Nestled between the Cumberland Mountain Plateau and the Great Smoky Mountains of the Appalachian chain is the vast and verdant valley of East Tennessee. Some of the most breathtaking scenery in America can be found in this region. The landscape is sprawling with densely wooded hills, and, in summer, lush, green foliage. During autumn all the greenery explodes into a patchwork of brilliant reds, golds, and oranges. Wintertime brings abundant rainfall but reaps its reward in spring when the entire countryside becomes a fantasyland of flowering shrubs and trees with the legendary dogwood predominating.
In the midst of the population of this beautiful valley are several thousand members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all belonging to the Knoxville Tennessee Stake.
Knoxville Stake has 2,750 members and covers an area of 13,750 square miles. The stake is comprised of ten independent units: Knoxville First and Second Wards, Chattanooga First and Second Wards, Oak Ridge Ward, and the Crossville, Morristown, Maryville, Jamestown, and LaFollette branches; and three dependent units: Rockwood, South Chattanooga, and Athens. Chapels have been built in Oak Ridge, Chattanooga, Morristown, Jamestown, and Crossville with the stake center in Knoxville.
Stake President Eugene H. Perkins says, “Even though we are small in population, we are moving forward at a much accelerated rate. Our public image has changed dramatically, and the respect we have now was unheard of ten years ago. We’re accepted and a credit to the communities we live in.”
Stake membership includes native East Tennesseans as well as “transplants.” “Transplants” are those who have migrated to Tennessee after accepting employment in the area. They are usually natives of one of the Mormon settlements of Utah, Idaho, or California.
We therefore have a blend of the South and the West in Knoxville Stake, and despite the difference in backgrounds, the general feeling is one of tremendous pride in each other.
One member of the Knoxville Stake who is unmistakably a native East Tennessean is Leila Anderson. Her broad, Southern drawl and folksy colloquialisms give her away immediately. She calls herself a hillbilly, but actually she is a noted poet and writer of the area. The events of Sister Anderson’s baptism into the Church in 1948 were unusual.
“It all began when two very tired but cheerful missionaries decided to ‘try just one more house’ and mine looked inviting,” she recalls. “They brought the truth I had been searching for all my life.” After a short time, Sister Anderson was invited to witness a baptism. She walked five miles to a little creek. At that time there were about fifteen families in the Knoxville Branch and R. C. Eggers was the branch president.
The little group stood on the creek bank, offered prayer, sang, and then the elders began to baptize. Sister Anderson continues with her testimony: “The night before I had had a dream. In the dream, I stood on the bank of a river, and on the bottom of the river were beautiful colored jewels. I was covered with a white cloth. A voice said to me: ‘Enter the water and you shall find the jewels.’ This dream came to mind the next morning and again at the water’s edge. Just before the last prayer was to be said, I waded into the water wearing a brown dress and said, ‘Here I am, baptize me!’ The elders looked at President Eggers, who nodded approval. I was interviewed in the water and then baptized. A year later my husband, Charles, also joined the Church.
“One day, after many years of service in the Church, I went to the mission president, Frank Brown, and asked to be rebaptized. He asked me why and I told him I had been baptized in a brown dress in a muddy creek and would like it done right. He asked me the usual interview questions and I answered them positively. I shall never forget his beautiful smile. ‘Forget it, Sister Anderson,’ he said, ‘I wish we had a million like you!’
“I am glad I have seen other members of my family accept the gospel. I rejoiced to see twenty-three of my relatives join the Church in one year. I have a testimony that Jesus is the Christ. I have truly found the ‘jewels’ in my dream by accepting the gospel—I have found a Pearl of Great Price!”
Tennessee is rich in early American history. It was the home of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, hardy woodsmen who blazed the trails for settlers going west. Two presidents of the United States, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson, lived there.
The first permanent settlement in Tennessee was made in 1772 by a company of colonists from Virginia and North Carolina who settled along the Watauga River. Under the leadership of John Sevier and James Robertson, they drew up the first written constitution adopted west of the Allegheny Mountains.
The war between the states found the sympathies of the inhabitants of Tennessee divided. It was the last state to secede from the Union in 1861 and the first to be readmitted after the war. Next to Virginia, Tennessee was the chief battleground of the Civil War; 454 battles took place within its borders.
The gospel was first introduced into Tennessee by Elders David W. Patten and Warren Parrish in October 1834. These elders and others were met with much opposition and hardship. Throughout the 1800s, many were threatened and chased by armed mobs, some faced tar and feathering, others sustained severe beatings. There were two tragic incidents where missionaries were shot to death, and interestingly enough, the murderers of these elders were acquitted in each of the trials.
Despite these adversities, much progress was made between 1834 and 1850, and several small branches were organized. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote in his journal on Saturday, May 15, 1841, “Good news has recently reached us from Tennessee. … The Elders are baptizing in all directions.”
Just before the Civil War broke out, missionaries and many other members left the South for Utah; and it was not until several years after the close of the war that the mission was reopened. Elder Henry G. Boyle was set apart as president of the Southern States Mission in 1876.
Headquarters for the mission was in Nashville until 1882, when it was changed to Chattanooga, where it remained for approximately thirty-seven years. Besides being a mission headquarters, Chattanooga was a gathering point for new converts from the South who were emigrating to the West. Among those who served as mission presidents during the Chattanooga era were Elder J. Golden Kimball and his brother, Elias S. Kimball.
In 1919, the Southern States Mission headquarters was moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Then in 1928 East Tennessee became a part of the East Central States Mission. In 1970 it was changed to the Tennessee-Kentucky Mission. On July 1, 1975, Knoxville Stake began to be serviced by the Tennessee Nashville Mission.
The membership of the Church was scattered during the 1800s and early 1900s. As late as the 1930s, the only active members of the Church in Knoxville were a young man and his wife, Brother and Sister Marvin B. Greene. For a long time, they held Sunday School in their home with their small children. Gradually, more Saints began to settle in the area. On February 14, 1943, the Knoxville Branch was organized. For many years, the members met in private homes and rented halls. Dorothy Rankin, daughter of the Greenes, laughingly reminisces, “One hall we rented had to be aired out every Sunday morning. We’d throw open the windows, remove the spitoons, and sweep out the ashes before we could hold our services.”
During the 1950s, through vigorous fund-raising activities, the small band of Saints built their first chapel. They outgrew it during the 1960s and sold it to a group of orthopedic surgeons who now use it as a professional building.
The members purchased a new building site and after much physical labor and monetary sacrifice the Knoxville Chapel was dedicated October 23, 1967. Since the formation of the Knoxville Tennessee Stake in June 1972, the Knoxville Chapel has been the stake center.
Faith and optimism prevail throughout the stake today. When the Maryville Branch was divided from the Knoxville Second Ward, it took a good portion of the ward’s population. However, the members seemed to rally to the needs of the various auxiliaries and the work moved on. Bishop William H. Lloyd of the Second Ward comments, “We may be low in numbers right now, but there has been a marked increase in activity. Both the Maryville Branch and our ward have seen a dramatic rise in sacrament meeting attendance. We averaged 35 percent before the split-off; now we average 50 percent attendance. Also, we have doubled our activity night attendance. We now have 90 percent active participation of members enrolled.”
During 1974, Knoxville First Ward had a decline in membership and activity. In August of that year, a special day of fasting and prayer was observed. Within a year, the membership increased from 301 to 384. Bishop R. Lloyd Smith comments, “Numbers certainly are revealing, but we also had a definite increase in the activity and participation of the people.”
Although Chattanooga was the center of the Church in the South at one time and also the first organized branch in East Tennessee (August 21, 1932), it has only been in recent years that it has seen real growth. On July 26, 1975, the Chattanooga Chapel was dedicated by President Spencer W. Kimball.
Bishop Phil K. Smart of Chattanooga First Ward, a fourth-generation Mormon, commented, “I remember going to church as a youngster with less than a dozen people in the congregation. It was my dream to see a chapel built here someday. My dream not only came true, but I was able to participate in its construction and serve as a bishop, too.”
Chattanooga Second Ward was struggling and weak in December of 1974, according to Bishop Lloyd E. Trimble. One year later, attendance had increased 75 percent. In December 1975, a dependent branch, Chattanooga South, was split off with a membership equal in strength to the membership of the entire ward the year before.
The secret of this astounding success? Bishop Trimble answers, “We had been thinking small. Then we started thinking big. By implementing the programs ordained for us by our Heavenly Father, we have seen some remarkable things happen. The support of the members is outstanding. For instance, we needed $14,000 in August to begin another phase of our building program. The entire sum was donated within a seventeen-day period by forty-three families.”
The first meeting of Latter-day Saints in Oak Ridge was held in 1942 at the home of Eldred G. Smith, now Patriarch to the Church. He served as first branch president after its organization in April 1944.
Sister Iva Mae Posey, now a member of the Knoxville First Ward, was instrumental in getting the first missionaries into Oak Ridge in 1949. A part-time missionary herself, she was really dedicated to the cause. Brother Leo J. Brady, one of the “charter” members of the Oak Ridge Branch and a former district president, loves to tell this story on Sister Posey:
“Her missionary efforts were untiring. She would visit the hospital regularly, leaving missionary tracts and literature. One day she mixed up the pamphlets she was to leave at the hospital with those for a local barber shop. When she left the hospital and glanced at what she had been giving out to all the patients, she was terribly embarrassed. All those sick people were receiving literature on salvation for the dead!”
An enthusiasm for missionary work has prevailed throughout the Knoxville Tennessee Stake to this present day. President Emerson Taylor Cannon, presiding over the Tennessee Nashville Mission, reports that the stake averages eighty-five convert baptisms per year.
East Tennessee is part of the Southern “Bible Belt” where “there is a church on nearly every corner”—with 400 in Knoxville alone! The Southern people are great churchgoers and part of their tradition and culture is the religion they have had in their families for generations. It is a most difficult area for missionaries to penetrate.
President Perkins comments: “We have struggled in the ‘Bible Belt’ for years. Gradually, as new generations have come along, they have become more receptive. The Mormons have been like an unopened book here in the Southeast. The people were afraid to open it up and look inside. Then once they did, they found something wonderful and worthwhile.”
Bishop Smart of Chattanooga firmly believes one of the greatest missionary tools is the media of the community—newspapers, television, radio. He has worked very hard at building a rapport with the public servants and the media of Chattanooga. Sister Brenda Hamn, communications coordinator for the Church in Chattanooga, shares Bishop Smart’s enthusiasm. She comments, “The media get to more of the people and open the door for missionary work. I always think of the scripture, ‘If ye love me, feed my sheep.’ The media provide a means of feeding the sheep or spreading the gospel.”
The Chattanooga wards are so well known and respected in that community that they are able to get four hours of conference time on television every spring and fall—more than any city east of the Mississippi. When the Chattanooga Ward purchased a cattle farm for its welfare production project, it received front-page news coverage.
As the Church continues to grow in East Tennessee, much of the enthusiasm and dedication can be found in the young people.
Brother Glen Seabury, seminary and institute director of Knoxville Stake and Kingsport District, works directly with the young adults who participate in the institute of religion on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville.
He says, “The institute program is a definite missionary tool. These young people bring their friends in and the general feeling is that the kids really want to share the gospel.” A special Wednesday night seminar, “Meet the Mormons,” is held under the direction of the full-time missionaries.
One young man who was first introduced to the Church through this seminar is Roger Denny. He was impressed with the Church after that but didn’t get involved. Then he met and started dating a Latter-day Saint girl, Amy Armstrong, a member of Knoxville Second Ward. Roger states, “Amy was the primary influence in my conversion because of her outstanding example.
“The institute has really strengthened me, too, since my baptism,” he continues. “Classes have been doctrinally sound and have helped me round out my knowledge of the gospel.” Roger is presently serving in the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission.
The seminary program is thriving in the Knoxville Tennessee Stake. Three early morning and six home study classes have been active the past year. The Knoxville wards’ combined early morning class has 95 percent active participation.
The Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women programs are also flourishing. The Knoxville Stake youth participate twice a year in temple excursions to Washington, D.C., to do baptisms for the dead. They also give tremendous support to the semiannual youth conferences and are involved in numerous service projects.
In addition to these activities, the youth exhibit an enthusiastic missionary spirit. They are proud to be Latter-day Saints and are not too inhibited to ask the “Golden Questions” and to bring friends to Sunday School and activity night.
Rick Burris of the Knoxville First Ward is an outstanding example. He became friends with another youth, Carroll Davis, as they waited at the bus stop each morning before school. Rick discussed the gospel with Carroll, invited him to Church activities, and finally accompanied the full-time missionaries to the Davis home.
In the fall, Carroll’s mother, Mrs. Jean Davis, was baptized. One month later, Rick had the opportunity of baptizing Carroll and his younger sister, Jeana, into the Church. How does a high school junior feel about this kind of missionary effort? Rick answers, “I had a deep, humble feeling and at the same time I was very proud. I really feel like an instrument of the Lord—he actually did something through me.”
Chuck Mier is another young adult who has been active as a member missionary. On a cold Sunday afternoon in February 1974, Chuck baptized two of his best friends, Jim Heptinstall and Jesse Berry. Two things made this baptism special: one, it took place in Abrams Creek in the Smoky Mountains; and two, Chuck’s legs are paralyzed and he is confined to a wheelchair.
With the help of two missionaries, Chuck wheeled his chair into the water, and the elders lifted him and held him steady while he baptized both of his friends.
Chuck says, “All of us could feel the spirit there. It was so calm and peaceful. It’s a wonderful feeling to baptize your best friend. I was happier than anyone!”
The faithfulness and industriousness of the East Tennessee Saints is exhibited in their willingness to raise funds through various projects. Proceeds of these work efforts go to the budget, welfare, or building assessments. One very special project of 1975 was an “Earth Fair” sponsored by the Knoxville First Ward Relief Society.
Booths were set up around a gigantic pyramid centerpiece of fresh garden harvest, various greenery, and wild flowers. Delicious aromas, buzzing wheat grinders, and steamy crockpots lent a cozy, country-kitchen atmosphere. The booths displayed various ways people can become more self-sufficient by using such products from the earth as wheat, honey, sprouts, herbs, and wild foods. Exhibits on home canning, food storage, fishing, houseplants, pottery making, and ceramics were also displayed.
Besides being a successful means of raising more than $500, the Earth Fair was an enriching and unifying experience for the Relief Society sisters and their families.
In the spring of 1975, Knoxville First Ward bought a “welfare farm” consisting of twenty honeybee hives. This project was very successful its first year. “The volume of production should go way up now that the bee colonies have been established,” explains Bishop Smith. “We get honey twice a year—once in June from the Knoxville area, and then when the weather gets hot we move the hives to the Cumberland Mountains in Crossville where it is cool, and we get the fall honey from the sourwood flow.”
The Saints of Knoxville Stake have countless more faith-promoting stories and experiences to share. Every day produces new evidence of outstanding optimism, sturdy pioneer spirit, and unwavering testimonies.
The future of these members can be summed up in a remark of President Perkins: “I really believe we are on the threshold of greatness! I am seeing real changes taking place in the lives of the Saints of Knoxville Stake. It’s exciting and rewarding to be a part of this great work.”