First Presbyterian Church (25)

first-presbyterian

620 State Street

The first church established in Knoxville, First Presbyterian was a congregation in the early 1790s but did not erect a building until 1816, after Knoxville had gotten criticism from shocked visitors that the capital of Tennessee had no churches. James White, whose original fort was immediately to the north of here, donated the land, his former turnip patch, for the construction. Antebellum humorist George Washington Harris, known for his irreverent stories, was an elder in this church. It became the de facto birthplace of Knoxville’s first synagogue, Temple Beth El, which met here in the 1860s, as well as the black congregation known as Shiloh Presbyterian.

The current church, the third on this site, was built in 1903 and designed by Knoxville’s Baumann Brothers in the Neoclassical style, with elaborate stained-glass windows, some designed by Tiffany, and much expanded from the 1920s through the 1980s.

First Presbyterian’s famous graveyard, the oldest in Knoxville proper, was here before the first church and is host to a number of prominent early Knoxvillians. Territorial Governor William Blount and his wife Mary Grainger Blount (for whom both Maryville and Grainger County are named) are here, as well as U.S. Senator and ambassador John Williams and statesman Hugh Lawson White, onetime president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, who ran a popular campaign for the U.S. presidency in 1836; Samuel Carrick the Presbyterian minister who founded Blount College, which much later became the University of Tennessee; Margaret Humes, the thrice-widowed first owner of the Lamar House; and Knoxville founder James White.

About one-tenth of the marked graves date from the summer and fall of 1838, when a plague of unknown nature killed hundreds of Knoxvillians. (One grave references the “Fever” specifically.) The graveyard was closed to new burials in the 1850s, but a few exceptions were made, including that of Abner Baker, a popular young Confederate veteran lynched for killing a man on the courthouse lawn in 1865. The graveyard contains only one image of a cross, a later addition to memorialize the teenage daughter of UT President Charles Dabney. Tennessee’s early protestants considered crosses violations of the Commandments.

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