In the city’s long history, no minister has been more respected for his pastorate at a Knoxville church than the Rev. James Park. The pastor of First Presbyterian Church from 1866 until 1905, James Park was born (and also died) in the house at the southeast corner of Cumberland and Walnut Streets. This brick building, which currently houses the Knoxville Academy of Medicine, was the home of the Park family for three generations.
He was born on September 18, 1822, the eleventh of twelve children of James and Sophia Moody Park. His father, a pioneer merchant and mayor of Knoxville, was one of the early elders of First Presbyterian Church. In 1840 the young James Park graduated from what was then East Tennessee University but is now the University of Tennessee. He was the university’s oldest living graduate at the time of his death in 1912 at the age of ninety. In November of 1842 James Park made his profession of faith in Jesus Christ and joined the Presbyterian Church. In 1843 he began preparation for the ministry by entering Princeton Theological Seminary where he graduated in May of 1846. Rev. Park began his ministry in October of 1846 when he was licensed at Bakers Creek Presbyterian Church (near Rogersville) by the Presbytery of Holston.
In May of 1848 he was married to Phoebe C. Alexander of Lexington, Virginia, and to this marriage nine children were born. On October 5, 1848 he was ordained by the Presbytery of Knoxville and served several churches in the Knoxville area. For many years he was also an educator and served as principal of the Knoxville Female Seminary and the Tennessee School for the Deaf.
By the end of the Civil War he was the only ministerial member remaining in the Presbytery. In September 1866 the elders of First Presbyterian Church requested that Rev. Park preach if a suitable place could be found for a worship service (their church building was still damaged from the war). This first post-war service for First Presbyterian was held in the Baptist church on Gay Street the first Sunday in September 1866 (only thirty-nine members of First Presbyterian attended). In February 1867, a congregational meeting elected James Park the pastor of First Presbyterian, but since there was no acting Presbytery his election was not confirmed until May 1876.
This was the beginning of an impressive ministry as he led the church in its rebuilding from the destruction of the Civil War. James Park was perhaps the most beloved minister that ever lived in Knoxville, receiving respect and confidence at the hands of the city’s citizens without regard to race, creed, or social condition. He preached in the pulpit and taught in life’s walk only the pure gospel, and he placed and kept his First Presbyterian Church on the solid rock foundation of Jesus Christ.
James Park was also a noted writer, served as trustee of East Tennessee University, and for many years was the Stated Clerk of the Knoxville Presbytery. In 1890 he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.
His pastorate continued until July 1905 when, because of his age and declining health, he requested that he be relieved of active pastoral duties. He was then named pastor emeritus and continued in that office until his death on July 14, 1912.