In 1991, I was appointed as pastor to the Dandridge Circuit, which at that time was comprised of four churches in Jefferson County, Tennessee. One of the churches, Seahorn’s Chapel United Methodist Church, had a unique place in Holston Conference history, which lends perspective to another historical milestone that is evolving this very week.
Seahorn’s Chapel was descended from the old Pine Chapel, established in 1787 as one of the first Methodist meeting places in the Holston territory, serving as a preaching station for both Bishop Francis Asbury and Bishop Joshua Soule. The cemetery around Seahorn’s Chapel was the resting place for a number of Methodist ministers. At the entrance to the sanctuary was a display case with artifacts and photos of area Methodist history. Though small in numbers, the members of Seahorn’s Chapel were proud of their history.
Two of those members were the late Rev. Jimmy Shugart and his wife, Mary Dean Shugart. We quickly became good friends, and I often dropped by to visit them. They both loved history, and I soon discovered the upstairs study in their White Pine home was a veritable treasure trove of Holston United Methodist history. The Shugarts were close friends of many United Methodist historians, and the materials in their “upper room” were often called upon for research.
One day while I was visiting, the Shugarts asked if I had seen the black covered Holston Annual Conference journal from 1939. And furthermore, did I know the story behind that journal? As it turns out, one of the editorial staff for the journal that year was Jimmy’s father, Dr. Edward Augustus (E.A.) Shugart. Dr. Shugart was a longtime Holston Conference pastor, had served as a presiding elder, and was a staunch supporter of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He was a vocal opponent in 1939 of a big upheaval that was happening at the time: The proposed unification of the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, and Methodist Protestant denominations (which are predecessors of today’s The United Methodist Church). Dr. Shugart carried on a voluminous correspondence with other bishops and pastors who were opposed to Methodist reunification.
Jimmy and Mary Dean told me that when the decision was made in the Holston Conference (Methodist Episcopal, South) to approve the merger, Dr. Shugart decided to quietly protest by issuing this last issue of the Holston ME, South journal with a black cover, reminiscent of a funeral service bulletin. He wanted it to appear as if the church was mourning, as certainly Dr. Shugart was.
This is a fascinating piece of history to me, but it is just as interesting that after the merger, Dr. Shugart continued to faithfully serve as a pastor in the newly united Holston Annual Conference. His son Jimmy followed with a long and successful ministry in Holston as well. All the Shugarts were heavily involved in the historical work of the conference.
That famous 1939 Annual Conference met October 4-6, with the first two days being the final meeting of the Holston Methodist Episcopal Conference South -- and the last day being the first meeting of the new united Holston Annual Conference, united as one with three denominations. This conference was held at Central Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
This Saturday, April 22, close to 84 years later after this merging conference, Central United Methodist Church will be the site of a different kind of conference, where we will meet for the purpose of voting on dissolving the connectional bonds with some of our churches in Holston Conference. Though different in theme from the 1939 unification conference, I expect this meeting will be similar as a solemn and formal occasion -- with prayers, tears, and anxiety -- as we all sail forward into these uncharted waters.
Perhaps a black-bordered journal would be appropriate for this meeting as well.
However, if history teaches us anything, it reminds us to be humble. The story of Methodism since our beginning is replete with splits and divisions over theology, polity, and social issues. As Charles Wesley wrote in 1749 (and we sing this song each year at Annual Conference): What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without and fears within, since we assembled last!
Our historic divisions and disagreements are one reason that the World Methodist Council counts over 80 different denominations in its current membership.
Those Methodists who were present at earlier meetings weren’t sure what the future held. Yet they did try to pray for each other, and they sought God’s guidance. That’s not bad advice for Holston Conference now as we approach yet another monumental change at Central United Methodist Church in Knoxville.
God is not through with us yet. There is still some good history to be written.
On April 22, 2023, Seahorn's Chapel will seek to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.
Holston history includes stories of Methodist transitions (Feb. 9, 2023)
Lay pastors: Vital part of our proud 200-year history (March 15, 2023)
Holston Conference includes member churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, with main offices in Alcoa, Tennessee. Sign up for a free email subscription to The Call.
Michael Feely is chair of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Commission on Archives and History.