CLIFTON FORGE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
September 24, 2006
Presented at the Celebration of the
One Hundred Twenty-fifth Anniversary of our Church
Essie Gay McGuire, Author
Josephine Dellinger, Typist/Editor
The area known today as Clifton Forge dates back to a land grant given to early settlers in 1770, changing ownership many times. The story of our church, however, begins much later in the tiny settlement called “Williamson,” named for a large family who had been long time residents and property owners. The community centered around the area where the freight depot stands today.
The first recorded place of worship, other than private homes, was in an old schoolhouse located nearby just east of the village, attended by all Protestants and this also provided a Sunday School. As more people settled in the little village, all denominations banded together and built a roughly constructed church, called “Union Meeting Hall” near the corner of Main and A Streets. This building was also used for civic meetings and as a Town Hall. Worship services were held anytime a preacher was available, often a minister who would conduct a service as he was traveling to and from other places.
The railroad expanded westward through Virginia, and along with that came the demand for iron and steel products. These industries provided employment and settlements became more numerous, rapidly increasing the population. Before long, in Williamson, each denomination desired his own church. Some Presbyterians had attended Oakland Presbyterian Church in Selma, but were interested in having a church closer to where they lived. The women raised funds with sewing, lawn parties, etc., the men offered their carpentry skills, and with individual contributions, the Presbyterians were the first to have their own church. They were followed closely thereafter by other denominations.
The first church, called Williamson Presbyterian Church was located on the site where our Sunday School now stands on the lot beside Smith Creek. With about 24 charter members, it was ready for worship service by March, 1881. Dr. Emmett W. McCorkle, whose work as Home Missions representative of the Synod of Virginia, brought him to the area in 1880, became the first minister.
As the railroad expanded westward and the demand for iron and steel products increased, the settlements increased as well. This was fortunate for this area as Williamson was in a prime strategic location for the railroad, and a forge producing iron was in the gorge between Clifton Forge and Iron Gate nearby. “Clifton” was the name of one of the owners residence, hence the name “Clifton Forge” was given to the furnace, then to the community. The church maintained its name for a very brief time, because at the spring meeting of the Presbytery in 1882, Dr. McCorkle was installed minister of the Clifton Forge Presbyterian Church. He also served other churches.
Missionary Societies were organized and Sunday School was organized in 1889. By 1891, a new building was erected on the site where our present building stands. Christian Endeavor was organized for young people, catechisms were taught in Sunday School, and by 1898 R. P. Hawkins organized the Men’s Bible Class and taught until 1923.
For 8 years the two little churches stood side by side until the first one was destroyed by fire in 1899. By the time Dr. McCorkle left to pastor another church in 1902, the church had a membership of 300.
Emphasis was placed on evangelism and visitation of ruling elders during Dr. James E. Cook’s ministry from 1904-1906. Clearly there was a need for expansion by the time Dr. L. H. Paul arrived. So in 1907, the construction of our present church building housing our sanctuary began. The activities of the church continued in various ways. Mrs. Paul organized the Nettie Paul Bible Class the same year and neighboring churches welcomed members.
Our church with its beautiful stained glass windows was dedicated on May 30, 1909. The same bell which had been a gift from Sarah Elizabeth Williamson to the first church in 1885, also graced the second church, and is still in our present church tower. The congregation continued to grow but felt the absence of some of our young men and women during World War I. The Educational Building was constructed in 1924. In 1925 the Boy Scout movement began in the Clifton Forge Presbyterian Church and today remains the oldest continuing sponsor in the United States.
In 1916 we note church membership to be 700 with the Men’s Bible Class averaging over 100 each Sunday.
Dr. Tipton C. Bales became our minister in 1927 bringing another up-surge in attendance. Summer Vacation Bible School was authorized in 1928 and Mrs. Bales organized the first young people’s choir in the City. The Sara Lin Bible Class was organized in 1931. During World War II Dr. Bales wrote hundred of letters and kept in touch with our service men. Both Dr. and Mrs. Bales were leaders with our young people and one of Dr. Bales’ last services to our church before retiring in 1955 was directing Vacation Bible School with teachers and students totaling 212.
Dr. Phillip A. Roberts began his ministry here in 1956 and left a well-organized church with 1,044 members in 1959. The church supported two missionaries abroad at that time.
Eight months passed before Dr. C. Lewis Morrison became our minister in 1960. He persuaded the congregation to support three additional missionaries. Miss Mary Thompson became Director of Christian Education upon the resignation of Miss Lucy Pennell, who had served with Dr. Bales. Paul D. Steel was hired as administrator. When Rev. Morrison’s tenure was shortened by his death in 1962, Mr. Steele, who was a Lay Minister, conducted services along with visiting preachers.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the C and O Railway was moving with the times, and began to phase out steam engines and diesel engines were replacing the beloved steam engines. By this time the C and O Railway had merged with the Baltimore and Ohio Railway and many railroad personnel were being transferred out of Clifton Forge. This modernization of the railroad industry primarily started the decrease in population in Clifton Forge and the subsequent decline in church membership.
Dr. J. Harris Stephens arrived in 1963 and was our minister during the extensive development program which saw the remodeling and enlarging of the Educational Building, a larger fellowship hall, modern kitchen, office space, and library. The lady’s parlor was completed in 1966 and the beautiful chapel the following year.
Mrs. Stephens was instrumental in starting the Clothing Closet. The “Lamplighter,” forerunner of the “Tidings,” the church newsletter had begun publication on a weekly basis, and the first Chrismon Tree was presented in the sanctuary. Reports showed 352 in Sunday School attendance in 1969.
Dr. Robert L. Hennessee was our minister from 1973-1975. During his tenure we elected out first woman as elder, Dr. Julia Emmett Edmunds, also the first woman deacon, Mrs. Kitty Lewis Stinnett was elected. Lauren V. Olsen, a student at Union Seminary, arrived to serve as Student Assistant Minister.
Rev. Julias S. Garbett arrived in 1976. Workers for Meals-on-Wheels increased. The Men’s Bible Class which now met in the chapel was renamed the Billy Gilmer Bible Class in honor of Dr. William Gilmer who had been its teacher for 15 years. By 1978 the church had six choirs, counting the handbells. The lighting of the Advent Candle began in 1981, the year also of the Centennial Celebration. Mrs. Garbett is credited with introducing the Friendship Club.
In 1983 our new minister was Rev. Jack Raymore. The “Shepherd’s Plan” was reactivated. The young people were very active under his leadership. He accompanied them to the Richmond area to glean potatoes for world hunger and newspapers were gathered and sold to support Weekday Religious Education. Both Rev. and Mrs. Raymore took an active part in Vacation Bible School and he was president of the Food Pantry Board, which was serving up to 123 families during one month.
In 1989, our new minister, Dr. William O. Moore, had arrived. In addition to being our minister, Dr. Moore and his wife, Shirley, added much to the music program of our church. Dr. Moore sang with the choir often and Shirley served as organist. Dr. Moore introduced new events in the church and the community which included: Tenebrae Service on Maundy Thursday evening and the Way of the Cross when the Cross is carried down Main Street on Good Friday. This custom continues now in 2006. Circles were reduced from 4 to 3, later combined to 2. In 1991, the average attendance was 105. Two youth ministers, Donnie Underwood and Jennifer Claterbuck were here during Dr. Moore’s tenure. We had a wonderful Homecoming in September 1992, with about 342 members and former members attending. Dr. Moore retired on May 31, 2000.
A big highlight took place when the Presbytery of the Peaks met at our church on November 29, 2001. People from Central Western Virginia started arriving early and soon the sanctuary was filed to capacity, with additional chairs carried in to accommodate the overflow. Compliments were echoed about the arrangements, food, etc., made by our congregation. Gordon James had been elected Moderator in 2000 and presided at this meeting. During the entire history of our church only two other men were chosen by their peers to be Moderator, C. P. Nair, Jr., in 1968 and William E. Leech in 1979.
On the first of August 2000 we welcomed Dr. William Leonard as our Interim Pastor. The congregation thought it remarkable how quickly he remembered our names. A congregational meeting in December of that year authorized the reduction of the number of elders elected each year from 6 to 5, beginning with the Class of 2002, serving a period of 3 years, making a total of 15 on the session. In February 2001, the church began the support of 2 missionaries in Korea.
Dr. Leonard served as Interim Pastor until the arrival of Rev. Scott Bean, who was installed on June 6, 2002. The Shepherds Committee was again restructured and congregational care to members was emphasized. In Rev. Bean’s Pastor’s Annual Report given to the Church Historian for the year 2002, he reiterated that he wanted to restructure and decrease the size of the Session, effective in 2003, and he wrote that he wanted to bring the church up to date. He said that he wanted to buy new, additional hymn books, a digital piano, and a new TV/VCR combo. “These will help us to expand our worship and Christian Education experience in ways that are attractive to new and younger potential members.” Later he mentions other plans, which would result in the organ pipes being changed from gold to a darker shade. Our congregation was shocked when we received the news of Rev. Bean’s passing on March 8, 2005.
We welcomed Dr. David Kirk on June 19, 2005, as our Interim Pastor. He has delivered fine sermons, and we feel blessed to have him. Teresa Gibson has been another blessing. Emmett Dobbs, our former choir director, resigned to complete his training as a minister of the Anglican faith, and Patti Higgins, organist, resigned. Teresa has stepped forward to not only direct the choir but has been our organist as well.
It is true that our membership has decreased and our economic situation does not match that of yesteryear, but one cannot attend church on Sunday morning without a feeling of gratitude for our beautiful sanctuary and our friends and loved ones who come to worship God together.