While there were a few people living along the North Toe River as early as the 1770s, real settlement in the area began around 1790. The Revolutionary War was over, and the Cherokee were no longer raiding frontier settlements. Those who had applied for land grants when the system first opened in 1778 could now legally inhabit their land. It is said that early settlers often arrived with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other.
Those new settlers brought their Christian beliefs with them. However, it would take decades for formal churches to be established. Francis Asbury passed through the area in 1793, and again in 1796. During the latter trip, he recorded in his journal that he stayed at "Mr. Davinports." We can presume that this is Martin Davenport, who lived near or in the old Bright settlement in southern Avery County. He recorded preaching while moving through the area. Some of the earliest Methodist meetings that were recorded took place in the homes of the Wiseman families, in the present-day Ingalls community. It was reported in 1814 that among the stops on the Morganton Circuit was a place called "Wiseman's." This stop was also reported in 1823 and 1824.
A decade later, Methodists began holding services on the other end of the Three Mile Valley. "Stump Preaching" took place, and the first recognized Methodist minister in the area was John Weaver.
One source states that the Methodists met in the Owl Den School, near the Old Three Mile Road. "The floors, seats and doors were made from Split logs. The windows were covered with logs split thin enough to slide back for light." A new building was built about 100 yards from the school, serving the congregation until around 1840. John Wise donated the property for the building, and David Franklin donated the lumber, cut at his own sawmill, for the building. Families that attended included the Wises, Franklins, Carpenters, Dellingers, Teems, Vances, Goodmans, Ollises and Davenports.
In 1844, the Methodist Church in the United States split into two General Conferences, one in the North, and one in the South. It appears that all Methodist churches in the area were Southern churches until the decades following the American Civil War.
At the start of the Civil War, there appear to be three Methodist churches in present-day Avery County: Pisgah, Pine Grove, and Hunter's Chapel.
Churches in the area grew rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There was a Methodist church in Banner Elk prior to 1882. The church moved into a new building near its current location in 1897. The Banner Elk Methodist Church was abandoned in the 1940s, but revived in the late 1950s. The old building was torn down and a new building dedicated in December 1963.
Elk Park had a Methodist congregation by the 1890s. A new brick building was built in 1911, but burned in 1945. That building was rebuilt and is still in use today.
Forest Home Methodist Church was organized in 1885, and the first building was built in 1886. Contributing members were Marti Banner, Sr., Martin Banner, Jr., John Carpenter, Jacob Harris, Luther Banner, J.H. Rominger, L.A. Rominger, L.E. Banner, and Newton Banner. The church closed during the Great Depression, but did reopen. It is now known as Forest Home Community Church.
Also mentioned in various publications in the 1870s through the 1890s are Methodist churches in the area by the names of Summer House and Mt. Vernon. Thompson's Chapel was a Northern Methodist Church on the North Toe River, founded by members of the Vance, Goforth, and Thompson families. The church was probably founded in the 1870s.
The Cranberry community had a building used by different denominations. There are mentions of a Methodist mission in the area starting in 1880, appearing in various publications through 1918. Today, the building is known as Cranberry Baptist Church.
Montezuma had two Methodist churches, both Northern and Southern branches. The Northern church went so far as to establish Aaron Seminary in the community. The Southern church, built by Wes Bagby, has been gone for many decades. The Northern church building still stands, but has not been used as a church for many years.
Minneapolis had a Northern Methodist church, on Big Horse Creek, prior to 1892. Two other locations were used to house this body of believers. Around 1923, the third Northern Methodist Church was torn down, and the lumber was used to construct a Southern Methodist Church. The Southern Methodist church was known as Young's Chapel, in honor of Horton Young.
As the area continued to develop, there were new churches planted in the early twentieth century. Services were first held in the Altamont community in 1913. Property was donated by George and Candance Weld in June 1921, and the building was dedicated on Sept. 13, 1925.
Fairview was located between Spear and Plumtree and established in 1912. It was called Fairview because it sat on a hillside with a view of the entire valley. That building was used until 1951 when a new building was constructed across the road, and the church was renamed Vance Memorial.
The new county seat in Newland gained a Methodist Church in 1914. It was founded by the Rev. Lou Hayes. In 1965, the old building was torn down and a new building constructed.
In Linville Falls, people began listening to Methodist ministers in a local schoolhouse in 1918. A church was incorporated in 1920, and the building, constructed by Christopher McCoy Franklin, was finished in 1924.
In 1922, the Methodist church in Linville was founded and a building constructed on land secured from John Yoder. In 1975, the old building was torn down and the current building erected.
There are scores of different Baptist denominations: Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Free Will, Full Gospel, Reformed, Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptist. Some join together in associations, and others are truly independent.
Some of the earliest Baptist churches established in the Avery County area no longer exist. In 1849, the Roan Mountain Association was created with at least two churches located in present-day Avery County: Three Mile and Lynville. It is believed that the Lynville Baptist Church was located off Goose Hollow Road, near the baptizing Hole. The Three Mile Baptist Church was last reported in the records in 1857, while the Lynville River Church is reported as being “destitute of Baptist preaching” in the early 1860s. The Lynville congregation attempted to rejoin the association in 1869, but it was rejected until it purged itself of members who were “living in violation of law and good morals...” It is unclear if the church did, in fact, remove the offensive members to find its way back into the Association’s fold.
Other churches were formed long before there was an Avery County, churches that still exist today. Big Meadows Baptist joined the Roan Mountain Association sometime between 1851 and 1858. At Big Meadows, the families often met in homes before securing a more permanent meeting location. The Yellow Mountain Baptist Church was organized on June 18, 1869, with Rev. Leonard L. Buchanan as pastor.
Like other early churches, Yellow Mountain reportedly met in an old log cabin, with crude benches and a dirt floor. Many of these new churches shared space with the community's one-room school house. Mt. Pleasant Church was organized a few months later, in August 1869, in the home of Wilson Burleson. Beech Mountain Church, like Mt. Pleasant and Yellow Mountain, also joined the Roan Mountain Association in 1869.
Other churches were slowly created over the next few decades; among them are Roaring Creek Missionary Baptist Church in 1871; Fall Creek Baptist in 1885; Green Valley Baptist in 1886; Minneapolis Baptist Church in 1887; and Aaron Baptist in 1889.
A year after Avery County was formed, delegates from 10 different local churches met at Aaron Baptist in September 1912. The delegates represented Aaron, Saginaw, Henson's Creek, Elk Park, Roaring Creek, Jonas Ridge, Green Valley, Pleasant Hill, Minneapolis, and Big Meadows. It is interesting to note that the Rev. J.W. Hall served as pastor of six of the ten churches at the original meeting since it was common for a single minister to serve a number of different congregations. Rev. W.H. Ollis was elected to serve as moderator, and at the end of the two-day meeting, the Avery Baptist Association was formed.
In 1913, the total membership of those churches was 1,022. The church in Saginaw closed soon thereafter, but in 1913, Cranberry, Crossnore, Mt. Pleasant, Newland, and Oak Grove all joined the Avery Association.
There have been other Baptist churches founded over the years. Some were a part of the Avery Baptist Association, and some remain independent or a part of other associations. These include: Flat Springs (1902); Cranberry Baptist (1908); First Baptist Crossnore (1912); Powder Mill (1914); First Baptist Elk Park (1917); First Baptist Newland, Belview, and Bethel (1921); Stamey Town and Long Ridge (1947); Valley Haven (1948); White's Memorial (1949); Sugar Mountain (1950); Pilgrim Baptist (1964); Temple Baptist (1970), and New Life (2003).
While Presbyterians first arrived in the colonies in the late 1600 and were organizing into churches in the New England states by 1706, they took a long time to formally make their way to the mountains and valleys along the North Toe River.
The Rev. R.P. Pell, evangelist of the Presbyterian church, U.S., reportedly preached at the Presbyterian church in Banner Elk in 1892, and possibly at Cranberry and Pineola as well. Of course, there were probably not actual churches at these locations. The traditional date for the establishment of the Banner Elk church is 1893.
Much of the work of establishing Presbyterian churches fell on Edgar Tufts. Tufts, a student at the time, was sent by the Concord Presbytery to the area in 1895. Tufts was soon working on a new church building in the community. He also preached frequently in Linville, and possibly played a role in the organization of the Wee Kirk Presbyterian Church in 1895. After 1900, Tufts continued to preach in the area, but much of his work went into education, founding what became Lees-McRae College, Grace Hospital, and the Grandfather Home for Children.
Plumtree Presbyterian Church was constituted in 1905, and in 1908, Buck Hill Presbyterian Church was founded. Tufts purchased a lot just off Avery Square at an auction in Newland in 1912. This would become the Newland Presbyterian Church. Other Presbyterian churches followed. Pineola was built in 1925, partially funded by automotive pioneer Howard Marmon. The Sloops were the driving force behind the Crossnore Presbyterian Church in 1926. Frank Presbyterian Church was constituted in 1935; Arbor Dale in 1958, and Fellowship Presbyterian in Crossnore in 1976.
The Christian Church
The Christian Church, sometimes referred to early on as the Church of Christ, began work in the area of the Ford of Elk as early as 1825. Eventually, the Ford of Elk community became known as the Heaton community. Believers met in a log building, then in the 1890s in a school house. A third building was constructed in 1904. The present building was constructed in 1948.
Other churches sprang up. There is a mention of a "Buck Mountain Church of Christ" in the 1880s. Elk Park Christian Church was constituted in 1909, the Minneapolis Christian Church in the 1920s. There is also a Newland Christian Church as well.
The Catholic Church
There are rumors of a Catholic congregation in Elk Park around the turn of the 20th century. But concrete information is sparse. St. Patricia's Chapel was constructed in Linville in the 1940s, largely for the summer visitors. By the 1970s, the small, 30-seat chapel could no longer accommodate parishioners. In 1984, a piece of property was purchased north of Linville, and construction began in 1987. Mass was first celebrated at Saint Bernadette Church on December 31, 1988.
There are many other churches across Avery County. Non-Denominational churches include Banner Elk Christian Fellowship; the People's Church on Roaring Creek; Mountainside Lutheran Church in Linville; Latter Day Saints in Banner Elk; Holy Communion Lutheran Church in Banner Elk; Greater Joy Fellowship in Newland; God's Blessing Church in Elk Park; Church of Jesus Christ in Newland; and Beech Bottom Mennonite Church, just to name a few. Surely, with all of the different denominations in Avery County, everyone should be able to find a place to connect and worship.