The story of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Oglethorpe comes in two parts. There’s the building itself and there’s the congregation that now owns it. Perhaps the best person to share the stories is Herman McConathy, one of the early elders of the congregation and a collector of its history.
Before First Presbyterian was called First Presbyterian, and before it was the PCA – Presbyterian Church in America – church it is today, it belonged to the denomination Presbyterian Church U.S. Its decision to become a PCA church is part of the story of how it came to inhabit the building that served as the Post Chapel when Fort Oglethorpe was a military post.
First Pres, as members often refer to their church, came into existence in 1957 as a mission church, a branch of East Ridge Presbyterian. Their very first service, a Sunday School class of 13 people, was held in the band room at Lakeview High School when it was on Cross Street. Five acres of land across the street from the high school was donated to the congregation and by January of 1958, a building had been constructed on it. They named it Lakeview Chapel.
Less than a year later, Lakeview Chapel officially became Lakeview Presbyterian Church.
McConathy became a member of the church in 1965 when his church, Mountain View Church, merged with Lakeview Presbyterian.
Over the years the church grew and went through several pastors. In 1981, a departing pastor helped church members form a steering committee whose job it would be to find a new pastor. The committee was led by McConathy and another elder, Ken Brumley.
"Through our meetings and discussions with other Christian leaders and our research," says McConathy, "we found that our local congregation was out of step with the P.C.U.S. denomination."
The steering committee called for a meeting of the entire church to consider withdrawing from P.C.U.S. That meeting was held in 1981. The congregation discussed the ways in which their beliefs differed from those of P.C.U.S. – things like the purpose of missions, the inerrancy of the Scriptures and the participation of non-believers in communion (the Lord’s Supper).
"Our positions on many points were far more conservative than those of P.C.U.S.," says McConathy. "We believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures. We believe that we should only admit believers to the Lord’s Supper."
But breaking away did not prove so easy. The congregation submitted a request to the Presbytery of Knoxville (P.C.U.S.) to withdraw and to become part of the Tennessee Valley Presbytery (PCA). They learned that withdrawing would mean the loss of their property. They pursued their course anyway.
In order to be admitted to the PCA denomination, the two main elders of the church were asked to prove their understanding of doctrine by taking a 100-question test. "Normally, the pastor would do this," says McConathy, "but we still didn’t have a pastor."
McConathy and Brumley satisfied the requirements of the Tennessee Valley Presbytery and the church became a PCA congregation. From that point, local PCA pastors and professors from Covenant College began to conduct services for the church while it continued its search for a full-time pastor.
The loss of the church’s property, says McConathy, turned out to be a blessing.
The church met for a short time in a shopping center. "We didn’t know how we were going to pay the rent or put up walls for Sunday School rooms," McConathy says. "Then the second Sunday there, someone donated the money we needed for materials." The Sunday after that, someone covered the rent.
The congregation did not want to remain in a shopping center. They were on the lookout for a building of their own. When they learned that Fort Oglethorpe Methodist Church, located in the old Post Chapel at the entrance to Barnhardt Circle off Lafayette Road, was selling the building, they had found their home.
According to a short account of the Post Chapel that McConathy keeps in his file of church history, the original structure was completed in 1904 at a cost of $17,815. During the days of the military post, services were held in the church for Protestant, Catholic and Jewish adherents, and for half a year it served as the home of a U.S. Army Chaplain School. Later, the first classes of Fort Oglethorpe Elementary School were held in the church.
The Methodist church bought the building in 1955, when the city of Fort Oglethorpe was just six years old, and called it home for 28 years, putting on an addition for Sunday School rooms and offices during that time.
The purchase of the building, McConathy says, was just one miracle after another. "I woke up every Sunday morning and wondered what God was going to do for us today." The tiny congregation, still well under 50 people, managed to raise half the $160,000 asking price for the church within eight months.
After the purchase, there was a slight hitch in the plans. The Methodist church was moving to Battlefield Parkway, but their new building was not ready on time, so the two churches shared the Post Chapel. "On Sunday morning," McConathy says, "we had Sunday School while they held their main service, then we switched. There was a tremendous love between our two churches. It was a very good experience."
A year after moving into their new location, the members of First Presbyterian held a mortgage burning – the building was paid off.
First Presbyterian Church of Fort Oglethorpe has been in its "new" location for 34 years now. The church works to maintain the historical integrity of the old Post Chapel as much as possible. It’s believed that the cathedral glass windows that still grace the chapel were installed during the 1930s during a renovation of the church. The original radiators still line the walls, though they are no longer used, and all the old banisters and railings in the church are kept polished and bright. "We feel very blessed to have this building where we can meet and worship and reach out to others," says McConathy.