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Historic church in Kingsport reflects on past, looks toward future

Deborah Peterson • Jul 5, 2018 at 4:30 PM

As you sit in the beautiful sanctuary of the Old Kingsport Presbyterian Church, you can almost feel the presence of past generations of faithful worshipers. Portraits of founding fathers and original members decorate the walls, while original marble on the tables and stately high-backed chairs grace the front. At 198 years old, the church is rich in history with a fascinating story to tell.

The oldest organized congregation in Kingsport, the church was founded in 1820 as the Boatyard Congregation. Members met in a log structure located in the present-day Old Kingsport Presbyterian Church Cemetery near Netherland Inn. When the church outgrew its log building, a new building was built on nearby property in 1846. Frederick Ross, owner of Rotherwood Mansion, financed the construction of the church and became its first minister. He also donated the large brass bell that still rings each Sunday, calling the community to worship.

Not only is the church an attractive landmark, but it also has the unique distinction of having been moved twice. It was first moved in 1910, after railroad tracks were laid just north of the property. The church was moved only a few yards south and rotated to face east instead of north. Later in 1953, the building was moved to its current location on Greenway Street off of Stone Drive. Legend has it that during the move, a glass of water sat on a windowsill of the sanctuary and never spilled during the entire journey. Longtime member Mary Ann Carty recalled that moving day when she and neighborhood children watched the event. “I don’t know how they ever moved it all the way to where it is today,” she said. “It was amazing, especially back then. It was some accomplishment.”

Although the church is rich in history, its real treasure lies in the generations of families that have lived, loved and served throughout the years. Pastor Jeff Morelock is a third generation member and proudly spoke of its history and heritage.

“I was born and raised in this church. We are all very proud of this place and love it dearly,” he said. A bi-vocational pastor, Jeff has pastored several churches in the area but was called to Old Kingsport Presbyterian three years ago. “That’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s so good to be back here,” he said. An ornate cross in front of the sanctuary stands in honor of his parents, George and Joan Morelock, who were very active members.

The church celebrated its 198th birthday at a special homecoming service on May 20. They may have an interesting past, but Jeff says they are also looking to the future. “We’re looking forward to our 200th anniversary. We feel positive and good about the future,” he said.

Averaging around 25 to 30 people in attendance each week, Jeff said they would love to attract more young people for the church to continue to grow.

“We’ve always felt that the grace of God is strong in this building and strong in the church,” he explained. “But like all things in life, it got a little dust on it. What we’re trying to do is wipe off that dust.”

The congregation is hoping to do more mission activities as they continue to grow, while bringing back some old traditions such as Maundy Thursday services. Jeff said that while they would like to see more people in the pews, it’s not the number of people that is important. “When that (growth) happens, you know more people are being touched,” he explained. “People who are hungry for the gospel are back in church. And it starts right here in little churches like this.”

Although they are proud of the history of their church, Jeff said they don’t want it to just be a historic stop. “We want people to join the ministry that is going on here,” he said. “We want to know that the gospel of Jesus Christ is alive and well here; it’s not just an old historic trunk.”

Jeff keeps a busy schedule as he works full-time for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. in Kingsport and also pastors at West Ridge Presbyterian Church in Mount Carmel. He and his wife, Lisa, have three children who were all raised in the Old Kingsport Presbyterian Church. “It’s where my heart is. Preaching the love of God - what a blessing that is to us,” Jeff said.

As the people of Old Kingsport Presbyterian Church pass along the faith of their fathers, they invite you to join them as they worship every Sunday at 11 a.m. at 2049 Greenway Street in Kingsport.

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