(This article appears in Vol. II of the Dade County History Book. It was written several years ago and does not cover more recent history of the church. The article has been edited as the original article contains history of the community and the schools. The article in its entirety can be found in the Dade County History Book which is for sale at the Dade County Library and the local banks.)
Actually, very little is known of the first settlers who moved to Lookout Mountain in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Most of them remain nameless forebears. A second wave of settlers came just before the Civil War. Among these were John Gray, James Bradford and his son, Jackson Bradford, Robert Boatman, H.D. Stephens, Francis McKaig and J. W. Moore and his brother William Alexander Moore. Many present-day residents of New Salem are descendants of these early pioneers.
The earliest records of Methodist work among whites in the area are in 1839 when a Dade Mission was established as part of the Jasper Circuit in the Washington District of the Tennessee Conference. This mission had around 130 members by 1840. There is no indication if a preaching place was established on the mountain at this time. However, local tradition has it that a church was begun in the early 1840s which had a brush arbor as a preaching place.
On January 12, 1861, Jacob Sitton sold 318 ½ acres of land to Robert Boatman. In this deed the early church is mentioned. Sitton sells the acreage “with the exception of one and a half acres of the south west corner of one of said lots known and distinguished as the place where the arbor for a campground now stands.” Obviously, by the early 1860s the place where the arbor stood was well known enough to be mentioned in a deed.
“Lookout Mountain Mission” is first mentioned in the Conference records of 1856. In 1859 Goodson McDaniel and Daniel R. Reagen were appointed to Dade Circuit and Lookout Mission. There were about 50 members at this time. Although the Civil War interrupted the 1860s , the work of the church continued during this tumultuous period.
Once the war was over, the work of the church continued. On July 26, 1866, Jacob Sitton gave one and a half acres to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, ”… for and in consideration of the love I have for the cause of Christ.” The trustees who received this donation were H.D. Stephens, Robert Boatman, John Gray, James Bradford and W.J. Bradford. In the deed they were charged to “… erect or build or cause to be erected and built thereon a house or place of worship for the use of the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South…”
The tradition has been that Robert Boatman gave the land for the original church. However, the deeds are clear that Jacob Sitton gave the land and Boatman was one of the trustees who received it. This legend may have come into being because Boatman owned all the land surrounding the church. Also, Sitton was not of the community, living in the valley at the time.
It is not known exactly when the first church building was built. It was erected sometime after 1866. It was a one-room log building with split-log benches. Men of the community hewed the logs and erected the building. It stood near the northeast corner of the present Larry Abbott house about one-half mile east of the current New Salem United Methodist Church building.
The school met in the church building. There was another earlier school in Fryer Hollow, near Newsome Gap. Mr. George H. Nesbitt and Miss Jennie Stiff were teachers in the Fryer Hollow School. The school term in the early schools was three months long and was usually taught in July, August and September between planting and harvest.
Some of the early schoolteachers at New Salem were Burt and Nelle Chambers, Harvey Quinton, Mrs. Georgia Driggs, Miss Jessie Henderson and Misses Johnnie & Clark Cole. The church building fulfilled this dual role of church and school until a school was built around 1910.
In 1877 Rev. W.J. Drinnon, an ancestor of Mrs. Clara Denham’s, was serving the Lookout Mountain as pastor. He received $23 for his annual salary. Over $300 was raised for missions in that year from the Lookout Mountain Mission. There were about 160 members at this time. It is recorded that there were about 100 volumes in the library at the church. The next year the salary was raised to $175.
In 1879, 48 adults were baptized into the church to bring the membership to 202. These were not all at New Salem but were on the Lookout Mountain Mission Circuit which included Paynes Chapel, Mt. Pleasant, Pine Grove, Durham and Summer Town at various times.
Records show that H.D. Stephens was a local preacher in the 1880s. Mr. Stephens is an ancestor of the late Elda Bradford Neal. A local preacher lived in the community and received a license from the annual conference. He assisted the regularly appointed pastor in his duties. Usually the local preacher would conduct services on the Sundays that the appointed preacher was at other points on the circuit. Early conference records do not record who these local people were. However, it is known that John Gray was probably New Salem’s first local preacher.
Music has always been an important part of the history of New Salem. An annual all-day sing was established in 1921. The all-day sing has been a time of spirit-filled music and fellowship. It has traditionally been a day on which old friends and family return to New Salem.
Singing schools were an important shaping influence on the tradition of music at New Salem. These week- to two-week-long sessions taught children, youth and adults the rudiments of singing to shaped notes. Also, many new hymns were learned. Marshall Bradford taught many of these schools as did his sons, Grady and Shorty Bradford.
From this musical heritage come many good singers. Grady and Shorty Bradford sang in many parts of the country. The Billy Gray Trio has sung in singings throughout the South for a number of years. The Adkins Family Band is a group which has performed widely in the area. Mark Gray is currently a top young country music star. The Forester Sisters are a rising group on the country music scene. All these have roots deep in the musical tradition of New Salem. The church choir and congregational singing are excellent present-day examples of a long history of singing and music.
The one-room church building which was constructed around the turn of the century was not able to meet the needs of the growing congregation. The records of the Holston Conference show that 21 youth and adults were baptized in 1930. This almost doubled the membership. During the 1930s a Sunday school annex was added onto the back of the frame building. This addition had three rooms which could be opened into one large room. The labor and lumber were donated by people of the community.
Community life was again interrupted by war in 1941. Many young men of New Salem served valiantly in Europe and the South Pacific. Some gave the supreme sacrifice of life for their country. Upon their return from combat the surviving soldiers became the driving force in the church.
In the early 1950s the church was moved to its present location on Highway 136. The present building was built from donations of materials and labor, money from the Plum Nelly food booth and sacrificial giving on the part of the members. The present facility, which was completed in 1953, was begun in May of 1951. The church began worshipping in the yet uncompleted building in August 1953.
Bishop Roy H. Short and Dr. Clyde Lundy, superintendent of the Chattanooga District, led in the service of dedication on May 4, 1958. The pulpit furniture was made at the Methodist College Furniture Shop at Hiwassee College. Writing in 1958, Art Moore said, “Raising the money for construction was a task in which everyone joined. Help came from pledges, donations, the District Superintendent, and others. The men and women of the community joined efforts in the sale of barbecue at the Plum Nelly Art Show as a Lord’s Acre project, while the women of the church had quiltings and
suppers. Indeed most of the actual work of construction was done by the men of the church as a work of love.”
--Linda Hawkins Wilson