The story of the Bakersville Episcopal Church begins with the story of the Episcopal Church in North Carolina on Roanoke Island in 1587, continues with its reunification after the Civil War by Bishop Thomas Atkinson, and moves closer with his efforts that resulted in the 1885 creation of the Diocese of Western North Carolina. Joseph Blount Cheshire, Jr., priest and bishop, from Tarboro was the first native clergyman of the state to be elected to the episcopate of North Carolina. His consecration as assistant bishop took place on 15 Oct. 1893 and one of the first acts was the initiation of a vigorous missionary program in the mountain counties of the state. Rev. Cheshire later became the biographer and strong advocate for Rev. Milnor Jones.
Rev. Milnor Jones whose last assignment was in South Carolina was sent to the Toe River Valley (Ashe, Mitchell, and Watauga) as a missionary. Here he usually leased a school or courthouse for services in communities beginning in Tryon and working his way northeast to Valle Crucis which was a missionary outpost and became his headquarters. Later he brought his wife and children to live in Elk Park. Traveling on horseback, he preached, distributed Prayer Books, confirmed, and baptized with a special emphasis on the children. His biographer claims that he felt a special calling to work with the poor, the uneducated and the plain people of the mountains.
On June 26, 1895 he came to Bakersville and conducted services in the courthouse where he tells of having confirmed nine persons “some of whom were among the most prominent men in the town and vicinity.” According to his biographer, he had been refused the use of the three existing churches as well as the school; however, this was refuted in a letter from a number of respected citizens following Rev. Jones published account of his preaching.
The Bakersville Enterprise reported the week of July 15, 1895 that at the county commissioner’s meeting the sheriff, George Pritchard said that he was ordered by the Baptists and Methodists to lock the courthouse and not allow the Episcopalians to continue “divine worship” because they had been preaching “uncomfortable doctrine.” They asked the commissioners to order such, which they did.
While Rev. Jones claimed to have “avoided for the most part, any statement as to the deficiencies of other Christian organizations,” it appears that his goal focused on “the importance to the hearers of coming out of their existing denominations, and into the true fold.” Apparently some of the local folks did not perceive it to be as gentle as he asserted and did not care for his approach.
A number of editorials from across the state including Raleigh, Charlotte, Concord, Lenoir, Smithfield, Winston Salem, and Asheville ensued with various degrees of criticism for the commissioners, the churches, and their supporters for their claim of “uncomfortable doctrine” being spread by Rev. Jones.
The response from community leaders came on July 24 when J.C. Bowman, founder of Bowman Academy; Dr. J.J. Britt, Principal of Bowman Academy; George Pritchard, Sheriff and friend of Theodore Roosevelt; Attorney Wiley Lambert; Rev. T.E. Weaver, Methodist Minister; the Hyams Brothers, local business leaders; Isaac Bailey, former Senator; and Reuben Young, respected business man and community leader among others penned an articulate response that placed the blame for the controversy not on the “ignorance and intolerance of the people of Bakersville” but resentment in “having our people slandered, our churches profaned, and the religion we hold dear trampled underfoot,” by Rev. Jones.
Rev. Cheshire’s biography includes a good deal of what had been reported to him by Rev. Jones as well as accounts of his having accompanied Rev. Jones on several occasions. Apparently the Bakersville courthouse remained locked to the ministers, but he and Rev. Jones returned on August 15 and personally preached in front of it on the street. Rev. Cheshire says: “I never spoke with more ease, freedom, and enjoyment, or with a greater sense of the high privilege of being a servant and ambassador of my Lord.” The event included confirming the mayor’s brother kneeling by the side of the street.
In one newspaper account, an acquaintance of Rev. Jones claims that one of the Reverend’s favorite expressions was, “None of these two hundred year old denomination are churches.” At the same time in Ashe County a similar controversy ensued.
A year later on July 5, 1896, Rev. Jones and Rev Cheshire held a service in the Bakersville Courthouse and the next day met with a group to plan for an actual church building.
What transpired over that year remains to be discovered; however, the congregation was persistent and successful. On September 8, 1896, Bishop Joseph Blount Cheshire Jr., Thomas W. Patton, and Haywood Parker, Trustees of the Jurisdiction of Asheville, North Carolina, purchased one acre of land behind Reuben Young’s Hotel from C.R. Garland and his wife A.E. Garland for $75 “to the use and benefit of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Missionary Jurisdiction of North Carolina.”
Rev. Cheshire’s accounts end with a note that Rev. Jones did not conduct a regular service after 1897 due to physical issues and “a corresponding intellectual and spiritual loss of tone.” He returned to his birthplace, Chestertown, Maryland where he died at 68 in 1916.
The church building was constructed and services conducted there until about 1918. After that, local family stories tell of children finding the floor to be one of the best places to roller skate in the town.
On September 25, 1936, the Trustees for the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Western North Carolina sold the property to Oscar and Vaughty Young for $250 on which they build their house that remains today.
Unfortunately we have yet to recover documents other than those summarized here regarding the Episcopal congregation or their interactions with the community. Obviously a piece of Bakersville history, yet it could provide us with thoughts if not a lesson in tolerance, perception, prejudice, or all three.
Sources: Mitchell County Deeds, Newspapers.com, and Cheshire, Joseph Blount. Milnor Jones: Deacon and Missionary. Raleigh: Mutual Publishing Company, Printers, 1920.