Open December 10, 2014 through April 4, 2015
Settlers continued to move westward, on the hunch of new lands, opportunities and possibilities. There was no tangible guarantee that life would be better, that opportunities would happen. It was a matter of faith. Along with the few meager possessions that were strapped into the back of covered wagons, families relied on strength, faith and hope to lead them to better beginnings.
Sanctuary. Faith. Community. These words – among others – are synonymous with the concept of a church. The history of the Ocoee churches follows the pattern generally found in this area of the South. Along with their desire to build homes in their new land, settlers brought the courage, faith and religious convictions that were theirs by nature and inheritance. As they built cabins for homes, pioneers opened these homes to their neighbors for services of worship. Soon meetinghouses were erected – crude brush arbors and log huts, but these were the first churches of the Ocoee. They have stood the test of time as early zealous settlers sought to educate their Cherokee neighbors. They hoped to win them to Christianity as they busily engaged in establishing their own religious bodies. The first were the Presbyterians. They pioneered religious works in the Ocoee region by establishing mission schools and churches for the Cherokee. Reverend Dr. Gideon Blackburn built the first mission school south of the Hiwassee in 1804, thirteen years before Chattanooga.
Polk County can lay claim to the earliest organized church in the region. Columbiana Presbyterian opened its doors in 1822 in the town of Columbus. The community of eleven families, one doctor, one merchant and one tavern created the first church. Ministers were part of the circuit riders. The church held services once or twice a month when a pastor made his way into the area.
Branches of other churches made their way to Bradley County. Members of the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Calhoun decided to open their own church on the other side of the river. Quickly, a committee formed and the First Presbyterian Church began.
These churches and others sprang in a grassroots effort to maintain the faith of the settler’s forefathers. The Ocoee Region is home to a diverse set of First Churches, including the headquarters of the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy. Each faith and each church that sprang from the “Firsts” has established a long-lived history within the Ocoee.
The exhibition takes each of the Firsts and explores their origins from brush arbors to architectural feats in a rural region. Congregations grew, but out of the founding members, what families are left? As membership continues to grow, which churches are direct descendants of the Firsts? Why not just continue to grow as one large congregation rather than fracture and build multiple churches? Places of worship and community are the heart of a pioneering settlement, and the Ocoee region in no different.
Pioneering Pulpits: The First Churches of the Ocoee will be on view through April 4, 2015.