Scott County, Tennessee
FNB Chronicles

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Continuing History of First Presbyterian Church

By the Rev. Martha Anne Fairchild

In the years since Esther Sharp Sanderson completed her book, the First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville, Tennessee, has grown and prospered. The name of the church itself is one of the obvious changes since her book was published. It was officially changed in the early 1980s, about the time the presbytery boundaries in this area were redrawn. Though many people still call the church "Huntsville Presbyterian Church," its official name is "First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville, Tennessee."

Just a few years after the name change the church became part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), following the reunion of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.). Once again the presbytery was renamed and boundaries redrawn and the church is now within the bounds of the Presbytery of East Tennessee.

In 1982 the church celebrated its 100th anniversary and made regional headlines with the visit of the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, and the First Lady, Nancy Reagan. Invited by the majority leader of the United States Senate, Howard H. Baker, Jr., the President and Mrs. Reagan worshipped with the congregation on May 2, 1982.

Unusually for a rather small congregation, only three pastors have served the church since the publication of Esther Sharp Sanderson's history. The Rev. Charles J. Boonstra was installed as pastor in 1977 and was mentioned in her book. He served the church until his retirement in 1989, serving twelve and a half years, longer than any pastor up to that time. The Rev. Thomas Wade was installed in December 1989 and served the church until 1994. At that time the Rev. Boonstra returned as interim pastor during the search for a new pastor, thus adding another year to his long service to the church. In 1995 the church installed its first woman pastor, the Rev. Martha Anne Fairchild, who continues to serve in that position today.

Huntsville Academy – Chartered in 1851, this wooden frame building was constructed in 1858 and was operated by the Presbyterian Church. According to County Historian Esther Sharp Sanderson, "The aim of the Academy was to prepare students for college and to give to those who did not expect to attend college a good English education. Special attention was given to those who wished to teach in the public schools. Better education in the common schools throughout the county was an outgrowth of teacher training in the Academy."

During Rev. Wade's tenure as pastor a new church building was erected, replacing the brick church built in the l940s. Dedicated in late 1990, its spacious facilities include modern classroom facilities, a large open fellowship hall, office and library space, and a beautiful sanctuary with very fine stained glass windows dedicated by different families in the church. In addition to its weekly use by the congregation, the building often hosts community groups and events.

But as the children’s rhyme reminds us, the Church is not a steeple, but is its people. First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville has been blessed with a faithful, diverse, and lively congregation over the years. It boasts leaders in government, education, industry, and the arts. Its most prominent member is former U.S. Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. During his distinguished political career he served as Senate Minority and Majority Leader and as Chief of Staff for President Reagan. Sen. Baker's first wife, Joy Dirksen Baker, died in 1993 after a long, courageous battle with cancer. He married former Kansas senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum in 1996. Most recently, Senator Baker served as the United States ambassador to Japan from 2001-2005.

Tennessee Representative Les Winningham is a member. VeRhonda Hembree, one of the church's elders, is a former mayor of the Town of Huntsville and serves as a prominent leader in charitable organizations in the county. The Honorable Thomas Phillips holds the position of United States Judge in the United States District Court, Eastern Division of Tennessee. Church clerk Bert Walker is an active leader in the Kiwanis Club. Charles May, retired U.S. Army officer, and Connie McKinley, retired nurse, work tirelessly as volunteers feeding the hungry through our local food pantry. Tracey Stansberry, a canver survivor herself, is an advanced practice nurse managing the Tennessee Plateau Oncology clinic in Huntsville. Many educators are members, including Sharon Wilson, Scott County Director of Schools. Army National Guard Sergeant First Class Jim Morrow served a tour of duty in Iraq, and Army Specialist Justin Reed is presently deployed there. Jim and Justin continue the tradition of many members of the congregation who served in our nation's armed services, including the late Bill York, who survived the Bataan death march and years of captivity in Japanese POW camps in World War II. Scout Troop 504, organized by the Rev. Earl Rash and member George Taylor produced five Eagle Scouts. These are just a few examples of the gifted community leaders who are a part of this congregation. Indeed, every member has contributed to the church and community, living out the gospel of Jesus Christ in daily life as well as in the church pew.

The congregation is blessed with a membership reflecting a broad diversity of background and ages, and, like many Presbyterian congregations, is highly educated. A number of members moved to Scott County from other areas and often attended churches of other denominations before moving here. All members, both natives and transplants, show a special love for the work of the church in Scott County. Their commitment to mission shows in the church's support of the Scott County Food Pantry, Relay for Life, Unicorn Fund, and broader Presbyterian missions through One Great Hour of Sharing and Presbytery mission support.

Howard H. & Nancy Baker

Les & Peggy Winningham and children

Mary Helen Walker (fron, right) & family members

Many traditions in the church continue. The Christmas Eve program always concludes with the distribution of treat bags containing fruit and candy, just as it did in the early part of the 20th century. The annual photograph at Homecoming continues a tradition begun in 1918 with a photograph of the church's Sunday school classes on Rally Day, the student promotion day. The church's music Ministry continues to provide varied programs for Christmas and Holy Week and regular worship services throughout the year. Each year Vacation Bible School provides a week of fun and Christian education to children in the church and surrounding community. New traditions have been added, such as the dove kite flown on Pentecost Sunday, known by the church's children as the "bird on a stick", and the annual commemoration of those who have died in the faith on the first Sunday in November.

Another chapter in the church's history begins July 1, 2007, when the church celebrates its 125th anniversary. A number of activities are planned for the weekend, including a string quartet concert on Saturday, June 30, at 7:00 PM, and worship and activities through the morning and afternoon on Sunday, July 1. Many members of the church are submitting family trees, and the church's children and youth have projects to celebrate the church's birthday as well.

Esther Sharp Sanderson would have been proud to continue her history of this faithful congregation, still bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the town of Huntsville, Tennessee.

FNB Chronicle, Vol. 18, No. 4 – Summer 2007
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
(p5 & 8)

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