History of Cullowhee Baptist Church
Cullowhee Baptist Church was organized on November 17, 1821 by 10 charter members: James, Jane, and Thomas Stiles; Martha, James, and Nancy Buchanan; Benjamin Hatfield, Jaley Hibbards, Sarah Mason; and Henry Wood. The frontier congregation called herself Unity Baptist Church in an attempt to unify Calvinists and Armenians in the same body. In 1823 the Armenians became dominant and the church embraced free will doctrine along with the need for missionaries.
The congregation met first in a log structure near the confluence of Love's Branch and the Tuckaseigee River in what is now Webster, NC. The church moved locations in 1830, to a hewn-log building near the mouth of Cullowhee Creek. Periodic flooding forced the church to move to higher ground. So in 1856, a church building was constructed on the property adjacent to the present church cemetery. Other framed buildings were constructed on the periphery of the cemetery in 1885 and then again in 1918. The present brick building was completed in 1929.
In the 1880's services were held one weekend out of the month - on Saturday for business and on Sunday for worship. Not until the early 1900's did the church hold weekly Sunday worship services.
The membership of Cullowhee Baptist (and the earlier Unity Baptist) migrated and spread over the Tuckaseigee and Oconaluftee River valleys during the 1820's. New churches were spawned, including Oconaluftee Baptist (circa 1828); Old Savannah Baptist (circa 1836); Speedwell Baptist (circa 1902); and Little Savannah Baptist (circa 1914).
For nearly a century Cullowhee Baptist could not afford a full time minister until the state convention agreed to pay half the salary of one in the 1920s. It was understood that the minister would spend half of his time ministering to students. This arrangement continued until 1962 when the church fully paid the minister and the convention employed a full time director of the Baptist Student Union. The director soon had a BSU building constructed on land leased from the church. The winds of social change impacted the church in the 1960s. Although the church once had slaves and freedmen as members, it had become racially segregated by the 1960s. Responding to the civil rights movement, the church in 1965 agreed to accept any believer regardless of race or color. To this time women had been excluded from the diaconate, but in 1966 Lucy Crawford became the first woman to be elected deacon. Many have been elected since then.
In 1822, the church under her first name joined the French Broad Association, an organization of Baptist churches designed to aid one another in the Christian faith. In 1829, the church joined with six other churches to found the Tuckaseigee Association. In the early 1900's, she joined the North Carolina State Baptist Convention and later the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In 1993 the church broke its ties with the fundamentalist-leaning SBC and affiliated with the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). Then in 2002 the church withdrew from the Tuckaseigee Baptist Association. At issue was the church’s call of a woman, Rev. Tonya Vickery, to be co-pastor with her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Vickery. Reactionaries in the association believed the church to be in violation of a Southern Baptist dictum that women could not be pastors. Continuing rancor with little hope of restoring fellowship caused the church to withdraw from the association.
In 2018 the church established partnership with the Alliance of Baptists (AB), a progressive Baptist group of congregations, individuals, and global partners. The AB is a member of both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. Later in 2018 the church withdrew partnership with the CBF when they formally adopted a policy against appointing missionaries who identify as LGBTQ. As the congregation of Cullowhee Baptist has remained open and become increasingly affirming of all Christians, the affiliation with the AB reaffirms the congregation's commitment to inclusiveness with regard to gender, race, and homosexuality.
Situated on the campus of Western Carolina University, the Cullowhee Baptist Church of the 2000's seeks to minister to an ever-changing campus community as well as to local residents who are long-established in the Cullowhee area. The congregation is inter-generational and diverse with members from a variety of racial, educational, theological, vocational, and social backgrounds. The basis for unity in the midst of such diversity is found in the common commitment to Jesus Christ and the pilgrimage of faith which binds people together as a church family within the human community. Our hope is that Cullowhee Baptist will be "a place of grace and peace" for all.
(This brief narrative is based on the initial research and writings of Dr. John Bell, long time church member and retired history professor. Some edits and updates to his primary writing have been made for the sake of this website format.)