I recently came across a listing of nine churches in Johnson City  in 1908, which was three years after the devastating downtown fire. The find reveals a lot of key information about these places of worship:

1. First Baptist Church: the “Little White Church”): E. Main Street; Rev. Clarence Hodge, Pastor; Pastorium, 111 Harris Avenue; Sunday School, 9:15 a.m.; Preaching, 10:30 a.m.  and 7:30 p.m.; BYPU (Baptist Young Peoples Union), 6:30 p.m.; Prayer Meeting, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. The church relocated after the fire to Watauga Avenue and eventually to Roan Street where it acquired a new name: Central Baptist Church.

2. Christian Church: E. Main Street; Rev. J. Lem Keevil, Pastor; residence, 209 Buffalo Street; Bible School, Communion and Sermon at 10:30 a.m.; YPSCE (Young People's Society of Christian Endeavor) at 6:30 p.m.; Preaching 7:30 p.m.; Prayer Meeting, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

3. St. John's Church (Episcopal): Roan Street and Myrtle Avenue; Rector, Rev. W.H. Osborne; Rectory, 208 Unaka Avenue; Services: Eastertide Ladies' Guild, 2 p.m.; St. Mary's Guild, Thursday, 2 p.m.; St. Andrew's Brotherhood, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.;, Sunday, 7 a.m., Early Celebration: 9:15 a.m. Sunday; Sunday School, 10:30 a.m.; morning prayer and sermon, Friday, 7:30 p.m. instruction; 8:00 p.m., choir practice.

Methodist Episcopal Church

4. First Methodist Episcopal Church: Corner of Main (frontage) and Roan streets (side); Pastor, Rev. A.S. Beaman; Parsonage, 100 S. Roan Street; Sunday School, 9 a.m.; Preaching, 10:30 a.m.; Epworth League, 6:30 p.m.; Evening Preaching, 7:30 p.m.; Prayer Meeting, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. (Older people may remember this location as the old King's Department Store).

5. Market Street M.E. Church, South:  Rev. S.H. Vaughn, D.D. Pastor; Parsonage, corner of E. Market and S. Roan Streets; Preaching, 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday School, 9 a.m.; Epworth League meets 45 minutes before evening preaching;, Prayer Meeting, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

6. First Presbyterian Church: Corner Main and Humboldt streets (street now defunct, once located south from Main Street and one block west of the railroad); Rev; J. Edmunds Brown, Pastor; manse at 116 Watauga Avenue; Sunday School; 9:15 a.m.; Preaching, 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; C.E. 6:45 p.m.; Prayer Meeting, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

7. United Brethren in Christ: Church and Parsonage, corner Roan Street and Watauga Ave.; Rev. C.H. Berry, Pastor; Sunday School, 9:15; Preaching 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; YPSCE at 6:30 p.m.; Prayer and Bible Study; Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

8. Watauga Avenue Presbyterian Church: Rev. Jere A, Moore, Pastor; manse at 606 E. Watauga Avenue; Sunday School, 9:20 a. m.; Preaching, 10:45 a.m.; C.E., 7:30 p.m.; Prayer Meeting. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

9. Catholic Church: Mission House, (behind Science Hill High School on E. Market Street); first Sunday of every month; Mass and Catechism, 10:30 a.m.; Benediction, 3 p.m.; E.T. Callahan, Mission Priest. 

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Recently, I wrote about a grievous fire on May 5, 1905 that decimated the businesses in the rectangular block between E. Main, Spring, Jobe and Roan streets. The amazing occurrence was when flames approached the wooden “Little White Church,” but then made an abrupt diversion from it leaving the building unscathed. Many people saw it as a miracle of God.

Little White Baptist Church That Once Stood on E. Main Street and Spared from a Terrible Fire

Today's column photo depicts the First Baptist Church, as it appeared in that era. According to a booklet, “History of Central Baptist Church, Johnson City, Tennessee in Celebration of the 100th Anniversary, 1869-1969,” the structure stood at 222-26 E. Main, the location later becoming Sterchi Brothers Stores. 

In spite of the awe-inspiring sight, the fire prompted many church members to question the logic of having a house of worship situated in the heart of the town's business district.

By 1907, the members joined in the organization of a new church which would meet in a school building located at the corner of Roan Street and Watauga Avenue, a site that would eventually be the location of the Almeda Apartments. The new church, known as the Roan Street Baptist Church, was constituted May 8 of that year with 102 charter members.

During the three-year period of separation from 1907-10, there was an ever-growing sentiment that a mistake had been made. Neither congregation was financially able to build a house of worship that would be an honor to the denomination. With rapidly increasing population in that area and Baptists coming from various parts of the country, the responsibility was even greater.

These realizations prompted both churches to act simultaneously. On April 6, 1910, a committee from First Baptist Church was appointed to meet with a similar committee from Roan Street Baptist Church for the purpose of working out detains subsequent to a union of the two church into a new organization, to be perfected on the night of April 21, 1910.

The meeting was held and the agreement was perfected, This agreement was in substance: 1. That all property held by the trustees of the First and Roan Street Baptist churches be transferred to the trustees of the consolidated church. 2. That the new church take steps at the earliest possible date after organization to build a modern house of worship on the Isaac Harr or the G.M. Sitton lot, both of which are located on North Roan Street. 3. That the new church have a board of 12 deacons consisting of the present deacons of the two churches. 4. That there be five trustees consisting of I.A. Bittle, B.D. Akard, Aldine Swadley, C.E. Cargille, and S.E. Bayless. 5. That J.W. Houtz would be church clerk and T.A. Tittle, church treasurer.

Both churches were in session on April 21, 1910 and adopted this agreement. The trustees of the First Church and those of the Roan Street Church were authorized, ordered, empowered, and directed to transfer all property owned by each church to the trustees of the new organization, which was to be known as Central Baptist Church of Johnson City, Tennessee.

The Roan Street church building was retained as a place of worship until the new church house could be constructed. The Rev. Tom Davis, who had been pastor of the Roan Street congregation was elected pastor of the new organization.

The Isaac Harr lot was purchased on July 2, 1910 for the sum of $5,000, $1,750 cash in hand and notes payable in two years for the remainder of the purchase price.

In the early spring of 1912, the corner stone for the new house of worship was laid. One year later, the congregation moved into the new church house, Although it was not entirely completed, it was a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving by the congregation. Central Baptist Church was incorporated on Sept. 3, 1912.

My grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Earl B. Cox, were wed in 1911 and became early members of that church.

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In 1928, two evangelists came to Johnson City to lead pre-announced revivals. The first one was Winston-Salem, North Carolina evangelist, Edward Fraser, who arrived on September 13 with a sermon he titled, “Weeds – Spiritual and Physical.” He rented land for his tent meeting on East Market Street opposite the Colonial Hotel (at about the location of today’s Colonial Way, see attached photo).

The message was a demonstration of practical Christianity. Before the gathering, Fraser lead a group of men in an effort to convert the unsightly weed covered lot where the meeting was to be held into a neat, well-groomed lawn. The effort was consistent with the desires of the Appalachian Publishers and the Chamber of Commerce to rid the city of weeds before the forthcoming visit to the city by Herbert Hoover and also the annual Appalachian Fair.

Citizens witnessed firsthand how quickly an eyesore could be converted into something attractive. The effort was twofold – cleaning an unkempt lot and providing an illustration for his upcoming message.

Mayor William Barton; Sam R. Sells, president of the Chamber of Commerce; and members of the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs were invited to participate to display their full support to eradicate weeds. A picture of the lot was taken before and after it was cleared and manicured.

Fraser asked those who had worked on the lot not only to attend the meeting the next night but to also bring their scythe and Bible with them. The meeting began promptly at 7:45 with an appropriate song – “Bringing in the Sheaves,” an analogy between harvest time in the fields of grain and the spiritual harvest of souls as a result of diligent sowing and reaping. When the meeting rolled around, the evangelist delivered his gospel message,” asking his congregation to clean up their lives both physically and spiritually.

Left: Gipsy Smith Ad; Right: The vacant lot can be seen in this photo.

The second evangelist that came to Johnson City was the well-known “Gipsy” Smith who conducted evangelistic campaigns in the United States and Great Britain for over 70 years. He arrived in the city on October 12. His focus was a bit different from Fraser’s. Long before he came to town, he had his followers organize small group gatherings in people’s homes, known as “cottage prayer meetings” to pray for the upcoming revival.

The ladies of Johnson City eagerly volunteered their homes, forming assemblies that averaged from 20 to 24 women. Each meeting was held from 10:00 to 10:30 a.m. The 33 ladies (and their residents) who volunteering their homes represented many prominent families from yesteryear:

Mrs. Ross Spears (312 East Holston Avenue), Mrs. Sam Sells (Sunset Hill), Mrs. Henry Blackwell (1305 Baxter Street), Mrs. Will Blevins (1204 E. Holston Avenue), Mrs. Charles Piston (Oakland Gardens), Mrs. S.G. Henson (310 E. Fairview Avenue), Mrs. Fred Lyle (615 E. Fairview Avenue), Mrs. L.M. Snapp (Lafayette Apartments, 302 W. Main), Mrs. Sam O’Dell (215 W. Holston Avenue), Mrs. L.E. Faulk (201 W. Holston Avenue), Mrs. D.E. Fine (301 Lamont Street), …

Mrs. Sue Miller (502 Highland Avenue), Mrs. Sam Collins (300 Fall Street), Mrs. J.F. Templeton (102 E. Unaka Avenue), Mrs. H.C. Beasley (106 E. Myrtle Avenue), Mrs. Harry Lyle (100 West Pine Street), Mrs. Neal A. Beasley (315 W. Poplar Street), Mrs. N.H. Dickson (1415 S. Roan Street), Mrs. Hughes Peters (804 Grover Street), Mrs. L.F. Sage (516 W. Main Street), Mrs. J.L. Jillin (310 Wilson Avenue), Mrs. F. Wilton (425 Hamilton Street), …

Mrs. St. Clair (303 Hamilton Street), Mrs. J.L. Hankins (920 W. Maple Street), Mrs. E.O. Woodyard (717 W. Pine Street), Mrs. Charles Dickey (412 W. Maple Street), Mrs. Frank Taylor (312 W. Pine), Mrs. A.J. Davis (511 W. Locust Street), Mrs. McFadden (216 Tacoma Avenue), Mrs. Frank Graham (200 W. Watauga), Mrs. Andy Lanless (1007 Grover Street), Mrs. John Cox (1207 Alton Street) and Mrs. Will Archer (907 Claiborne Street). 

If you recognize a family member or friend in the list, please send me an e-mail or letter.

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On Friday, March 26, 1909, Munsey Memorial M.E. Church South began a new venture that they named Munsey Club. According to J.O. Lewis, secretary of the city’s Commercial Club, several pieces of workout equipment were acquired. They included popular Whitley exercisers that were attached to the walls at regular intervals, dumbbells, punching bags and Indian clubs.

The latter devices, resembling small wooden polished baseball bats, became popular in ancient times as a way for soldiers to prepare for combat by strengthening their upper torsos. The user held a club in each hand and swung them in a sequence of gracefully coordinated motions.

The entire cement floor basement of the facility was utilized for the club. It was finished in white that included a thick coat of white enamel over the walls, allowing them to be washed frequently. Surprisingly, the club never closed and membership was open to anyone who wished to join.

The organizers planned and executed an informative and entertaining open house program at the church for the more that 300 people who attended. At 7:30 p.m., J.M. Ferguson, president of Munsey Club, called for order and introduced Reverend James A. Ruble, a chaplain at Soldiers Home) who opened with an invocation.

Next came a progression of presenters that included a piano duet by J.A. Cargille (photographer) and Fred Peoples; a recitation by Mrs. W.B. Johnson, who had a reputation as an elocutionist; a solo rendering in “a very sweet voice and manner” by Mrs. Charles R. Cargille (Cargille Art Gallery); a violin piece by Frank Gilmer; a harp and song duet from Masters Charles Broyles and Garnet Vaught; an excellent rendition of “The Bells” by Miss Nugent; quartette singing from Messrs. Charles and Walter Cargille, Joe M. Horton (chief clerk, S&W Railroad) and D.R. Yarborough; an inspiring 10-minute talk from James Robert Gardner (attorney, clerk and master of Chancery Court); and a humorous song adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem, “On the Road to Mandalay,” by Arthur Earnest. 

The church pastor, Reverend Sidney B. Vaught, brought the meeting to a close with a few final remarks and a plea for donations to purchase furniture and equipment for the new facility. Following Mr. Vaught, Samuel Cole Williams (noted Tennessee historian who donated land and financing for Mayne Williams Public Library) adressed the audience, commending the organization and its potential positive influence on the community. The meeting concluded with a song and a benediction.

Membership quickly grew for the club. Professor Hough immediately acquired a number of pupils for his night school, resulting in the employment of several experienced instructors. The enthusiastic show of approval for the club further resulted in two shower baths being installed and an organized endeavor to collect books for a library. After Mrs. Frank B. St. John (wife of a local real estate agent) was put in charge of the ladies’ branch of the club, a special day was designated for them. 

On October 1, 1911, Reverend Vaught preached his farewell sermon, using as his theme, “A Young Man with a Conscience.” He became a financial agent for Emory and Henry College and retired from active service as a minister. During his brief term as Munsey’s pastor, church membership increased by 357 members, bringing the total to 669. The congregation raised $50,000 to pay expenses for a new church edifice costing $45,000. 

I have fond memories of swimming in Munsey’s indoor pool in the 1950s (one hour for 50 cent), diving for rubber rings in the deep end, shooting basketball and eating at their snack bar. If anyone knows the dates when the pool was in use at the church, please let me know by e-mail. I suspect it was many years after the club opened. 

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Wallace Britton, historian of Central Baptist Church, is working with the church’s massive archival collection for inclusion into a forthcoming book. Britton served as Minister of Education and Administration at the church from mid 1960 until late 1967. He credits the late Lona Holtz Akard, the church’s life-long historian, for archiving the church’s anthology.

Wallace offered a sampling from the storied archives that contain three fading, fragile, handwritten books of church business minutes. Over time, he meticulously transcribed each one, word for word, without any alterations.

Records indicate that Central Baptist Church began as First Baptist Church on July 3, 1869, the same year that Johnson City was incorporated. Asa Routh was pastor aided by Martin V. Noffsinger, an employee of Holston Baptist Church. In that era, it was customary to change pastors about every year. They received $100 a year for preaching one Sunday a month. Charter members included A. Carr, Jessee Duncan, Sarah Duncan, Phoebe Duncan, Rachael Duncan, D.A. Edwards, Susan Duncan, Perline Edwards, S.A.F. Edwards, Sarah Carr, C.W. Carr, Catherine Carr, Levina Carr, Sarah E. Carr, Joseph F. Carr, Elizabeth Rice, Henry Price, Susan C. Price and Nannie Landreth.

Meetings were held in the First Presbyterian Church on W. Main for the first 12 years. In the first worship service, Rev. Routh preached a message from Matthew 16:18, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” In May 1881, worship services were conducted on the second story of Science Hill High School on Roan Street. For the first time, a Sunday School was organized with 17 members in attendance.

Desiring a permanent building of its own, the FBC soon purchased property at 224 E. Main Street (future Sterchi Furniture Co. site) from Colonel Reeves for $100. The 34 x 50 foot “Little White Church,” as it became known, was built at a cost of $2010.50. Pastor Thomas Hiter Crouch, the 6th pastor, led the first worship service in the new structure in April 1883. J. A. Cargille was superintendent.

A letter submitted by the church to the Holston Associationmeeting at Buffalo Ridge revealed interesting statistics: “Increased by letter 8, baptisms 7, excluded 7, dismissed 3. Amount spent for minutes $1.15. We have our church house nearly completed. We have an indebtedness of something near $500. We have a flourishing Sunday School with an enrollment of 140, average attendance of 75. Paid out for literature $14.60. Home Missions $5.”

In 1890, new pews were procured and a baptistery was installed. Prior to this, the ordinance of baptism was administered at Brush Creek Campground on W. Watauga on Sunday afternoons. Two church members, Mr. R.C. Hunter and Mrs. Dora Cargille Sproles are believed to be two of the last people baptized in the creek.

Friday, May 5, 1905 was a heartrending day for the populace of Johnson City. A devastating fire broke out along the south side of East Main between Roan and Spring streets, destroying everything in its path with one exception – the “Little White Church.” Many people deemed it a miracle of God while others questioned attending a church in the heart of the growing business district.

The church was essentially undamaged except for paint blister and smoke discoloration. Britton related a humorous story. At the next business meeting conducted by Pastor J.H. Snow, a plan was developed to refresh the church’s exterior. The men voted to let the women paint the church and pay the expenses. Over time, the church outgrew its facility. A strong debate divided the church as to whether to expand or relocate.  

On May 1, 1907, about 100 disgruntled members were granted letters of dismissal from the “Little White Church.” They quickly formed a new place of worship in the former Lusk School on the southeast corner of E. Watauga and N. Roan (future site of the Almeda Apartments). It became known as Roan Street Baptist Church with Tom Davis as pastor.

Wallace related an amusing story about the second church. People rode horse and ox drawn carts to town to do business on Saturdays. Many people parked their animals on a lot adjacent to the church. During the next business meeting, the church appointed a member as chairman of a committee whose job it was to arrive early on Sunday mornings to remove droppings from the lot.

Between 1907and 1910, both congregations needed larger facilities, but neither was financially able to build. They decided to reunite in 1910 and construct a new larger building at a site about equidistance between them. Church leaders narrowed their search to two lots, one owned by Isaac Harr and the other by G.M. Sitton. Both were ideally situated on N. Roan. They chose the Harr property and acquired it for $5000, requiring $1750 cash payment and notes to pay off the debt in two years.

The assets of both churches were transferred to the trustees of the new organization known as Central Baptist Church. The membership consisted of 510 people. The Main Street property was sold for $10,000. Tom Davis became the first pastor of the third church. Services were held at Roan Street Baptist Church until the new facility could be built. The cornerstone was laid in early spring 1912 and one year later the congregation moved into their impressive new building.

May Ross McDowell recalled that on Dec. 26, 1930 fire struck the church. Unlike the fire of 1905, the building was heavily damaged requiring extensive rebuilding. In spite of this being during the Great Depression, work began immediately to restore it. The ensuing loan became a burden on the ministry for several years. While work was being done, the congregation met for 10 months at Junior High School. During this time, a baptistry was added and a secondhand organ was purchased. In 1946, the church purchased Carillonic Bells.

Over the years, CBC spawned several area churches: Snow’s Chapel, Temple, Midway, Unaka Avenue, Clark Street, North Johnson City and Southwestern. Today, a drive by 300 N. Roan Street exemplifies the prophetic words offered by Rev. Routh on June 3, 1869 at the church’s first service. 

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 I have many fond memories of patronizing Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church’s now defunct swimming pool and adjacent snack bar in the 1950s. It was the only indoor public pool in town, which meant you could go there year round. The cost was a mere $.50 an hour. I learned to swim at this pool from an instructor who wore a bathing suit but never got in the water, opting instead to tutor us from poolside. 

Don Sluder sent me several notes addressing this once popular aquatic attraction. He indicated it had been closed for quite some time because of decaying equipment and high cost of bringing it back to standards. For years, the area was used as for storage, but now has been converted to five new classrooms from the pool area and one large one in the big room.

“The pool opened in about 1950 when I was in Junior High School,” said Don. “Mack Sutherland, a Munsey church member and Junior High School shop teacher was in charge of the newly created recreation area. He hired me to open the pool after school and to assist at evening sessions. One of the most popular features of the new facility was the inclusion of basketball goals on each side of the pool. Every night saw heated games. The pool area also featured a snack bar where we served soft drinks, soups, candy and other items. The gym room at the end of the hall had a single basketball goal and usually found most of the Science Hill basketball players battling it out in half-court games most nights. Also popular was the weight room where serious weight lifters, both body builders and those after lifting records, could be found every night.”

Don recalls when Paul Anderson, Olympic weightlifter and holder of the world dead weight record, and other area lifters could be found working out at Munsey. He said they often did not have enough weights in the small area for the horde of musclemen who crowded into it. He remembered when Paul was a regular in the 1950s at Science Hill basketball games next door, always wearing a T-shirt that looked like he had been poured into it. His neck was enormous. There was another person of that era that inspired me,” said Don. “His name was Bob Peoples. My Dad told me about Bob and drove me by his house in the Central Community of Elizabethton. He and my Dad were about the same age and went to elementary school together.”

Don researched Bob Peoples and found that the stories his Dad told him were factual. Bob was also known as the “world's strongest man,” holding the record for deadweight lifting for many years. He became the mentor of Paul Anderson. Bob is recognized as the person who designed and built many of the apparatus used in today's modern gymnasiums. He did it in his basement that Paul referred to as the “dungeon” or outside on his farm. Bob was lesser known than Paul but equally impressive. Remarkably, the weightlifter weighed just over 180 pounds but could lift in excess of 700 pounds.

In 1949, Bob gave a weightlifting performance sponsored by the Red Shield Boys Club in the old City Hall auditorium. He became involved in civic affairs and served in several capacities. He received many professional awards for his lifting ability. Peoples was very scientific about his sport and wrote numerous articles and even a book. He called on his old lifting buddy, Paul Anderson, to write the introduction to the work.

Thanks Don for prodding our memories of Munsey pool, Paul Anderson and Bob Peeples. 

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Last February, I wrote about the tri-city Preaching Mission that faithfully came to Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol annually in February for an 8-day convention between 1955 and 1986. Recently, I located supplementary material about it.

Feb. 13, 1955, the inaugural day of the Mission, was typical East Tennessee mid-winter weather. In spite of this, a large number of folks turned out in all three cities. Johnson City led the pack with an attendance of 3,000 participants that night at ETSC’s (later ETSU) Memorial Gymnasium and 1000 at noon the next day at the Tennessee Theatre. This outpouring of excitement set the tone for the week.

Highly recognized speakers on the agenda included Dr. Dan Poling, editor of Christian Herald magazine; Dr. Walter Judd, Minnesota congressman and a former medical missionary; Congressman Brooks Hays of Arkansas, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and Dr. Charles Allen, Grace Methodist Church in Atlanta. A newspaper write-up said the meetings produced inspired and challenging messages. Dr. Allen became a crowd favorite and consequently was invited to future missions.

A year later, several Elizabethton church leaders asked that their town be added as well, prompting a name change to Appalachian Preaching Mission. In addition, three other cities jumped on the bandwagon – Erwin, Jonesboro and Greeneville. Erwin eventually formed a Mission of its own.

By 1957, the four cities had a combined weekly attendance of 79,927, with Johnson City leading at 36,850. A year later, the total topped 85,000. Johnson City continued to lead with 38,102.

The Johnson City Press-Chronicle offered continuous editorial support, citing the potential for spiritual as well as civic and social growth. George Kelly of the Press-Chronicle once wrote, “People truly drawn together by spiritual bonds are likely to be drawn together in other ways that count.”

The annual mid-winter services became a habit regardless of weather conditions. The ETSU gym was often filled to capacity. At noon, it seemed as if the whole town had closed and flocked to the Tennessee Theatre. The Preaching Mission became a high priority event, often taking precedence over other city happenings. It was advertised well in advance with the admonition, “Clear your calendar.”

Over the years, other recognized speakers traveled the four-city circuit, some accepting little or no pay: Gov. Theodore McKeldin of Maryland; Dr. Louis Evans, First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood; Dr. Duke McCall, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville; Dr. Harold C. Ockenga, Park Street Church, Boston; Dr. Charles Ray Goff, Chicago Temple; Dr. C. Oscar Johnson, former president of Baptist World Alliance; Dr. Pierce Harris, First Methodist Church, Atlanta; Dr. James DeForest Murch, editor of Christianity Today; Dr. Andy Holt, president of the University of Tennessee; Dr. Theodore Adams, president of the Baptist World Alliance; Dr. Robert C. Shannon, First Christian Church, Largo, Florida; and Rev. Bob Richards, San Diego Church of the Brethren.

In 1961, the Mission moved to April to address the concerns of ice and snow. Initially, all seemed to go well with the first night’s attendance at 3600 and the second one at 4000.

Nevertheless, the date was moved back to February at a new venue – the recently built Science Hill High School gymnasium. From there, it was relocated to Freedom Hall in the 1970s where it remained until its demise in 1986.   

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An old diary that I kept in 1957 shows this entry for Feb. 10: “Today, the Preaching Mission starts out at the college.” That brief memoir reminded me of the annual February event that I attended at ETSU’s Memorial Gym for several years in the 1950s.

The inspiration for the Preaching Mission was conceived in 1955 at the Snack Bar at 146 W. Main, next to the Tennessee Theatre and opposite First Presbyterian Church. The eatery was a favorite with downtown workers and shoppers. Dr. Ferguson Wood, pastor of First Presbyterian Church and George Kelly, editor of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, were among the regulars on that heavy overcast 1954 wintry morning. The men discussed what they perceived to be a wave of skepticism hovering over the city, causing a lack of cooperation among civic leaders.

The chat soon switched to the subject of Bristol’s “Preaching Mission,” a citywide revival meeting not aligned with any specific church or denomination. A special committee selected well-known clergymen and laymen as speakers. The two men felt that Johnson City sorely needed something comparable. Dr. Wood and Mr. Kelly envisioned a mission that encompassed three cities instead of one with speakers simultaneously rotating among Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol. The 8-day Sunday-to-Sunday affair would be named the “Tri-Cities Preaching Mission.”

Kelly returned to his newspaper office and penned an article for the paper that introduced and promoted the concept, which he deemed would have a profound inspirational effect on citizens of the surrounding community. Dr. Wood left the café and scheduled a meeting to present the concept to the Johnson City Ministerial Association. He won instant approval with the group and then approached the Bristol mission officers to get their reaction to the expanded idea. They too were in favor of it.

Col. Lee B. Harr, director of the VA Center, known for his ability to get things accomplished, was added to the team and immediately lived up to expectations by eagerly promoting the idea with area folks. The next step was a meeting of Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol leaders. In attendance from Johnson City were Rev. E.B. Jeffers, president of the Ministerial Association and pastor of Otterbine Church of the Brethren; Rev. M.S. Kinchloe, First Methodist Church; Rev. Howard T. Rich, Unaka Avenue Baptist Church; and Dr. Wood.

Dr. Thomas A. Fry, pastor of Bristol’s’ First Presbyterian Church, presented the concept to the group and obtained their approval. They further agreed that each city would have a committee to direct local activities. Dr. Fry was elected area chairman.

The well thought out plan called for two speakers in each of the three cities for evening services and one for noon ones. The night speakers would move from city to city, while the noon ones would remain stationary at one location. Evening services in Johnson City were held at ETSC’s Memorial Gym and midday ones at the Tennessee Theater, adjacent to the café where the idea was conceived.

The Preaching Mission opened its doors on Feb. 13, 1955 at the same time that a cold wave of frigid air blanketed the area bringing snow and limiting attendance. Adverse weather conditions in the city would soon become known as “Preaching Mission Weather.”

The annual religious meetings drew large crowds between 1955 and 1980, but in the early 1980s attendance began to wane significantly. After attempts to revive it that included changing venues failed, the organizers closed the book on it following the Feb. 1986 meeting, ending a 31-year run.   

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Area folks were saddened recently to hear about the passing of Knoxville’s blind gospel music icon, J. Bazzel Mull (1914-2006).

About 1957, I routinely tuned my radio to the “Mull Singing convention of the Air” over WLAC in Nashville. The program regularly featured my favorite gospel group, the Chuck Wagon Gang. Preacher Mull, a grandson of circuit-riding preacher, Wallace B. Mull, opened his program with these memorable words, spoken in his distinctively gravely voice: “Howdy neighbor. This is your old friend J. Bazzel Mull,” to which his wife, Elizabeth, would reply “and Mrs. Mull.”

Mull would often say something over the air and solicit confirmation from his wife by asking her, “Ain’t that right, Lady Mull?” Her response was always, “That’s right.” Pastor Mull’s signature signoff to conclude his program was “Thanks for your time, at this time, until next time.” Mull’s blindness resulted from a fall into an open fireplace at age 11. Lady Mull assisted her husband in the studio by announcing song selections and cueing records.

The preacher’s affiliation with Johnson City began in early 1940 when he came here to conduct a revival at a Baptist church in the vicinity of Fall Street. The evangelist and his younger brother, Romulus, a talented singer, guitar player and pianist, soon took up residence in the city, moving from Burke County, NC.

The Elbert and Gladys Bowman family became acquainted with the Mull brothers after inviting them to have supper with them at their E. Unaka home. Mull then extended an invitation to the three oldest Bowman brothers  – Weldon, Jake and Buddy, all accomplished vocalists – to sing at his evangelistic meetings.

Weldon recalled his joyful association with the famed preacher: “I was only about 18 years old when the three of us began singing at his gospel music crusades. I often became his ‘eyes’ by reading the Bible to him. He amazed me with how much scripture he could remember. He later gave me a Bible for assisting him in his ministry. I kept in touch with Pastor Mull over the years, usually calling him on his birthday and during the Christmas holidays. He did so much good for people during his lifetime.”

By about 1941, Mull moved to Knoxville where his ministry was aided by successful grocer and politician, Cas Walker. Romulus joined the Air Force and died in a prisoner of war camp in 1944. During his lifetime, Mull owned four Tennessee radio stations and was heard over numerous radio and TV facilities. During one radio broadcast, some pranksters rigged the studio sound system to trick Mull into believing that a popular song being heard in the booth was accidentally being broadcast over the air.

The Reverend organized several churches in North Carolina and Tennessee, including being pastor of Oak Grove Baptist Church in the Boones Creek community for a few months in 1947.

Today, the Bowman Family’s four younger brothers – Jim, Ray, Tony and Robert – occasionally dress up and perform a hilarious “musicomedy” imitation of the Mulls, followed by their robust singing of the Chuck Wagon Gang’s “Higher We Climb Every Day.”

On behalf of all East Tennesseans, let me offer heartfelt thanks to our old friends … “J. Bazzel Mull” … “and Mrs. Mull” … for your time, at this time, until next time. And thats right, Lady Mull” 

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