Since its earliest beginnings, Banner Elk Presbyterian Church has had an interesting history, rich in service and ministry. The church dates its beginning as 1893 when 22 people made their professions of faith in response to the preaching mission of a Presbyterian evangelist, the Rev. Dr. R. P. Pell. For the next few summers, a young seminary student, Edgar Tufts, assisted in mission activities in a wide mountain area which included Banner Elk. With his encouragement and supervision, the first Presbyterian church building in Banner Elk, said to be one of the prettiest little churches of its kind ever seen, was completed and dedicated in 1896.
When he graduated from seminary, the Rev. Mr. Tufts returned to the area full-time and was called to be pastor of Banner Elk Church as well as four other small churches. As church membership grew, Tufts shared his dream of building a church of native stone in Banner Elk. Many of the local mountain men were skilled in stone-craft, but rockwork previously had been used only for chimneys and foundations. Nowhere in the immediate area had the beautiful and plentiful native stone been used for an entire building. The congregation was said to be small in number and material wealth, but great in faith and dedication. Offers for materials and labor came from many sources, and much work went into raising funds to purchase property and begin construction in 1912.
Stories are still told of the community spirit which developed as local men of all denominations assisted in the church construction, coming together each Saturday to help with the “new” idea of using native stone, instead of wood, to construct the building. Men and older boys would haul loads of big rocks in their wagons, which were often pulled by oxen. Children, including those who lived at Grandfather Home, carried water and collected piles of small rocks to be used in the cement. The children, knowing they were assisting in important work, also found creative ways to earn and save pennies for purchasing two small stained glass windows which were built into the front wall of the sanctuary. Each week women brought brimming picnic baskets of food and generously contributed their energy and talents to help with the many tasks required. Building the church became quite a community event as everyone eagerly assisted.
One story has been passed down that a logger, searching in the deep woods for timber to cut on the east side of Beech Mountain, suddenly saw one solid stone about as high as his head and as wide as his shoulders. The rock stood upright and alone, reminding him of a pulpit. Although not a member, he had been helping with building the Presbyterian Church, and he could hardly wait to tell Preacher Tufts about his discovery. Tufts was thrilled with the unusual idea of a stone pulpit.
After cutting a road through the woods, local men hauled the stone eight miles to the site of the church. The stone pulpit was firmly set in place on the ground under the new church and the floor of the sanctuary was built around it. Later, a smooth rock slab was set on top to hold the Bible. This pulpit continues to be an inspirational symbol of dedication and strength. The stone building was finished in 1914, complete with beautiful stained glass windows, the first that many people had ever seen.
Under the auspices of Banner Elk Presbyterian Church and with the tireless leadership of its pastor Edgar Tufts, Lees-McRae Institute (now Lees-McRae College), Grandfather Orphanage (Grandfather Home for Children) and Grace Hospital (now Cannon Memorial Hospital) were established; to this day each still serves others to God’s glory. Early on, the church sought to minister to the varied needs of the people in this area as well as to provide for rich Christian nurture and spiritual growth.
As soon as the church was established, its work extended to include several nearby outreach locations, including Beech Mountain, Pigeon Roost, Hanging Rock Chapel, and an active Sunday school at the foot of Bald Mountain which was later to become Arbor Dale Presbyterian Church.
Throughout the years, the original stone church building has been enlarged and renovated many times as the congregation has sought to meet ever-changing needs. The sanctuary was extensively remodeled during the 1940s, the educational building added in the 1950s, and the fellowship hall and kitchen have undergone many upgrades with the most recent one in 2010. In 2003, a major expansion and renovation was completed throughout the building to provide additional classrooms and office areas.
In this early part of the twenty-first century, the congregation finds itself growing and consisting of both full-time and associate members, who are actively engaged in fulfilling the mission and ministry of the church. Increasingly, this lovely area of the Blue Ridge Mountains attracts numerous seasonal residents and vacationers whose attendance and support greatly enhance the church family and its service to others. Long-time residents and newcomers from diverse faith traditions unite in spirit and dedicated commitment to Banner Elk Presbyterian Church’s mission which is to call all people to a personal acceptance of and a growing relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Compiled by Claire Fortune
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