Chattanooga: LDS in Tennessee build on firm foundation

If you ever visit the area around Chattanooga, look for two visual symbols of the Church, its people and their rich heritage in this region of southeast Tennessee.

One is the Northcutts Cove Chapel, built in 1909 and standing like a venerable old patriarch near Altamont, north of Chattanooga. Refurbished and restored with the original pot-belly stove, hand-made pulpit and benches, and replicas of the original porcelain coal-oil lamps and chandeliers, it is a sublime setting for special meetings in the Chattanooga Tennessee Stake, such as the annual Easter service. Among local Church members, it is as revered as the Salt Lake Tabernacle is by the Church at large.The other visual symbol is in Chattanooga itself. It is a meetinghouse dedicated by President Spencer W. Kimball on July 26, 1975, which is now the stake center. With its rock and brick face, it reflects a spirit of vitality, growth and hope that characterize local Church members.

"When he dedicated the building, President Kimball was the first General Authority to visit Chattanooga in I don't know how many years," said Philander K. Smartt Jr., stake president. "The Church has grown here dramatically since his visit."

Because his relatives, J. Golden Kimball and Elias Kimball, had served as missionaries and mission presidents in Chattanooga, President Kimball loved the area and took an interest in the stake center dedication, Pres. Smartt said.

Chattanooga was the headquarters of the Southern States Mission from 1882 to 1919, and local members still venerate the Church leaders who helped spread the gospel and establish the Church here. Those leaders include Wilford Woodruff and George Albert Smith, later presidents of the Church, and others who became General Authorities, such as LeGrand Richards, B. H. Roberts, Charles A. Callis and Rudger Clawson.

A monument to Elder Clawson's martyred missionary companion, Joseph Standing, is just over the state line near Dalton, Ga., within the Chattanooga stake boundaries.

Elder Standing was shot in the head July 21, 1879, by a member of a mob that had captured the two elders. Elder Clawson – who later became president of the Council of the Twelve – faced the mobsters down, and they left him alone unharmed. When Elder Clawson returned with help, Elder Standing was dead. The event is commemorated by the monument, dedicated in 1952 by President David O. McKay.

Gratitude to Elders Standing and Clawson and the others who sacrificed to bring the blessings of the gospel to the South still abounds. Today's Church members are now building on the foundation laid by those early missionaries and Church leaders.

Pres. Smartt is something of a personified link between the Church's past and present in Chattanooga.

No transplanted Utahns in his lineage, he is as indigenous to Tennessee as the dogwood trees that grow wild in the country. His great-grandfather donated the land on which the Northcutts Cove Chapel was built, and his grandparents donated labor and money for its construction. As a baby, he was blessed by Elder Callis, a member of the Council of the Twelve and former Southern States Mission president.

For part of his youth, he was one of only two Aaronic Priesthood holders in Chattanooga. With no encouragement, he said, other than "the movings of the Spirit," he applied for acceptance at BYU and enrolled there beginning in September 1961, the first person from Chattanooga ever to do so.

While at BYU, he decided he wanted to go on a mission and was called to serve in Northern California, the first native Chattanoogan ever to be a full-time missionary.

Pres. Smartt was influenced so profoundly by his college and mission experiences that he has encouraged missionary service and attendance at Church schools among the members of his stake. A Church News article on Sept. 28, 1986, featured the stake's success in having had many of its members serve missions.

"We try to keep 40 to 50 missionaries in the field at all times," he said. Right now we have 40."

Also, the stake at any given time has about 50 students at BYU and about 10 at Ricks College.

As more students wish to attend Church schools now than ever before and openings are more scarce, the stake provides for its college-age single members who do not go away to school. It sponsors an institute of religion class taught at the stake center by Sid Sandstrom of the Church Educational System who commutes to Chattanooga from Nashville.

"We're hoping that as the Church membership grows, we can get a full-time institute director in Chattanooga," Pres. Smartt said.

Both the emphasis on missionary work and the attention to the spiritual welfare of college students have brought blessings to the stake. Most leaders in the stake now are native southerners – people who have come home from their missions or college, married in the temple, and remained in the area to give spiritual maturity to the local Church units. By contrast, in Pres. Smartt's youth, most of the local Church leaders were from the west.

Measures of Church activity reflect that spiritual maturity. Last year, there were 138 convert baptisms in the stake; there were 18 in March and 10 in April of this year.

Stake members attend the Atlanta Georgia Temple faithfully and last year extracted some 105,000 names for temple ordinance work.

The stake helps support a Church welfare project, a beef operation in Birchwood, north of Chattanooga, with about 230 head of breeding stock cattle. An aggressive building effort has improved attendance at Church meetings in the stake, which extends 150 miles in each direction from Chattanooga, covering parts of three states (Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama) and two time zones. In the eight years Pres. Smartt has been stake president, there have been 13 meetinghouses or meetinghouse additions built.

"We try to take the Church to the Saints," he said. "For example, in Ellijay, Ga., a town in the mountains where Rudger Clawson preached his first sermon, we created a branch. Previously it had five active members, and now it has more than 100."

Similarly one family had been traveling to Chattanooga for Church meetings from South Pittsburgh, Tenn., about 40 miles west. A branch was created there in the mid-1980s and now it has 15 active families.

In contrast to the bitterness that prevailed when Elder Standing was martyred, Church members now enjoy a warm relationship with the community at large. In connection with a recent stake conference, 14 local government leaders attended a Saturday night banquet the stake held, including the mayor of Chattanooga, state legislators and judges. In remarks at the banquet, they paid tribute to the Church.

The president of Chattanooga State College was there and pointed out three of his faculty members who were Church members at the banquet.

Besides college faculty, among the approximately 2,800 stake members are engineers who work for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest power utility in the country, and other professionals. Other stake members, particularly in mountain wards and branches, are employed in trades or manual labor.

Regardless of their occupation, Pres. Smartt said, "our members try to be obedient to the Brethren and to follow what the prophets and the apostles teach."