Second Presbyterian Church was organized in October 1818 when a group of members from First Presbyterian Church petitioned the Presbytery of Union for “the privilege” of creating a “Second” Presbyterian Church in Knoxville.
Below is a brief synopsis of our history. For an in-depth history of the congregation from 1818-1968, we invite you to read Her Walls Before Thee Stand.
Founding to the Civil War
After the War of 1812, there arose a great surge in the anti-slavery movement. It divided the nation, the Mid-South, Knoxville, the Presbyterian General Assembly, and many individual congregations. The crest of the post-war anti-slavery wave in the Mid-South occurred about 1818. Congress was then pursuing the Missouri Compromise which formally established American slavery sectionalism. Second Presbyterian church began in this climate.
The nucleus of the original Second Church congregation was a group of anti-slavery sympathizers in First Presbyterian Church, Knoxville. Historical accounts and records list the reason for the petition to start a new church as a disagreement over pew rental policies. However, the “unwritten” reason was a disagreement over the issue of slavery. First Presbyterian Church had declared itself in favor of the institution. Those members who disagreed with this stance sought to form their own congregation in response and, indeed, the first members of Second Presbyterian Church included both free and enslaved African-Americans. Though the original petition to form a “Second” Presbyterian Church was rejected by the Presbytery, the petitioners appealed to the Synod of Tennessee and were immediately granted a charter.
The fledgling congregation worshipped temporarily in the courthouse while speedily building a modest edifice on the northwest corner of Clinch Avenue and Prince Street (now Market Street) where Market Square sits now. The congregation called Rev. Isaac Anderson to be its first pastor. He had been a student under Dr. Samuel Carrick at First Presbyterian Church and was an ardent opponent of slavery. He was serving New Providence Presbyterian Church in Maryville and agreed to preach in Knoxville every other week. In 1819 Anderson founded Southern and Western Theological Seminary, which would later become Maryville College. His motto was, “do good on the largest possible scale.” Dr. Anderson stayed ten years before leaving to focus on his new seminary.
In 1838 the Presbyterian General Assembly split into the Old School and New School Assemblies, which were in effect separate denominations. Second Church, as well as the Presbytery of Union and the Synod of Tennessee, joined the New School which had a strong antislavery leaning. Its geographical composition was largely Northeastern, Northern frontier, and East Tennessee.
In 1858 Second Church approved a larger church building to be erected immediately behind the first building. This new building was dedicated on November 11, 1860, five days after the election of President Lincoln. The original building was then razed and its materials used for a chapel behind the new edifice.
Civil War to the Turn of the Century
The eruption of the Civil War found Second Church substantially divided between Confederate and Union sympathizers. By this time Second Church had become a pro-slavery congregation, due to the South becoming a monolithic defender of slavery. The pastor, the Rev. Joseph Martin, was originally a Union Supporter. Like many Tennessee clergymen, he switched to the support of the Confederacy after the Tennessee secession. Second Church’s fifth decade was consumed by the Civil War and post-war recovery.
The Union army occupied Knoxville in 1863. It commandeered Second Church’s fine new building for military use. The congregation became essentially inactive until it regained the building from the War Department in March 1865. The congregation then restored its edifice from serious damage and gained membership steadily. The congregation called a fine interim pastor, the Rev. Rufus Wells, to lead the church restoration. Under Rev. Wells’ leadership, the African-American members in Second Church organized Shiloh Presbyterian Church in September 1865. It is the oldest African-American church in Knoxville and is still in existence today. Nationally, the Old School and New School General Assemblies reunited in 1870 and thus restored the original Presbyterian General Assembly of 1789. That united body, which Second Church joined, became commonly known as the Northern Presbyterian Church.
The recovery of the church building after the Civil War started Second Church on the road to becoming a large metropolitan congregation with a broad outreach locally and worldwide through its denominational affiliation. For about four decades after the Civil War, Second Church concentrated on establishing churches and missions in Knoxville and supporting benevolence programs. It also contributed heavily to mountain schools in Sevier and Cocke Counties and to a hospital in China. Additionally, Second Church was a leader in the creation of women’s organizations and supported the movement to give women the right to vote. Nationally recognized women speakers were invited to speak at Second Presbyterian Church in support of the Suffrage Movement.
First Half of the 20th Century
In 1905 commercial interests prevailed upon the congregation to sell its property at the corner of Clinch and Market. Second Church sold its building for a very large portion of the cost of erecting a larger and beautiful stone Gothic building two blocks away at Church Avenue and Walnut Street, the site of the present Knox County Library. The building was dedicated in 1907 during the fifteen-year ministry of the Rev. Robert Bachman. Membership, staff, and program grew markedly at this location.
Dr. Clifford Barbour holds the longest tenure as pastor of Second Church, from 1928 to 1951. He served as Moderator of General Assembly in 1949. Under his inspired leadership and due to his profound preaching, the membership of the congregation nearly doubled. At the conclusion of his tenure, it was apparent that the church building and its location were inadequate for the future ministry of Second Church.
The Move to Kingston Pike
In 1952 the congregation called Dr. Joseph Copeland as its pastor with the expectation of building a new metropolitan church on the near west side. The congregation needed a more spacious facility and parking for an increasingly mobile and expanding population which was rapidly abandoning the central city and looking for housing and services beyond the downtown area. The promotional effort generated a protracted dispute. The final congregational vote in 1954 to approve the purchase of a lot on Kingston Pike and erection of a building thereon was 306 to 292.
So, after three church buildings in the middle of downtown Knoxville – each progressively larger and growing in size and in Christian leadership – Second Church moved “all the way out” to Kingston Pike. A few members stayed behind and formed a new congregational church that eventually affiliated with the United Church of Christ. However, the majority of members moved to the new church building. The congregation thrived in its new location, which provided many advantages for a congregation increasingly scattered in housing across the county. With the completion of the downtown interstate system the church building was easily accessible. The close proximity to the University of Tennessee offered the opportunity for ministry to the students and faculty, many of whom have called Second Presbyterian Church home.
Dr. Copeland left in 1961 to become President of Maryville College. The church preschool also has its roots during this time period, beginning as a weekday kindergarten in 1961. The church kindergarten operated successfully for eight years but was closed around 1969 due to a staff shortage. Over the next two decades the educational wing was used for Mother’s Day Out programs, and in partnership with the Knoxville Early Child Development Center, Inc. as a child-care center for children ranging in age from two months to three years of age.
Dr. John Page was called to be the next pastor in 1962 and it was under his leadership that Second Church, in cooperation with a few other congregations and some UT students, began what came to be known as the Fort Sanders Community Center, a place where students of low economic means could receive tutoring and services. The Women of the Church also started a ministry called the Playmobile, a mobile ministry that went to economically distressed sections of the city with books and games for children.
Dr. W. Edmund Carver served as pastor from 1976 to 1996. Under his leadership, the congregation grew to over 1,000 members by 1985 and would remain there for another decade or so. In 1983 the Northern Presbyterian and Southern Presbyterian denominations reunited, forming the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Second Presbyterian Church became a member of the Presbytery of East Tennessee, which held its first meeting at Second Presbyterian Church in 1985.
The church during the 1980’s and -90’s enjoyed a strong and active youth program, attracting youngsters from inside and outside its membership, which emphasized spirituality and service, and sent delegations on numerous mission trips to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, in addition to winter trips out west for skiing and also a number of spiritual retreats. In the early 1990’s the Session approved a massive building make-over and expansion. Between 1992 and 1995 the congregation remodeled and modernized the original Kingston Pike edifice with new
offices, a refurbished Fellowship Hall, and a gymnasium. The renovations made to the educational wing allowed the Preschool of Second Presbyterian Church to open its doors in 1996. This renovation created numerous additional spaces which the congregation made available for the use of religious and civic organizations in the wider community. These meeting spaces have been much sought after.
The 21st Century
Following Dr. Carver’s retirement in 1997, the church experienced a decline in membership over the next decade. This decline was stabilized to about 650 members following the call of Rev. Bryan Wilson as pastor in 2009. Under Rev. Wilson’s leadership the congregation launched an initiative called “The New 2” and its motto was “Off the Hill and Into the City.” A new Praise & Worship service was started and members went on mission trips to places like Honduras. It was during this time that Second Church adopted a local elementary school, West View Elementary. Members volunteer to be classroom helpers, mentors, and readers. Second Church helps Safety Patrol Students with the cost of their trip to Washington D.C. each year. Each August the members of Second Church spend a Saturday getting the school ready to open, doing landscaping, planting, cleaning the building and the playground, painting, fixing bulletin boards, and anything else the teachers and administration need.
In 2014, the congregation experienced a painful and heart-breaking split, primarily over the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had been wrestling with issues of sexuality since the 1970’s. Beginning in the mid–90’s, however, the issue moved to the forefront, with a steadily increasing minority in favor of full inclusion for LGBTQ members. In 2011 the steadily increasing minority became the majority and the PC(USA) voted to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In 2014 the denomination voted to change the definition of marriage from a “covenant between a man and a woman,” to “a covenant between two people.”
Some members of Second were in favor of this change, believing it to be a bold and prophetic witness to the radical grace of the Gospel. Others felt the denomination was no longer biblically faithful and they wanted the congregation to leave the denomination. In December of 2014 approximately 350 members left to form a new congregation unaffiliated with the PC(USA) and called Rev. Wilson to be their pastor.
Those that remained faithfully continued the ministry and mission of Second Presbyterian Church. In 2016, Rev. Tim Reynolds was called to be the pastor of Second Church. Tim attended Second Church as a student at the University of Tennessee in the 1980’s and had fond memories of the congregation from that time.
In September 2017, the Session adopted a new vision statement:
Responding in gratitude to God’s love and grace, we are a welcoming, faithful, and hopeful community, following Jesus and serving him in the world.
This statement guides our ministry and mission and we hope that in the years to come people will experience it to be true of our congregation.
In 2018 we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Second Presbyterian Church with a series of special events and concerts, along with establishing an endowment to fund two scholarships each year to students at either Maryville College or the University of Tennessee, demonstrating both the church’s continuing commitment to supporting higher education and its intention to exist into the future. That same year the congregation also called Rev. Sarah Morgan to be the Transitional Associate Pastor, marking the first time in the history of the congregation that a woman was called to serve in a pastoral position.
Membership in the congregation currently stands at around 200 members and we are proud of the progressive legacy of our congregation, as well as our witness to the grace of Jesus Christ in the community of Knoxville and beyond. We continue to worship and serve and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. We support missionaries abroad and missions right here in Knoxville and East Tennessee. We continue to serve West View Elementary and love its students in the name of Christ, and to serve the community through hunger ministries, clothing drives, and other various programs. Our Preschool is one of the finest and highest rated in Knoxville. We actively support the Presbyterian campus ministry at the University of Tennessee (UKirk @ UTK) and many students continue to experience the love of God at Second Presbyterian Church. We continue to work for justice on behalf of those who experience injustice, and we seek to be agents of reconciliation in our society. We believe the Gospel is for all of God’s children created in the image of God, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identification, sexual orientation, or any other personal attribute.
If you are reading this and are looking for a church home, we invite you to come and see who we are. Visitors routinely describe us as a warm, welcoming congregation, and we try to constantly live up to that compliment. We think you will experience the love and grace of Jesus Christ in our fellowship and find a place where you can be nurtured and grow as a disciple, as well as be nourished to serve Christ in the world.