Knoxville’s First Presbyterian Church, the city’s first church, was organized in 1792 and is still located on its original site. James White, Knoxville’s founder and a devout Presbyterian, came from North Carolina to the Fork of the River, where the Holston and French Broad Rivers meet to form the Tennessee River. He later moved downriver and settled near First Creek. He built a fort and a mill and planted his garden — for turnips in the fall and corn in the spring. When he asked his son-in-law, Charles McClung, to lay out a town, part of White’s instructions were “to reserve my turnip patch for a church and a burying ground.”
Until recently, those words by White were the only deed to the original land used by the church. Additional properties were registered as they were acquired, but not until the legal incorporation of our church (as required by the 1983 reunion of the country’s two largest Presbyterian groups) was that original portion listed with the Knox County Register of Deeds.
The first pastor of Knoxville’s first church was the Rev. Samuel Carrick, who had come from Virginia. Arriving at Fork of the River, he helped organize Lebanon-in-the-Fork Presbyterian Church. After Knoxville was founded, Rev. Carrick came downriver and, in 1792, started the pioneer town’s first church. Carrick later served as president of Blount College, which is now the University of Tennessee.
The church had no building for the 17 years that Rev. Carrick served as pastor, meeting variously under groves of trees, at the Southwest Territorial barracks, or at Knoxville’s first courthouse. After Carrick’s death in 1809, Rev. Samuel Ramsey, the supply minister, preached a sermon which stirred the members enough to appoint a building committee. The Brick Meeting House was the result, with construction beginning in 1812 and final completion in 1816. Today’s chapel is on the site of that first building.
In 1853 a second building replaced the original Brick Meeting House. Burials in the graveyard were halted in 1857 except for a few spouses of those already buried. In addition to James White and Samuel Carrick, other early settlers buried in the graveyard include territorial governor William Blount, congressman John Williams, and Hugh Lawson White, the distinguished judge and 1836 candidate for U.S. President.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers used the building and kept horses in the graveyard. Federal troops then took control in 1863 following the siege of Knoxville. The building was used by Federal soldiers as a hospital and a barracks, and by the Freedmen’s Bureau as a school. When returned to the congregation in 1866, the building and graveyard were in dreadful shape from the war’s abuse. Rev. James Park, who had grown up in the church, was the pastor at that time and led the congregation in restoring the church property. Tradition has it that the women of First Church carried water from First Creek to scrub the building inside and out. It was during that time that a stout-hearted parishioner painted on the arch over the pulpit the Hebrew words Jehovah Jireh, “The Lord will provide.” These words remain today over the chancel of our current sanctuary as part of the heritage of First Presbyterian Church.
The church today occupies an entire city block. The core building containing the sanctuary was built in 1903, the wings were added in the 1920’s, and the chapel was built in 1962. A major property acquisition allowed the construction and 1988 completion of the Family Life Center, new church offices, a new kitchen, and much-needed parking areas. This addition has allowed the church to continue to maintain its more than 200 years of service in downtown Knoxville. First Presbyterian Church has had only 14 pastors, an average of about 15 years per minister. These men have been leaders in the city as well as in the Presbyterian Church at large. This church is the mother church for many Presbyterian churches in the area. During the past 50 years it has colonized several suburban churches and has assisted others with their financial and membership needs.
A special reason for First Presbyterian pride is the number of our church’s young people who have made the commitment to go into full-time Christian service, in large part due to our strong religious education program. Nearly 60 young people have made that decision over the church’s lifetime and have served in a variety of ways all over the world.
We at First Presbyterian Church are truly proud of our heritage and of the role our church has played in Knoxville’s history and growth.