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.