Chester Martin Remembers Brainerd Methodist Church

Thursday, January 7, 2016 - by Chester Martin

My family moved from North Chattanooga to Brainerd in 1937. There we changed our church membership to the "Brainerd Methodist Episcopal Church, South", as the cornerstone read. The church remains at the same location, 4315 Brainerd Road, today, although the name is slightly altered.

Brainerd Methodist Church was first known as "McFerrin's Chapel", a "Wesley Chapel" - which title denotes its Methodist origin. McFerrin's Chapel first came into existence many years after the demise of the Brainerd Mission to the Cherokee Nation in1838.

and was the only Christian church east of Missionary Ridge for many years. Earliest remembrances I have of Brainerd Methodist Church include frequent references to that McFerrin's Chapel in an effort to keep the historic name alive. McFerrin's simple wooden building soon led to construction of a brick structure which still stands on the east end of the church property, and adjacent to an even more modern sanctuary to its west.

First minister I remember as a small child was the Rev. Mr. Cecil P. Hardin, a tall, slender, red-headed gentleman who had a friendly way with children. He always wore a dark blue business suit,  was much beloved by all, and I became emotional when he preached his last sermon there. Miss Betty Benedict was a Sunday School teacher I loved and admired.

Methodists believe in moving their pastors around to prevent either pastor or congregation fatigue. Always apprehensive of their new minister, the congregations are generally much relieved when the new pastor has arrived and has preached his first sermon. The Rev. Mr. Joe M. Hampton was the second minister of my memory, and very different from Brother Hardin.

Joe Hampton hit just as the tide of religious fervor was rising throughout the country - during the war years - when everyone knew someone who had a son or daughter in uniform. Churches were packed to overflowing in those years, and a drive down the center lanes of McCallie Avenue on Sunday morning (due to church parking) proved it. "Brother" Hampton was unlike any other Methodist minister I have ever known: he wore immaculate formal morning attire on Sunday mornings, which included gray and black-striped trousers, studded shirt with gray tie, and replete with swallowtail coat! The congregation always knew when his sermon was about to end, as he would pick up his gold watch and chain from the pulpit and deliver it to its proper watch-pocket. Furthermore, he had a rich baritone voice and liked to sing. His accompanist on the recently donated organ was church musician, Mrs. Stacey Ashley. She had a special mirror over her organ keyboard so she could see him and follow his movements. He did not sing too frequently, but it was always a treat when he did. Miss Ethelwyn Sylar was Church Secretary at that time, and was always of assistance to him.

Brother Hampton knew how to liven his services by delivering potted plants to the "oldest mother" on Mothers' Day - and there would be a corresponding reward for the oldest father on Fathers' Day. There would also be candlelight services at appropriate times of the year, an Easter Sunrise Service, and a "dinner-on-the-grounds" event at least one Sunday per year. Jimmy Johnson, well-known Chattanooga businessman, led the choir in special music for all seasons.

WW 2 ended and Brother Hampton was moved to another church. He was the one who, ashen-faced, had come outside the church to quiet a group of us boys who had gotten too rowdy and were interfering with the solemn prayer service inside, That was on June 6th, 1944; it was Vacation Bible School week, and we boys were totally unaware of the Normandy D-Day  Invasion, or its significance.

The Reverend Mr. Tom L. Williams was the next pastor at Brainerd Methodist. He always wore a plain black business suit and was rather "dry" after Hampton's dignified exuberance. But he taught the youth of the church more in two or three hours about the inner structure of the Methodist Church than I ever knew, either before or since: how "we" at Brainerd, were part of the "Holston Conference", which was one of many such divisions. These conferences were each divided into districts and sub-districts - and his clarity of explanation has lasted me a lifetime. These "lessons" were learned while at summer camp about 1947 or '48. Our camp dates coincided exactly with a visit by comedian Bob Hope to Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga. Radio signals from our Chattanooga stations did not reach the Lake Ocoee area, yet all us campers wanted to hear Hope. Carl Huggins and Harold Ridge - our "Geek Squad" of the day -  worked feverishly for hours to construct an antenna to pull in the distant WAPO radio station - but to no avail. (Hope was doing his regular weekly broadcast, and it was his only visit to our city).

Probably the reddest feather in Brother Williams' cap was the building program of the late 1940's. Church attendees were having to be seated in the aisles and ante-rooms where they were not able to see the preacher, so it was decided to build a new and larger auditorium. Church Treasurer, Richard Phillips, a bank executive, undertook the daunting task of raising "$78,000.00 in 78 weeks"! Today that would be almost like asking for 78 million in 78 weeks! It did not seem possible at the time...but it DID work. The new sanctuary stands there today, adjacent to the old. There have also long been Boy and Girl Scout troups associated with this Brainerd congregation - and somewhere there remains the long-broken, and unused, bell from the simple little McFerrin's "Wesley Chapel" of the 1800's.

LONG time members of Brainerd Methodist Church included the names of Odin Smith, Sr., and Jr.; R.C. Huggins, Sr. and Jr., D.L. Hill, Rome Benedict, Sr.,  Albert Jarvis, Corley Young, Sr., Charles A. Regan, Will Wallace, Woodfin B. Martin, D.C. Wiley, Richard Phillips and Vern D. Steves. They all also had wonderful wives who took an active role in church life. For my part those ladies all had the same first name, "Mrs", because young people of my generation would never call an adult lady by her first name. Mrs. Hill, much to her credit, undertook to open an innovative "child care" program in the church - and under church sponsorship. Other churches in the area were interested in following suit, and sent delegations to study Mrs. Hill's success with that program.

In the latter part of the 20th Century, all the national Methodist congregations merged with a group known as the "Evangelical United Brethren", thus introducing the word "United" to the name. Our congregation therefore assumed the name, "Brainerd United Methodist Church."

(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 )


Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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