Lay pastors: A vital part of our proud 200-year history

Lay pastors: A vital part of our proud 200-year history

No matter what has happened in the history of the world, it is personal to someone then and now to those who know their own history. Just think, one of your ancestors was probably a participant in the Crusades, or fighting in the French Revolution, or landing at Plymouth Rock.

It is the same in Holston Conference’s history. I was reading R. N. Price’s volume 5 of his Holston Methodism, and suddenly there was a sketch of my fifth great grandfather, Jacob Yost Douthat. It seems he was converted in September 1824, the same year Holston Conference was created. For the next 46 years, he rode the New River area of the conference. From his home in Ripplemead in Giles County, Virginia, he preached and rode the circuit while he was married twice and had 13 children. He was listed as a “lay pastor.”

In most of the early minutes of the Holston Annual Conference, little is said about the lay pastors, and the record seldom mentions their names. Especially later in Holston’s records, little attention is paid to these vital members. I served on one district board of ministry, and the district superintendent at the time did not want a single lay pastor in the district.

Lay pastors were always of vital need in our conference. I think of my grandfather in the long days he rode from house to house preaching wherever he could in these early days of Holston. He might spend his lonely evening under a rock shelter or in the hollow of a tree reading his Bible by the campfire light -- or when at home – by the fireplace light. 

In all of the ministers’ diaries I’ve read through the years, only one of the very early preachers’ diaries provided any details of these situations. The Reverend William Hurd Rogers began his ministry in the early 1830s until after the Civil War. Twice in his vast journal he tells of preaching in the home. The first time happened just after he left Annual Conference held in LaFayette, Georgia, in the church he founded when working on the Cherokee Mission. He was on his way home to Daus, Tennessee, in the heart of Sequatchie Valley. He stopped at the Tennessee River at Ross’s Landing, where a few whites took up living in the Cherokee Nation before they were moved west. One of his cousins lived there with her husband Darlin Abajaha Wild. She invited Rogers to preach in their cabin, which was only about 16 by 20 feet. In preparation for the service, they hung a curtain across the cabin. As the congregation began to gather, they separated into two groups. The women and children were on one side of the curtain where Hurd preached to them, and the men were on the other side as Darlin sold them drinks (because he normally ran a tavern there). So Methodism grew from these beginnings.

The second mention of cabin-preaching by Rogers was in Southwestern Virginia in the mountains. There is no mention of the family that lived there, but they apparently were prepared for worship. When the preacher rode up to the house, he noticed that all of the furniture from inside the cabin was now outside. This must have been common and allowed for more people to gather inside the small space to hear the Word of God.

When I read this last passage, I thought of the many times in my own ministry when I tried to get people to open their homes on Wednesday nights for prayer meeting – because we only had half a dozen attending and it would save us from having to turn on the church’s heat or air conditioning. Only once in my very first church did we succeed in meeting in a home. It was the best time in my ministry as the congregation was out to give a student pastor a great start in his ministry. I was a lay pastor at the time, scheduled to attend seminary in the upcoming fall. At seminary I did not have to study by candlelight, and I certainly did not have to ride a horse all day to get there and camp out when night fell.

The zeal and dedication of these former local lay pastors gave Holston Conference a large footing that has lasted almost 200 years. In 2024, Holston will celebrate its 200th birthday. We have had our ups and downs along the way but look at us now. Yes, we were once split into North and South and Protestant, but we reunited in 1939 and again in 1968, adding other congregations to the large size of this little mountain conference. We have so much to be proud of with the vast missions around the world, the schools and hospitals we started, the nursing homes and myriad of other events we share with the world. 

There is so much to be proud of when we say, “I’m a Methodist.” It is personal for me as I can say, I’ve been a Methodist since the beginning of Holston Annual Conference.

See also:
Holston history includes stories of Methodist transitions (Feb. 9, 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.


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Jim Douthat

The Rev. Jim Douthat is a retired Holston Conference clergy member, president of the Holston Historical Society, and a historical author and publisher who makes his home in Signal Mountain, Tennessee.