Back to the Index CHURCH HISTORY IN GRAHAM COUNTY Back to the Index

The people of Graham County have always been a deeply religious people. From its obscure beginnings a religious faith has been inherent in the hearts and souls of these mountain people. We do not know whether it can be attributed to the isolation and solitude, hardships and fears, or the ever closeness of nature; but we do know that religion is an inseparable part of this land and its people. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills."

Records and dates of places of worship are often obscure and incomplete, but this does not diminish the role of religion in the development of this region. The meetinghouse was always soon in appearing as each small settlement began to emerge out of the wilderness. The little meetinghouse served the community as a school, church, and community center in general. The meetinghouse took upon itself the creed of the predominant population that was usually Baptist in this mountain area.

The religious history of Graham County centers in large measure around what is still known as the Old Mother Church, its name depicting its relationship to the many other churches in the area. The Old Mother Church has served uniquely throughout our history as a temple of worship for both Methodist and Baptist; a fountain of knowledge, a court of justice, and lastly a shrine watching over our departed loved ones.

The "Old Mother Church"

In the earliest days of the Old Mother Church the site was at the meetinghouse spring and served as the old brush arbor or provided shelter for camp meetings. Since it was the Methodist clan which thrived on camp meetings, it seems logical that it was then Methodist. According to tradition there were at different times three meetinghouses on the summit of the hill. However, the fourth and present building is located on the side of the hill across from the meetinghouse spring or camp meeting site. The date of the present building is thought to be 1875. This church, originally called the Cheoah Baptist Church, is said to have been formerly organized on July 18, 1848 by Elders Baily Bruce and James Kimsey, traveling missionaries under the auspices of the Baptist State Convention. The church had eighteen members. The name "Cheoah Baptist Church" was used until the church voted in 1924 to use the name "Robbinsville Baptist Church of Robbinsville, N. C."

According to old church minutes, the church continued at the original site until 1908. In 1907 a building committee was elected and an appeal was made for funds for constructing a new building in the town of Robbinsville. This building was occupied in 1908 and continued to be the place of worship until the congregation moved into the educational part of the present building in December 1961. The sanctuary was dedicated and occupied in December 17, 1967.

The property for the Old Mother Church and the large cemetery that surrounds it was given by the patriarch of the Methodist clan, Abraham Wiggins, with the stipulation that it was to be used for worship purposes. This fact also adds credibility to the Methodist origin theory.

The original cemetery in the woods near Fort Hill at the site of the old camp meetings contains eighteen undated graves. Among those known buried in this section are Billie Cooper and wife, Johnny Hyde and wife, Tommie Ammons and wife, Susan Cooper Craig, and child, and the first and second wives of Cal Colvard. The exact beginning date for the cemetery is unknown, but it is thought to be about 1840. The present cemetery covers the hill and extends to another hill behind the church with the earliest gravestone marked as Amanda Harwood, 1856.

The following pastors have served First Baptist from 1903 to 1972:

Rev. R. M. Morgan Rev. W. M. Pruitt Rev. W. F. Sinclair: 1935-37
Rev. Samuel Jordan Rev. J. M. Shope Rev. B. F. Shope: 1937-47
Rev. G. W. Orr Rev. W. P. Elliott Rev. J. L. Orr: 1948-56
Rev. J. S. Stansbury Rev. Algie West Rev. E. F. Baker: 1956-60
Rev. Bulter Matheson Rev. Frank Leatherwood Rev. E. G. Altland: 1960-64
Rev. G. P. Rice Rev. J. M. Woodard: 1930-35 Rev. R. Earl Payne: 1964-

The first Baptist Church in the Stecoah valley was located near the Little Tennessee River and served Tuskeegee, Sawyer's Creek, Panther Creek, and also some settlements in Swain County. In 1849 the Stecoah Missionary Baptist Church was organized. It was situated more in the center of the valley where the population was concentrated. The building was erected on the Joel L. Crisp farm, later owned in part by Billy Holder. Early ministers serving Stecoah valley were Thomas Medlin, Joshua Edwards, P. G. Green, G. W. Hooper, and W. C. Morgan.

Because settlements were sparsely populated and transportation difficult, church services were held only once or twice a month. Worshipers often walked eight to ten miles to attend church. Many pastors served two or more churches. It was not until 1949 that the First Baptist of Robbinsville had a full time pastor.

First Baptist Church of Robbinsville

Gradually Baptist churches sprang up in various communities. Lone Oak and Yellow Creek churches were formally constituted in 1887. It is difficult to ascertain the correct beginning date for many of our churches. Some choose to function for years without affiliating with local or state associations, therefore, no official records are available in its formative years.

From the congregation of the four earliest Baptist churches, especially Robbinsville Baptist, others grew. These divisions were caused by differing beliefs, personality conflicts, or needs or space and location.

Between 1900-1940 the following churches were constituted and recognized by the North Carolina Baptist Convention: Bear Creek, Bethel, Buffalo, Cedar Cliff, Long Creek, Mount Nebo, Mt. Creek, New Hope, Panther Creek, Santeetlah, Sweet Gum, Sweetwater, Tuskeegee, and Mt. Zion. The churches vary in (1972) membership from 47 at Bethel to 349 at Sweet Gum, each meeting the needs of its locality, as they themselves perceive their needs.

Since 1940 the following independent Baptist churches have been organized in the county: Midway, Orr Branch, Calvary Baptist, Victory, Sawyer's Creek, and Dry Creek. The county has one Primitive Baptist Church at Meadow Branch and one Free Will Baptist Church at Atoah.

Two of the Baptist churches are predominantly Indian: Buffalo and Mt. Zion. Mt. Zion particularly has kept many of its Indian customs in practice. Sermons and singing are alternately in Cherokee and English. They have long discontinued the use of mounds for burial or the placing of implements in the grave of the loved one for use in the Happy Hunting Ground; however, they have maintained the high degree of reverence and respect for the dead. Although the Indians no longer engage in nature worship, they have a keen and deep awareness of the hand of the Divine Creator in all life. They find comfort and solace in the world of nature. Each Tuesday night summer or winter, foul or fair weather, a faithful group of worshipers go to the top of Hickory Mountain where they sing and pray to the Almighty. They say they find a closeness to God up in the mountains above the cares and turmoil of the world.

Inside the Indian Church

Early county singing convention

The Rev. Armstrong Cornsilk was one of the most memorable Indian preachers to serve in our county. In 1861 he joined the services of the Confederacy and continued until the end of fighting. When he returned to the mountains after the war he became a preacher to his people. He was one of the last confederate veterans in Graham County to pass. He was likewise one of the last of the close friends of Junaluska and offered the main address at the unveiling of the Junaluska monument in 1910. The Rev. Cornsilk was well received at the Confederate Veterans National Reunion in Washington in 1917. Rev. Cornsilk had often expressed to his people the earnest desire to die working for his Lord. His prayer was answered. During the Sunday worship service August 22, 1925, he chose to read Revelations 20:11-13:

11. And I saw a great white throne and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.

12. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

13. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works.

As he concluded the reading, he slumped forward and departed to meet his Master. Although this patriarch may not have attained international fame, he had the touch of greatness among the people he chose to serve. Many of his descendants here in the Snowbird Mountains are following in his footsteps.

William A. Lewin, President of Kanawha Lumber Company, had printed at his own expense a hymnbook for the Indians in their own language. The Snowbird Indians have long been noted for their singing of gospel songs in English and Cherokee. Ader Trull, son of Clingman Trull, an early lay preacher, used to go to the Indian Church and play a portable organ while the Indians would sing hymns in their own language while marching in a circle, shouting and shaking hands. Lynn Trull, who still lives on Big Snowbird, has for years been a leader in gospel music. Hardy Sharpe of Robbinsville, who has written over forty gospel songs, has made the greatest contribution to gospel music in the history of Graham County.

Baptizing at Yellow Creek

The early Baptist church in Graham County was characteristically opposed to instrumental music in the church. Although most churches changed later, music of this type was considered a desecration of the Sabbath and God's house. The stringed instruments in particular were considered in poor religious taste if not completely evil. The organ and piano fared better, but there were still those who thought the only acceptable way to praise the Lord was by voice. However, all churches today accept instrumental music.

In the early church, religion was of the emotional type both as to preaching and the reaction of the congregation. Sermons were invariably tinged with brimstone. Some of the common themes of sermons were cards, dancing, cosmetics, and chess. The church set high standards of conduct for its members. Members were often turned out for "unbecoming conducts," such as drunkenness, cursing, gambling, and backbiting. Another characteristic of the early church and indeed most churches in the county today was the baptizing in a nearby creek.



Soon after permanent settlements had been made in Graham County, the Methodist Circuit riders came to preach to the settlers. These Circuit riders were tireless in their efforts to minister to the settlers. One can imagine the hardships they endured. In winter, snow and ice obliterated the trails; in summer, the swollen streams offered almost insurmountable difficulties.

The first Methodist Church in Cheoah Valley was built in 1858 on Cemetery Hill on land donated by Abraham Wiggins. His son, Rev. Joseph A. Wiggins, helped construct this building. Later, subscription schools were taught there. The old church that now stands at the corner of Cemetery Hill has come to be known as the "Old Mother Church."

The "Circuit riders continued to preach in Graham County at the Old Mother Church. Some preachers came from the Holston Conference in Tennessee. The Courthouse, "that all purpose building," also served as a meeting place.

The Methodists built their own church in the town of Robbinsville in 1880. This building is still standing. Remodeled, it was later the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hoke S. Phillips.

In 1897 a second Methodist church was built. Captain N.M.E. Slaughter donated the land, and Wade Hampton donated land close by for a parsonage. By 1918 circuits had been established at Sweetwater, Buffalo, Tuskeegee, Cedar Cliff and Japan. Methodist churches were built at these places.

A picture taken from Main street with the second Methodist Church in the back left.

The third Methodist Church on Main street in Robbinsville, now the Hosanna Church.

In 1938, a gift of $3,000 was received by the Methodist Church in Robbinsville as a start toward building another new church. This served as inspiration to the members of the church. A new building with Sunday school rooms was quite an improvement.

In 1950 a new parsonage was built on the lot adjoining the church. Mr. Floyd Griffin had succeeded in obtaining a Veterans Program for the county. The church was extremely fortunate in getting the construction work of the parsonage done by the veterans under the direction of Mr. Griffin. The hut that originally belonged to the Methodist Church was deeded by the church to the Graham County Women’s Club and the Lions Club for use as a community building.

The Methodists have since moved again, to their newest church building on Fort Hill.  Today the Robbinsville Church is the only Methodist Church in the county.

Methodist Ministers who have served the Methodist Church in Graham County; Reverends: Joseph A. Wiggins, J. C. French, P. B. McCurdy, J. P. Lanning, B. B. Wilder, B. S. Foster, J. F. Gibson, Clingman Trull, C. B. Cordell, J. C. Wilson, O. P. Ader, W. C. Bowden, W. H. Huges, S. W. Phillips, R. L. Doggett, P. T. Foger, Walter A. Ingram, J. J. Matney, J. H. Hopkins, Harry Otto, J. F. Usery, Gay Bright, T. C. Scroggs, W. M. Rollins, J. J. Eads, G. A. B. Holderby, William J. Baker, R. N. Medford, G. E. Wright, E. M. Mills, R. A. Husky, Wayne Parker, S. A. Blanton, J. P. Hipps, Jesse Wilkenson, Hugh H. Jessup, H. A. Huss, G. L. Lovett, W. T. Medlin, Herbert Gorman, John Frazier, H. L. Lafevers, John Crew, Marvin Boggs, Frank Cook, William Sarten, Henry Justice, Loy Kennedy, and Erwin S. Cook.