Born out of the destruction of a civil war, First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville has quietly become a beacon of unity and hope in the community for 150 years.
The historic brick church that has remained the one constant along an ever-evolving Gallatin Road officially marked its sesquicentennial on Oct. 9.
“This is a really special place for me personally, and I think everyone who steps in this door has a similar feeling,” says Freda Blackwell, a member of the church for 35 years. “I relate it to what they call thin places in Ireland.”
Blackwell is referring to sites that seem to transcend time and place by exuding an almost mystical quality.
“Many people say that they feel that here – especially if you walk in alone,” Blackwell adds. “It seems that the love and the forgiveness that Christ gives us – it’s in the molecules here. And all the happiness and all the tears that have been shed in the world are here sometimes too. I feel it. It’s just like walking on hallowed ground.”
‘A very unlikely time’
Member Al Ballenger agrees. Ballenger, who joined the church in 1966, is well versed in its illustrious history.
“One of the most significant things about the church’s history to me, is that in 1869 - just four years after the end of the [American] Civil War – currency was nothing,” said Ballenger “There were no jobs. There was desolation everywhere. It was a very unlikely time to build a church – or anything for that matter.”
Much of what Ballenger has learned from the church’s early history he has read in Powell Stamper’s 1975 book, “A Century Plus Five Years.”
In it, Powell describes a time when Hendersonville was just a small trading center in a predominantly agricultural area. According to 1870 U.S. Census Bureau data, Powell noted, Hendersonville wasn’t even mentioned while nearby Saundersville (near where Saundersville Road is today) had 1,573 inhabitants and Shackle Island to the north had a population of 1,119.
According to Stamper, the minutes of the Oct. 2, 1869 Session of the First Presbyterian Church in Gallatin show that 12 members of that congregation asked to be dismissed in order to help organize a church in Hendersonville. Five people from Hendersonville joined them and on Oct. 9, 1869 the 17-member church was founded.
Earlier that year a piece of property bounded by Drake’s Creek to the north and what was then called the Louisville to Nashville Turnpike to the south, was bought for $234 in order to build a church and a cemetery. Today, close to 100 people are buried in the cemetery, including those who figured prominently in the area’s early history like General Daniel Smith Donelson, educator Cornelius W. Callender, and John M. Shute, whose family once owned Grassmere in Nashville. Fifteen Confederate soldiers are also buried in the cemetery – some in unmarked graves.
In 1870, Rev. Alexander Cowan, a 30-year-old native of Shelbyville, Tenn., became the church’s first pastor – first serving the Hendersonville and Shiloh churches, and later splitting his time between Hendersonville and Madison. It would be several more decades before the Hendersonville church would have its own full-time pastor.
“The L& N Railway line was opened a few years before the church,” said Ballenger. “We had preachers who would come down and preach here, and then Shiloh, and then they’d take the train back.”
Many times throughout history, the Presbyterian church hosted members of the city’s other denominations.
Harry Smith, grandson of Gen. Daniel Smith and his wife Sallie invited the Methodist congregation to worship at the Presbyterian Church until repairs on the Methodist Church (damaged during the Civil War) were completed in 1872, according to Stamper.
In the early part of the 20th century, the Methodists alternated Sunday services with the Presbyterians when neither congregation could support a full-time minister.
A formal organizational meeting for First Baptist Church of Hendersonville was held at the Presbyterian church on Sept. 17, 1944. The congregation met every other Sunday at the Presbyterian Church building, alternating with the Presbyterian congregation, until 1947 when the Baptists constructed their own permanent building on Gallatin Road and Stadium Drive.
After World War II, church membership had dwindled down to two elders, a deacon, and 15 members. Much of the congregation went to Gallatin to worship while others worshipped with the Baptist church while its members were using the Presbyterian church building.
In May of 1951, Reverend William R. Dupree of Gallatin’s First Presbyterian Church, who orchestrated a revival of the church, delivered the first regular Presbyterian service held in Hendersonville church in more than three years. In June, William M. Alexander, a student at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, came to Hendersonville to serve the small congregation. By 1955, several Sunday school rooms and a kitchen had been added to the original building.
On Sept. 28, 1958, after a series of seminary students had ministered to the congregation, J.K. L. McClane was ordained as the church’s pastor. By the mid-1960’s the church had added a two-story wing with a fellowship area, dining facilities, and more classrooms.
A ‘mission heartbeat’
Today the church is comprised of roughly 100 families. Close to 100 people attend the service each Sunday, according to Pastor Michael Davis.
Davis, who is currently in his seventh year as the church’s pastor, said he’s re-read much of the history of the church while preparing for the 150th anniversary.
“One of the things I’ve realized about this church is that it has always had strong leaders – and it is self-sufficient,” said Davis. “I don’t mean that in a negative way – I mean it in a way that they have always been able to lead themselves.”
Davis points to the fact that the church didn’t have a full-time pastor until 1958 – nearly 100 years after its inception.
“When you do that you create internal leadership, and I think that was just passed from one generation to the next,” he said. “Even today this church is not dependent on me to run. That’s the sign of a healthy church.”
Davis also points to what he calls a “mission heart beat” - church members’ desire to reach out and serve the community they are a part of.
The church currently supports 12 to 15 local organizations either through financial or volunteer support – or both.
“More than anything else I would like for our church to be known as a place where people can find healing and help,” Davis said. “I want us to be the kind of a place to renew one’s faith, and to really find one’s ministry because I think that every person has been given gifts to be able to share with someone beyond themselves.”
The pastor notes that it’s easy for congregants to come and sit and worship and go home.
“I think in a smaller church there’s more of a possibility of people getting connected and even caught up with doing something with their life that they feel makes a difference,” he added. “I want us to be a place where we’re constantly talking about, ‘where’s your ministry? What’s God wanting you to do?’”
Hear hymns from around the world on Sunday
Several events have been held this fall in celebration of First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville’s 150-year anniversary. On Sunday Oct. 20 at 3 p.m., the public is invited to join church members in the church’s historic sanctuary for a unique Global Hymn Festival.
Join the church’s choir, praise band, and hand bell choir as they present hymns from other countries with the theme, “In Christ There Is No East or West.”
First Presbyterian Church’s Director of Music, Dr. Anthony Williams will lead the musical event. Williams is currently Associate Professor of Music at Fisk University where he teaches organ and related music courses. He has performed in churches, colleges and universities throughout the United States including the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Methuen Memorial Music Hall Church, and St. Thomas Church in New York City.
Williams made his European debut in the summer of 1990 with a recital at International Music Festival in Geneva, Switzerland. As well as a presenter of master classes and lectures here and abroad, he continues to be a highly renowned guest organist in many European cities and America.
The public is invited to join the church in this unique, uplifting musical celebration. Admission is free.