Watauga Association of Baptists is made up of 57 churches and one mission with a total membership of 20,174 and an annual budget of more than $225,000. However, its contributions to missions is double that amount and more, as missions is the very heartbeat of this group of Baptists, who have a long and historic heritage dating back to the late 1800s.
Rev. Bob Polk, who for a number of years has called Elizabethton home, and who has pastored churches in the Watauga Association and served as its missions director, has now documented much of the Association’s history into a book titled “Missionary at Heart.”
“I think it is a book that lay people will enjoy reading. It’s not just statistics, but it’s about the men and women, who through the years, have been at the heart of the work in the Watauga Baptist Association,” Polk said, noting that he was probably a year and a half researching material for the book and writing it. “I would work on it some, then lay it aside for a while, then pick it back up. It’s not hard to write about something you have been a part of and love,” shared Polk, who is now retired, but from time to time fills in occasionally for a pastor.
“I enjoyed my time as a pastor,” said Polk, who explained that it was during his time as director of missions that he developed a heart for the many small churches that are a part of the Association. “They are the ones that need you the most. It was a real joy to be with those people and to help them,” he said. Polk noted that many of the small churches that help make up the Association are located as much as 45 miles from the Associational office.
In researching material for the book, Polk said he read the minutes of all the Associational meetings — all 149 of them.
[quote type="large" align="right"]“I learned much about the people who had toiled and worked here. I think what makes Watauga Association of Baptists special is that they are missionaries at heart. And, that’s the name I chose for the book. The men and women in these churches have always had a heart for people. They went through some tough times, but the glue that held them together was their desire to minister to hurting people and their love for missions,” he exclaimed.[/quote]
In the first couple chapters of the book, Polk traces the beginnings of Baptists in Northeast Tennessee from the time their ancestors arrived in America and their migration into the Appalachians. “There is no doubt that these early Baptists were a part of the Wataugans who organized the Watauga Association, which was a political association and not to be confused with a church association,” Polk wrote. The roots of the Watauga Association of Baptists dates back to 1868 when Baptists in Johnson County were busy organizing a new association of churches. On September 18 of that year, 42 delegates from 14 churches met at Cobbs Creek Baptist Church for the forming of a new association. Among the leaders was a Carter Countian, Rev. A.J.F. Hyder, who at 26 years old was a young preacher who had served in the Federal Army during the Civil War. Rev. Hyder was appointed local missionary “to labor in the destitute parts of the Association and especially among the Colored population.” As far back as 1871, the Association recommended support of domestic and foreign missions.
They also supported orphanages. In the early 1930s “a truck moved through the Association to gather the fruits and vegetables gathered from the mountain” to take to the orphanage. In addition to the produce, people donated canned goods and staples such as flour, meal and sugar.
Polk notes that not only were missions and cooperation important to these founding fathers, but education was important, too. At that first meeting in 1868, minutes reflect that a committee was appointed to bring a recommendation to the next meeting concerning the establishment of a high school in the area. Later, the Association operated Watauga Academy at Butler.
Watauga Baptists were always outspoken about their beliefs, whether it concerned temperance, gambling, lewdness, church discipline, etc.
Polk details in his book how in 1928, Rev. Richard N. Owens, Pastor of Elizabethton First Baptist Church, who gave the sermon, read his text from the revised version of the Bible. “This was most likely the first time a version other than the King James version had ever been read at the annual meeting,” Polk wrote.
The minutes reflect that in the early 1960s a Johnson County church voted not to send any report or money to the Association because they disapproved of any use or reference to the “New Bible” (the Revised Standard Version) in the literature of the Southern Baptist Board.
He mentions many individuals, who contributed immensely to the Association through their leadership — Judge W.R. Allen, B.F. Seiler, J.P. VanHuss, J.M. Richardson, W.M. Vaught, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Moody, who for many years operated the Watauga Lodge at Ridgecrest, N.C., Wiley B. Mount, Miss Gertrude Hall and Marjorie Nell Cardwell, just to name a few.
Polk said he as read through the minutes he learned that minutes of earlier meetings were often dedicated to a person who had left his mark on the community, a church or the Association in a memorable way. One such person was Rev. J.J. Richards, son of a circuit riding preacher, who at the time of his death in 1964 was pastor emeritus of Cobbs Creek Baptist Church. A note from the biographical sketch in the minutes read: “Rev. Richardson throughout his entire forty-six years of ministry, never faltered from the Faith of the Fathers. He never left a church in debt.”
Another pastor memorialized with the dedication of its meeting minutes in 1988 was Rev. R.C. Eggers. The minutes stated: “As a man, a preacher, a pastor, and an evangelist, Uncle Roby measures tall by God’s measuring rod. God has been glorified by his preaching. For these 50 years, he has been a man to match the mountains over which he traveled by foot, horseback, buggy and auto to preach the glorious gospel.”
Polk’s book is a story of love, of struggles, of a people who came together to grow the kingdom of God. They sent their sons and daughters off to war, more than once. They prayed for them. They lived though the Depression, through the relocation of some of their churches when the Watauga Dam was built. They survived the New Bible controversy. They remained united when the Southern Baptist Convention went through the divisive problems of the ’70s and ’80s. They have traveled to far-away places to spread the gospel. At home they built Hale Community Ministries.
Polk ends the story of Watauga Baptists with these words: “Through all their history they have always been missionary at heart.”
The book sells for $10 with all proceeds going to Hale Community Ministries. Books are available at the Watauga Association Office. Checks can be made payable to Bob Polk.