Chester Martin Remembers Some Former Clergy Of Chattanooga And Their Churches

Monday, January 18, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Chester Martin
Chester Martin

There were several ministers in Chattanooga who influenced the entire town. Of different faiths, they were all widely known and respected even outside of their own congregations.

Perhaps best known of all was The Rev. Mr. Lee Roberson (later Dr. Lee Roberson), who preached the long-famous and much-revered Highland Park Baptist Church. He had a magnetic personality and I have seen him raise many thousands of dollars in a one-hour session for congregations other than his own.

He was most famous, perhaps, for founding Tennessee Temple College (later University), which has just closed after graduation, 2015. That occurrence is what prompted me to write this.

It has been about two years since the Highland Park Baptist congregation moved away from its original location and I am not sure if it retained its "Highland Park” identity. In its heyday the Highland Park Baptist Church was sponsor to many an Evangelist, such as Brother Roy Austin, about whom I have written earlier, and Tennessee Temple University was one of the "Big Three" Baptist Evangelical schools of the day. (A second of these was Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia, and I cannot remember any other/s by name.)

The Rev. T. Perry Brannon's long-running morning program, "Radio Revival", on radio station WDOD was a kind of main-stay of the local scene. His actual church was a rather poor one-story building on Houston Street, about half-way between McCallie Avenue and Oak Street. This was called the "Gospel Tabernacle," and welcomed the very poor people from nearby, such as my Aunt Linnie Smith who lived in a one-room apartment across Houston Street on Oak. Each weekday morning Brother Brannon did a full religious program, replete with organist, Horace Fagans, and the "wheelchair singer" who appealed to his many "sick and shut-in" listeners. His announcer  would make an appeal to "send your contributions to Radio Revival, P.O. Box 106, in Chattanooga." He never divulged how much he received, of course, but his lifestyle remained very simple, so unlike the flashy televangelists with big hair and big cars who followed. He was a sincere Humanitarian minister in every way, touching many lives. His breed has long vanished.

One memorable "denominational" minister was Dr. James L. Fowle, who was Pastor of First Presbyterian Church which continues in its old place on McCallie Avenue. He also had a radio program every Sunday morning on WDOD – the main morning worship of his church. His voice was quite eloquent and dignified. His physical appearance was the same, and was the perfect picture of a Protestant clergyman. He taught a class in Religion at the University of Chattanooga, which my wife, Pat, took. Under the directorship of later pastor, Ben Haden, the church acquired the former Medical Arts building next door as home for the church's various Ministries.

Centenary was the important Methodist church of the day, but stood a block closer to town than the present edifice. Dr. Bachman Hodge is the name I remember most in association with it. First Baptist Church stood then at the NE corner of Oak and Georgia Avenue. Metropolitan Opera singer Grace Moore's funeral was held there, and also my HS Baccalaureate service, but I do not remember any minister by name. The much-newer First Baptist Church is far removed from the old church, across town to the west. I have never been inside it.

First Methodist Church stood on the SE corner of McCallie and Georgia Avenues, and was frequently called, "The Stone Church" because it was built of limestone - same as the many walls still standing throughout the city. The church's congregation dwindled to the point, however, that it could no longer exist and had to be demolished. Mr. Gordon Street, an Industrialist/member of the congregation, owned the property, and had his executive offices in the former Carnegie Library nearby. He designated the church steeple be preserved - and so it was - a bare remnant of its former glory, and of all the churches that once stood near the Georgia Avenue at McCallie intersection. Gordon Street, Sr., was a great man. First Methodist and Centenary then combined their congregations into “First-Centenary United Methodist Church."

Sts. Peter's and Paul's Catholic Church stands where it always has, minus some of the fancy roof decoration. The interior is worth a visit whether you are Catholic or not! They have beautiful "Stations of the Cross" sculptures. I went to a midnight mass at Christmas there once and was highly impressed by the enormity of the sanctuary – and especially how the choir was BEHIND the congregation. To hear the priest chanting his words in Latin from the front of the church, and then hearing the choral response from behind was most moving. Through the years I have taken German, Austrian, Spanish and Philippine house guests to services there...

St. Paul's Episcopal Church was of interest to us when we were art students at Kirkman Vocational HS, close by. Our teacher, Mr. Stephen A. Harding, was born in New York City, and was Episcopalian by faith. He admired the interior – especially the altar - of St. Paul’s, sending us there to sketch on occasion. I do not know the names of any pastors there, but it has endured many, many years in the downtown area. Its appearance changed somewhat when its former backdrop, Cameron Hill, was cut down. A second Episcopal church of note was Christ Church on McCallie Avnue near the university. For years, the Rev. Christopher Morley, Jr., son of a famous American writer, was Rector there.

Brainerd Methodist was my family’s church. It considered itself to be the oldest congregation in the Brainerd area, following the demise of the Brainerd Mission about 1838.  McFerrin’s Chapel, a Wesley (Methodist) Chapel, came next, and was the immediate ancestor of Brainerd Methodist Church. When I attended there its official name on the cornerstone was, "Brainerd Methodist Episcopl Church, South."

Although a Methodist, I had several connections with Brainerd Baptist Church, which was near us. I went to Vacation Bible School there more than once in the 1940’s, in the yellow brick “downstairs” before a new red-brick sanctuary was built “upstairs” over it. When that new sanctuary opened, my piano teacher, Mrs. Peak, held her student recitals there, (she being church pianist at the time). I performed there on at least two occasions. Then, once or twice when snow was on the ground, my dad and I walked over to the nearer Baptist church to avoid driving to “our” church in snow. Brainerd Baptist had an ever-burgeoning congregation, soon outgrowing their new sanctuary. A building program under Rev. Dr. J. Ralph McIntyre led to the new all-red brick building which is on the corner of Brookfield and Mayfair Avenues, and the old sanctuary was turned into a gymnasium! The flagpole in front is a gift of Mr. L.E. Keller, a Sunday school teacher there – and a former HS teacher of mine. Brainerd Baptist has done some wonderful things in the area, including introduction of the relatively new BX Center, where all manner of activities are held – from job fairs to general elections! The good Baptists of the Brainerd congregation were always welcoming and friendly. A most excellent Music Minister there was the Rev. Mr. Harry Hampsher who spent a year doing Missionary work in Portugal, and died unexpectedly soon after his return. A well-known Chattanooga artisan of Italian birth, Mr. Stefano Giuliani, donated a beautiful handmade plaster ceiling modillion from which the main chandelier is suspended in the church auditorium. Mr. Giuliani was Roman Catholic, but made similar donations to any and every church on which he worked.

Ridgeview Baptist Church is superbly designed to fit a roughly triangular piece of land between Club Drive and North Moore Road. I was surprised to learn rather recently that the designer was a Mr. Caton – an Englishman and neighbor of ours  - who lived above us on North View Avenue. He drove an ancient English automobile which never failed to attract attention. He worked until he was about 90!

Although definitely not a Minister of the past, the Rev. Mr. Harold K. Lester is now Pastor Emeritus of the Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church. The Rev. Mr. Lester played a most dynamic and important role in the Chattanooga community for many years and  deserves a great deal of credit for being a calming influence during some troublous times in our past. He also presented the best Sunday morning church services on the radio, only needing two hours instead of one! His church building - and grounds - could have won an award for beauty at any time.           

Among the several Synagogues of our city I have really only had contact with the Mizpah Congregation on McCallie Avenue. Mrs. Lillian Feinstein was an excellent sculptor in wood. I once got to meet her husband, Rabbi Abraham Feinstein, and he also had a radio program on Friday evenings. His radio broadcasts were "live" from the Synagogue, and presented on WVUN, Chattanooga's first FM station. The Chattanooga Jewish Community Center welcomed all to their diverse events, and I have been involved in art shows there.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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