee to prepare a Constitution and Articles of Faith for the association. The committee presented these documents to the messengers and they were adopted. (see appendix) The meeting also stressed the importance of Christian education, so an educational commission was formed "to select a location, secure funds, erect suitable buildings, secure teachers and take all other steps necessary to establish and conduct a first-class High School in Sevier County." William Ingle was chosen to represent Zion Hill on this committee. Another recommendation was passed for each church to appoint one or more Missionary Agents to secure funds for purchasing the gospel to give to the lost. 17

From this organizational meeting, an Executive Committee of seven men was chosen to provide colportage, collect mission money, provide mission information, and plan four Fifth Sunday training meetings per year. These meetings, called "Worker's Meetings of Sevier Association," were to be held in churches across the county, including Zion Hill. 18

One of the most visible efforts of the association was the colportage work. In the 1880's, colporteurs traveled on horseback to carry literature to Association churches and to promote Sunday Schools. They also took offerings to buy Bibles to give to people who could not afford Bibles. It was the desire of the colporteur that every family in the Sevier Association have a copy of the Word of God. P. M. Atchley was chosen the first colporteur for the association. 19

From this seemingly simple beginning, Zion Hill would continue to grow and reach the community for the Lord. Great things had begun! As the psalmist wrote: "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful: But his delight is in the law of the Lord: and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season: his leaf also shall not wither: and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper" (Psalm 1:1-3). These first thirteen years of Zion Hill Baptist Church were indeed a time to plant and begin to watch the seeds of faith take root for future generations.

Endnotes for Chapter One

1. 1870 Population Census
2. First local paper, The Sevierville Enterprise, published first edition June 1, 1882.
3. Dockter, Albert T. As related by Ella Floyd Tarwater, "A Civil War Story." Smoky Mountain Historical Society Newsletter (hereafter "SMHSN") Vol. XI, No. 3, p. 78-79.
4. Information taken from cemetery markers in Zion Hill Cemetery. Thomas' military service was spent in East Tennessee. Pitner was in Greeneville, TN, when Gen. John Hunt Morgan was killed and was in Salisbury, NC, April 12, 1865, at the end of the war. From records of their military companies, research done by Clyde Minton.
5. Cummings, Joe, "Community and the Nature of Change: Sevier County, Tennessee, in the 1890s" East Tennessee Historical Society Journal, [Vol./year not indicated], 70-71.
6. Bolin, Gary, "Charter Members of Old Sugar Loaf Baptist Church", SMHSN, Vol. XXI, No. 2, p. 11. Williams, Bobbie Jo, In the Beginning: A History of Sevier County Association of Baptists Church Beginnings, pp. 21 & 57.
7. Williams, 155.
8. Ibid. Committee, Sevier County, Tennessee, and Its Heritage, 1994, p. 66.
9. Smoky Mountain Historical Society, Gentle Winds of Change, 1989, p. 154. Helton, J. L., History of Shiloh Baptist Church, 1874-1974, unpublished document, p. 2. Horn, Maude, Atchley Family History, 1965, p. 49. [Haggard was born 1824 to James & Mary Atchley Haggard. He married Sarah Randolph. Their children were Mary, W. H., Margaret, Eliza, John, James, Elijah, & Jane.]
10. Information taken from cemetery marker in Zion Hill Cemetery.
11. Helton, p. 2.
12. Burnett, J. J., Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers, 1919, pp. 30-31.
13. Burnett, pp. 31-32. [Atchley passed away June 14, 1910, and was buried in the Alder Branch Cemetery. All ten of his children preceded him in death, seven dying in infancy.]
14. Burnett, pp. 326-327; SMHS, Vol. IX, No. 2, p. 42.
15. Burnett, pp. 326-327. [Benjamin & Mary Langston had one child, Sarah, who married H. H. Ogle. Langston died February 17, 1903, and was buried at Knob Creek Cemetery beside his wife.]
16. Proceedings of Convention and Organization of Sevier Association, 1887, pp. 3-4, (hereafter referred to as "Proceedings").
17. Proceedings, pp. 4, 12, 16, 17. 1892 Sevier Association Minutes. [The school established was called Smoky Mountain Academy.]
18. Proceedings, pp. 11, 14.
19. Ibid.

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