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.