Carter County, Tennessee:
A "NO-HELLER" MEETINGHOUSE
By Howard Dorgan
Stony Creek-the stream but not the church spelled without an "e"-flows a southwestwardly direction between Holston Mountain on the north and Iron Mountain on the south. This water channel and the valley it has created constitute a long, rising-in-elevation, finger of carter County, Tennessee, that slopes upward from Elizabethton and culdesacs at the convergence of the Holston and Iron ridges. Gathering itís waters from such smaller flows as Bevins Branch, Laurel Branch, Carter Branch, and Miller Branch (on the north), and Hurley Branch, Horselo Branch, and Nidifer Branch (on the south), this swift-flowing little current moves through the Carter County communities of Buladeen, Housley, Sadie, Carter, Unaka and Winner before veering due south towards its connecting point with Watauga River. From this confluence of the creek and river, the latter then moves on past Elizabethton to an eventual juncture, in Boone Lake, with the south Fork of Holston River.
Highway 91 runs parallel to Stony Creek, providing a vehicular route from Elizabethton to Shady Valley, a high-county neighborhood which lies just north of the Holston/Iron Mountain juncture, on a line between Bristol and Mountain City. Approximately twelve and a half miles northeast of Elizabethton, Highway 91 passes through the Carter community and soon reaches a spot where Carter Branch Road comes into 91 from the north. If a traveler turns onto this latter route, he or she will quickly arrive at the Stoney Creek Primitive Baptist Church (spelled this time with the "e".)
Nestled within a cluster of larger shade trees (oaks, maples, and other hardwoods, Stoney Creek Meeting house is one of those traditional wood-framed worship structures that"oleí Baptists" love so dearly; starkly simple, lap-joint sided, white, unadorned by steeples or Gothic-arched stained glass windows, and noticeably absent, any self-proclaiming billboard, marquee, or other bold advertisement of its denominational character, meeting times, and/or clerical personnel. In many ways, the facility projects an affinity for both seclusion and anonymity, sporting no sign out by Highway 91 and adorned by only one small name placard-placed right above itís front entrance, and rendered dark and almost unreadable by age, except to those who make a more intimate approach to the building. Indeed, this common "Olí Baptist" practice of avoiding side-of-road publicity seems to suggest a message similar to the following: "If you locate us, it is because you are already among us, or because some unseen guide is leading you to our door. We will not shout out our presence; we will not entice you to visit; but if you find your way to us, we will make you welcome.:"
Elder Jennings Short participating in the footwashing service.
This worship facility and its surrounding acreage are well cared for, showing evidence that the churchís ten formal members love and respect all of the traditions and values this building represents. The structureís exterior is kept painted and in good repair; and the church ground - stretching along a tree-lined segment of always-bubbling Carter Branch-seem to cry out an invitation for such standard "Olí Baptist" events as dinners-on-the-ground and"living water" baptisms. Even the prototypic outhouses, so much an expected part of such a yesterday-touched scene, contribute positively to the ambiance of this setting.
Stoney Creek Meetinghouseís interior also projects that well-cared-for image, while at the same time revealing a congregationís willingness to modify the architectural past. Indeed, purists would prefer to see the original tongue-and groove planking, bare hardwood floors, rough un-padded benches, open ceiling and free-standing wood stove that characterized this facilityís interior when the present church was build sometimes in the 1930's, apparently as the second replacement for the original 1820 log structure. At the time of this writing, that interior projects a much more contemporary image.
The original tongue-and-groove planking reached up to the pinnacle of the inner roof line: today a dropped ceiling conceals all of the old roof beams, while in the process making the structure easier to heat. In addition, the inside walls have been overlaid with drywall plaster boards, sealed and painted, with the bottom third of these walls veneered with quarter-inch wood paneling. Long cushions adorn the aging plank benches, carpeting covers the original hardwood floors, and grated thermal units-installed beneath the churchís center aisle-take the place of the old iron stove. New windows and venetian blinds finish off the remodeled-for-warmth-and-comfort image.
Nevertheless, there is much about this interior that has preserved the plainness so characteristic of "Olí Baptist" meetinghouses, wall adornments are few; the old plank benches themselves have been preserved; the traditional configuration of the worship space has been maintained; and the colors of all interior elements have been kept simple, muted, and unpretentious-natural wood tones, subdued earth shades, and off-white. This is still a proper setting for the yester-year sounds and scenes of "Olí Baptist" worship.
Filled to capacity, Stoney Creek Meetinghouse accommodates only seventy-five to eighty worshipers, but that would seem to be more than enough space for the fellowship that has only ten members. It must be noted, however, that this church belongs to an association of thirteen other fellowships, each of which meets only once a month; therefore, when an individual church is not having a Sunday service, the members of that congregation are free to visit other churches in the association. For special services-such as Memorial Meetings, Communion Meeting, or Union Meeting-this small facility is apt to be filled to overflowing, drawing worshipers from several counties in Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, and perhaps even from affiliated fellowships in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The association to which Stoney Creek belongs is the Regular Baptist Washington District Association, the"no-Heller side" of an older alliance of Baptist congregations that was established in 1811. After 113 years of relative peach this older Washington District family of churches fell into bitter doctrinal discord, that in 1924 split the "No-Heller side" from the "Heller side", the latter also still extant and now proclaiming itself "The Original Washington District Primitive Baptist Association." The "Heller side" of this dispute was reported by Elihu J. Sutherland in his Regular Primitive Baptist Washington District Association: A Short history, published in 1952 by that division of the association. The arguments, as seen by the "No-Heller side," must be pieced together from a number of hard-to-assemble sources, including annual association minutes; nevertheless, a reasonably complete view of "No-Heller doctrine can be gained by reading-when one can find it-Charles F. Nickelsí Salvation of All Mankind; and Treatise on Predestination, the Resurrection of the Dead, and a Bequest, published by its author in Nickelsville, Virginia, apparently in 1937. In March, 1997, the University of Tennessee Presses will release In the Hands of a Happy god: The "No-Hellers" of Central Appalachia, authored by the present writer. That work will treat not only the history and doctrine of "Primitive Baptist Universalist," but also the movementís doctrinal ties to eighteenth and nineteenth century New England Universalism.
Primite Baptist Universalism cannot be given a full examination in this short essay, but the central tenets of the theology can be compressed into the following doctrinal statements: (1) Christís atonement was for the sins of ALL humankind, past, present, and future, thus becoming just as unavoidable as were the stains of Adamís original transgression; (2) hell does exist, but solely as a factor of the temporal world, will ALL sin being punished in this temporal world; (3) "Christís Church" was "elected" before the beginning of time, but the members of that "Church:"-the Primitive Baptist Universalist-possess no final advantage over the nonelect, since heaven will be for ALL and will be experienced in a totally egalitarian eternity; however, (4) throughout the temporal existence the "Elect" will serve as Godís witnesses and as the preservers of His earthly righteousness; (5)sin, punishment, death, and "Satan" are only present-world entities, ceasing to exist after temporal termination and the "Resurrection"; therefore, (6) there will be no hell in the afterlife.
Because Primite Baptist Universalist do believe in hell in the temporal world, they strongly reject the "No-Heller"label that others have give them. As a result of that rejection, the present writers tries to avoid that title, unless it is placed within quotation marks. The proper appellation for this faith is Primitive Baptist Universalism, PBU for short. Nevertheless, it must be recognized immediately that all other Primitive Baptist groups simply do not accept the PBU faith as being " Primitive," arguing that one essential feature of Primitive Baptist theology is some version of John Calvinís limited atonement doctrine.
With Central Appalachia, there are four small associations of Primite Baptist Universalist: the previously mentioned Regular Primite Baptist Washington District Association, The Three Forks of Powellís River Regular Primitive Baptist Association, and two Elkhorn Primitive Baptist Associations, this duplication in the latter being the consequence of an early 1980s split. All told, there are only thirty-three PBU fellowships; and they are found primarily in a limited area of northeastern Tennessee, a six-county region of southwestern Virginia, the Colley (or "Colly") Creed sector of Letcher County, Kentucky, and the McDowell County locale of southern West Virginia. Appalachian migrations into the Midwest have established three PBU fellowships in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania, but these are small struggling congregations that depend heavily upon support from PBU congregations in Central Appalachia.
Stoney Creek is one of three Tennessee PBU churches. Holston Primite Baptist Church, an affiliate of the Three Forks Association, lies on the west side of Cherokee Lake in Grainger County; Hope Church, a member of the previously mentioned PBU Washington District Association, can be found in Washington county, just on the west side of Interstate 181 near Gray; and Stoney Creek Church has already been identified as being in Carter County.
Southwestern Virginia contains the heaviest concentration of PBU churches, with one or more fellowships existing in each of the following counties: Lee, Scott, Wise, Dickenson, Russell, Buchanan, and Tazewell. While West Virginia has only two counties that contain PBU church: McDowell and Greenbrier. Then, as previously mentioned, Letcher county, Kentucky, shelters only one such fellowship.
Stoney Creek Church in Carter County, Tennessee, is often confused with the now defunct PBU "Stony Creed" (without the "e") Church of Scott County, Virginia. Prior to 1949, this latter fellowship was affiliated with its namesake association, the Stony Creek Association another small cluster of Primite Baptist congregations that joined the PBU movement after the 1924 split. However, Stony Creek Association lasted only until the late 1940s before disintegrating over a dispute concerning natural-body versus spiritual-body resurrection. That shatter PBU association is no represented by only one church that lies near Bean Station in Grainger County, Tennessee. However, the author has not yet been able to determine if this one remaining Stony Creek Association fellowship has held to the PBU faith. All of these last details are perhaps the subject for yet another essay.
Readers should relate this present writing to an essay published in the inaugural issue of The Appalachian Quarterly. On pages 88-90 of that first publication of the Quarterly, "Little Stone Gap Church"-unsigned, but authored by Ganell Marshall-chronicles the account of one of the oldest churches in Wise County, Virginia, a PBU fellowship affiliated with The Three Forks of Powellís River Association. Perhaps future issues of the Quarterly can feature additional PBU meetinghouses that are in or near Wise County, such as Oak Grove (in Keokee, Lee County), Sulphur Springs (west of Pound, Wise County), and Point Truth (between Nicklesville and Dungannon, Scott County). Like Old Regular Baptist, Regular Baptist, Separate Baptist, United Baptist, and a host of even smaller Appalachian subdenominations of this faith, Primitive Baptist Universalism is largely a Central Appalachian phenomenon, seldom found anywhere else, except as a consequence of the regionís various out migrations. In addition, the PBU movement contributes yet another colorful square in the diverse patchwork quilt that Appalachian religion has become.
Sources for this essay are detailed in the forthcoming in the Hands of a Happy God which readers are urged to examine. Howard Dorgan, Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University, has devoted a quarter of a century to the study of Appalachian religious traditions. His previous writings include Giving Glory to God in Appalachia; The Old Regular Baptist of Central Appalachia, and Airways of Zion, all from the University of Tennessee Press. This last work was awarded the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award for 1993.
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