New Salem Baptist Church – The Church Journey

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02 March, 2020

This story is a little different than others told on The Church Journey. I was inspired by this story of an African-American, during the time of slaves,  who became a prominent member of the community, and his desire to build a church for all to use for worship. A large part of this story was pulled from references created by several people that have historically documented this wonderful story. I had the privilege to visit the oldest surviving building in Sevierville, Tennessee.  It is also Sevier County’s oldest brick church and only historic African-American church. This historical church New Salem Baptist Church was built in 1886 by Isaac Dockery, an African-American artisan, his family, and all the African-American families and community families in Sevierville. It is the only historic African-American church built as a Union Church for African-American congregations of all religious beliefs, its name was changed in 1897, when it became New Salem Baptist Church. On July 24, 2003, the church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The church still stands today. (2020) [3]

The construction started as folks gathered to work on a brick building to be their permanent church. Along with a local community African American craftsmen Lewis Buckner. Isaac Dockery made the brick to build the church. Squire Bob Henderson donated the land for the church and the use of the field next to the church land to make the brick and make a brick kiln to fire the brick. Isaac Dockery’s sons-in-law, his children, along with Lewis Buckner, a noted craftsman, were the main builders of the church. Lewis Buckner, carpenter, cabinetmaker, and house builder in Sevier County after the Civil War, furnished the pews and pulpit. [1]

In an era where people were building their own kilns for bricks on their front yards, then knocking them down, the way Dockery operated his business was totally unique.  “He decided to make a kiln big enough that he could make bricks for other people, He was the very first one to do that in the area.  Before long, people across Sevierville were wanting both the quality and craftsmanship of Isaac Dockery’s bricks for their own homes. In his lifetime Dockery wasn’t just making buildings; he was forging connections.  His talent motivated white people to cross stringent racial lines of the day. [2]

The last time records show Isaac Dockery working for anyone other than himself was in the home of a prominent merchant clerk named McKinley Thomas. He honed his skill sets, specialized his craft, and fell in love with a woman who worked as a slave in the Thomas household. Isaac Dockery was not a slave. He was a free man, and a prominent one in Sevier County. He owned property in three counties in East Tennessee, ran his own construction business, and was a major player in community affairs. Near the end of the Civil War, this area kept switching back and forth depending on where you were. The Thomas family were Union. Fearing for their lives, the Union supporting Thomas’s fled. As Confederate soldiers descended on the town, they tasked Isaac Dockery with looking after their entire property and merchant store. It wasn’t long before Confederate soldiers were swarming Sevierville, looking for Isaac. The Confederates came looking for him they asked Isaac where McKinley Thomas was. The Confederate soldiers tied a rope around his neck and drug him through the streets of a downtown he helped build. Isaac never gave in, which probably saved Thomas life. [2]

Dockery who was not exempt or unfamiliar from the cruelties that accompanied the color of his skin dared to build a space where all people could worship. He built this house of worship as a place for all people, with ideals of unity that stood in contrast to the harsh attitudes of his time. The church he built would serve as a guiding light for descendants. During the early years of the church some of the members joined together as a singing group to raise money. These singers would go around the area singing for groups and gatherings. They raised money for a piano, hymn books, Sunday school booklets.  The ringing of the church bell was a call to service–with prayer, congregational singing, and preaching the sermon. Family oral history states that the first preachers for New Salem Church were White circuit riders. At that time the church was called a Union Church the community did not have any black ministers living in or near the neighborhood. Around 1920 Black ministers pastoring churches in other counties, and known by someone in our community, were invited to preach at New Salem Church. The church was never enlarged, but water and electricity were installed. Also, two bathrooms were installed in early 1960’s by families who had started returning for reunions.

New Salem Church with its location on the banks of the Middle Creek has survived many storms and flooding. The water can surround the church for days before subsiding. The hands of the forefathers who built this church must have been truly blessed, because the church has endured so many acts of nature over the years. It proudly stands today as the beacon of its legacy. Though gospel hymns and sermons stopped ringing out from New Salem Baptist Church long ago, it remains much unchanged since it was first built in the late 1800s. [4]

I arrived Monday afternoon after my Bible study, which is held just a few miles away from the church location. Shortly after my arrival, I found myself in deep  thought contemplating this wonderful story from the past. Even though the doors are bolted with an iron gate, planks of wood cover the cathedral style windows, and cement steps softened over the years.  Praying at the building, while touching the brick, and admiring the condition of the building over 130 years later was gratifying.  You get an exhilarating sense that you stepped back in time. Taking a closer look, you can see that the church is in need of repairs. I pray that funding will be provided to preserve the church for future generations.

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Isaac Dockery and his wife are buried in the New Salem Pleasant View Cemetery in Sevierville. When Isaac took his last breath in 1910, he did not do so in obscurity. In an age when his own wife had worked as a slave and Confederate soldiers’ drug him through the streets by his neck, the local paper honored his life. There was an obituary in one of the Sevierville papers. It talked about a trusted loyal colored man died today. And he was known as Uncle Ike. And it tells he was the most honorable man and he was trusted by both black and white. [2]

Fellowship:

I had no fellowship on this visit just the silence, solitude and prayer while reflecting on the past and the historical importance of this church.

Details:   

Church Website: http://www.isaacdockery.org/index.html

Location: 601 Eastgate Rd Sevierville, TN

Date Visited: 2020 February 28th

The church was built in 1886 and still stands today. The doors are bolted with an iron gate, planks of wood cover the cathedral style windows, and cement steps softened over the years. The church is no longer in use, but an effort is underway to preserve this historical landmark. 

This shows the entrance for the congregation to enter into the church worship area.

The view from the back of the church shows the structure is in good shape.  

A closer view of the bricks shows the different colors-based heat used to fire the bricks in the kiln. They are still wonderfully preserved with little deterioration over 130 years.  I do not know if the mortar between the bricks was restored in the past.

I did not have access to the inside of the church. This photo was provided from THE HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE OF SEVIER COUNTY. [4]

Final Thoughts:

Isaac Dockery bravely shaped the future of Sevierville by building a church for everyone. The church located back against the banks of middle creek in Sevierville along East Gate Road is a place that stands as a holy time capsule. Where folks from a different era were faced with struggles and conflicts, just like we have today, turned to Jesus to help unite their community. This was a period in time that endured through the civil war, which was entrenched around slavery, and the freedoms for all people no matter their color or background.

When the Civil War ended, the African-American church faced new challenges, which stressed a greater social solidarity. Attempting to meet both religious and social needs, they supported their newly freed congregations to lead independent lives: With the support of missionaries helping them to find employment and housing, and providing medical care. In addition to teaching personal faith beliefs, churches acted as important agents of culture.

It is a refreshing part of history knowing that African-American congregations cultivated a spirit of uplift and self-expression, laying the foundation of self-determination. They understood that the Christian Gospel provided true freedom through Christ’s grace and salvation. This fundamental religious faith brought strength and courage to each of them.  Christians are people who have invited the Lord Jesus Christ to come and live inside them by His Holy Spirit. They relinquish the authority of their lives over to him thus making Jesus the Lord of their life as well as Savior. They put their trust in what Jesus accomplished for them when He died, was buried, and rose again from the dead (John 1:12; John 14:17, 23; John 15:4; Romans 8:11; Revelation 3:20).  I am convinced prayer was an important part of this church.

One last thought; I was really impressed with the craftsmanship and condition of the bricks used to build this church. The use of bricks goes back thousands of years, around the world we can find old buildings made from bricks. Fired bricks are one of the longest-lasting and strongest building materials. Most bricks burn to various red hues; as the temperature is increased the color moves through dark red, the color turns to various red hues on increasing the temperature. It was fascinating seeing the different colored red bricks used to build this church.  It was a blessing to Dockery’s family and the community that he mastered the trade of a brick maker.

If you would like to learn more about this church and the effort to preserve it, I encourage you to visit the church website listed above.

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

May our Lord continue to bless this church in Jesus name.

Please Pray for all our churches as they continue to face challenges in the year 2020.

May this find you well and happy, God Bless

Picture Gallery:

References:

  1. New Salem Baptist Church website, “Isaac Dockery” (2020, February 11) Retrieved from http://isaacdockery.org/
  2. Author: Gabrielle Hays, Madison Stacey WBIR “Stolen Stories reclaiming the lives of Tennessee slaves” Retrieved from https://www.wbir.com/article/features/stolen-stories-reclaiming-the-stories-of-east-tennessee-slaves/51-fab28980-0b44-43be-86ac-dd9c6b05f826 , Published: 8:34 PM EST February 22, 2020
  3. (2020, March 02) New Salem Baptist Church – Sevierville, TN. Retrieved from https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMB384_New_Salem_Baptist_Church_Sevierville_TN
  4. Author: Robbie D. Jones “THE HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE OF SEVIER COUNTY, TENNESSEE”  https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC7G8NX_forgotten-new-salem-baptist-church-1886?guid=35e34896-b3fa-4452-872d-7f4ea4377278 

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