Publication:Johnson City Press; Date:Aug 25, 2007; Section:Faith; Page Number:2C

Presbyterian church to celebrate 225 years

• Pastor to present sermon delivered at church in the 1870s.

By JOHN THOMPSON Elizabethton Bureau Chief

    ELIZABETHTON — Worshipers at First Presbyterian Church, West F Street, will be going back in time on Sunday.

    Pastor John Shuck will kick off the 225th anniversary celebration of the church’s founding by presenting a sermon that was delivered by his predecessor, the Rev. Horace Cowles Atwater, who was pastor of the church from 1870-79.

    Shuck has selected a sermon he hopes will still provide encouragement and advice to a modern audience. Although the sermon is more than 130 years old, it was written at a time when the nation was still trying to pull itself together after the Civil War. It was also written as the nation prepared to celebrate the centennial of its independence.

    “Atwater had just come back from the (Presbyterian National) assembly, where they had talked about the first centennial and about reuniting the North and the South, he was really inspired,”
Shuck said. That inspiration led to what Shuck called an uplifting sermon.

    Shuck intends to follow Atwater as closely as possible in Sunday’s service. Atwater’s sermon included notes on Psalms to sing and Shuck will include those in the service. Several members of the congregation also plan to dress in 19th century costume to add to the realism.

    The crowning touch will be added by David Arney, who will bring his old-fashioned pump organ to the church.

    The fact that Atwater’s sermons can still be read is thanks to church member Peter Hampton, who rescued the sermons many years ago.

    “Atwater lived in a nice house in the Cat Island section of town,” Hampton said. “After his death, no one looked after the house and some neighbors began helping themselves to some of his things.

    “One day I went in the house with my mother. I saw a green and wood box and it was just filled with sermons. There must have been more than a hundred. I knew if they stayed there they would be lost, so I took them to my office and put them in the attic.”

    After years in the attic, Hampton brought the sermons to the attention of the church. Most of the sermons have since been donated to the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University, except for five, which are kept in the church library. It was one of these five that Shuck selected for Sunday’s sermon.

    The subject of the sermon, overcoming differences was especially meaningful to both Atwater and the church.

    Atwater was a northerner. He was born on March 14, 1819, in Homer, N.Y. He graduated from Yale in 1842 and from Yale Divinity School in 1845. He served as a Methodist minister in New England from 1845-1857.

    In 1857, he took a hiatus from the ministry and toured the South as emotions were nearing the breaking point between abolitionists and slave owners. He wrote a book about his travels called “Incident of a Southern Tour or The South as Seen with Northern Eyes.” Much of the book discusses his impressions of the institution of slavery.

    During and after the Civil War, Atwater served Congregational churches in Wisconsin and Ohio. In 1870, he returned to the South, first leading Reed’s Creek Presbyterian Church near Weaverville, N.C., and then, on Sept. 9, 1870, Atwater arrived at his final post, First Presbyterian in Elizabethton.

    Although he came late in life to Presbyterianism, Shuck said his study of the sermons showed him that Atwater was a proud Presbyterian who had mastered the Calvinist spirit.

    One example from the sermon clearly shows Atwater was inspired by John Knox:

    “We ought to obey God rather than man (underlined). We should be loyal to God first and foremost. Civil government must not interfere here. They must not force a creed or form of worship on man’s private judgment. They will be crushed. If they attempt to do so, as Charles I of England, they will be ground to powder as Cromwell did with his ironsided invincible Presbyterianism.”

    The sermon is just the beginning of a series of events the church has planned to mark its 225th anniversary. An old-fashioned pot luck supper will follow the service.

    The church also plans to repair Atwater’s broken headstone at Highland Cemetery. There are also plans for hosting community concerts, speakers and an art show.

    The church also is planning a peace conference in February, and a commitment to become a green congregation.

    Another goal is to cover the Bible from cover to cover from an historical/critical and metaphorical perspective.