Mars Hill Baptist Church was constituted as Pleasant Hill Baptist Church on June 28, 1856. On that date twenty-six people living in the area surrounding the French Broad Baptist Institute met in the first college building to organize a new church. The following persons "took their seats."
Elizabeth C. Anderson
Under the guidance of Elders Robert Patterson, James Hooker, and Leroy Sams, they elected a moderator and clerk and set Edward Carter and John Keith "apart" for the office of deacon. It was then ordered that the constitution be drawn after the form of the constitution of Little Ivy Baptist church. (Most of these charter members had been members of Little Ivy.) Robert Patterson was chosen to be the first pastor.
Church meetings, it was determined, would be held on the fourth Saturday and Sunday of each month. It was at the meeting in September 1860 that the congregation voted to change the name of the church to Mars Hill Baptist Church. This was one year after the French Broad Baptist Institute had been rechartered as Mars Hill College.
It is interesting that there were a few colored members added during the early years. Minutes in 1881 list three names: Margaret Brown, Alis Yeancy, and Sooky Ray.
During its early years the church was a small, weak congregation with little money to support a pastor and take care of other necessary expenses. Moreover, the Civil War with its demands for men and materials struck before the church had time to become well established.
John Ammons, in his history of the French Broad Association, states that the Mars Hill Church was almost annihilated by the war. It is not strange then that it was thirty-one years before the congregation was able to build its own church house. Meanwhile, they had continued to meet in homes, or in the first college building until it was ravaged by troops during the war.
Finally, in 1887 they erected a wooden structure on a lot donated by A. O Carter. Unfortunately, the building was poorly constructed and 1907 it was declared unsafe. Again, the church returned to college buildings for its services. In April 1918, after eleven years of being homeless, the congregation moved into a new brick structure erected on the site from which the older one had been removed. A parsonage had also been built on an adjoining lot. Money was still scarce, and it was more than a decade before the debt for these building was paid off.
With a growing student body at the college and a gradual increase in local population, the new building was soon outgrown. Again, the church was forced to use college buildings for most of its Sunday School classes. When an improved economy followed World War II, the congregation, under the leadership of Pastor, Lowell F. Sodoman, voted to build a more adequate facility. In 1954 they moved into the church house they now occupy. The new structure included offices, classrooms, and meeting rooms on three floors, also a small auditorium, kitchen, and recreational facilities on the ground floor, in all more than sixty rooms. With furnishings, the building cost $338,000. The State Convention contributed $95,000 toward the cost. Mars Hill College bought the old church house and parsonage for $40,000 and made an additional contribution of $10,000. Members of the congregation bought bonds and the debt was soon liquidated. At the time there 350 resident and 463 student members.
As referred to earlier, finances were always a problem, even though expenses during the early years only involved paying the pastor and buying oil for lamps and wood for the stoves. Too many people still believed salvation was "free" and that any man who had to be paid to preach was not fit to stand in the pulpit. At times the pastor's salary was the collections taken at the close of the service. When definite salaries were promised they were very small. As late as 1896 the pastor's annual salary was only $250, and the total gifts for all purposes that year was $322.50.
Although desperate efforts were made at the end of each year to raise money, year after year salaries were left unpaid. In October 1901 a committee of three was appointed to take their wagons out and collect "in kind" offerings for the preacher's salary. In 1903, one pastor to whom the church owed $450 for a six-year term gave up after four year's waiting and informed the congregation that he would cancel the debt if they would pay him $200 in cash. For months a committee worked to raise even that amount. The first collection for anything other than local expenses is recorded in the minutes for October 26, 1869. According to that statement "five dollars was sent to Brother Mills for the orphanage;" In 1893 a resolution called on the church to do more for mission work and asked every member to "do his part." Soon after the passage of that resolution the church set specific dates for the collection of offerings for Home, State, and Foreign Missions. In 1921 the church initiated a budget system for financing expenditures and mission offerings included.
During the early years and continuing on through the first three decades of the twentieth century the church held members to a strict accountability for their conduct. Four of the Charter Members were excluded. In June 1861 Edward Carter brought charges against himself for "hasty action in picking up a rock to throw" (he did not say who or what he planned to hit). He was examined and restored to fellowship. It was not uncommon for as many as ten or twelve to be excluded in one year. Individuals were "churched" for fighting, failure of a man and wife to live together, fornication, making and selling liquor, drunkenness, stealing, joining another church or for delinquency in church attendance. At the business session on Saturday the roll was always called and if a member was absent for two meetings in succession, he or she was called before the congregation "to give satisfaction." If no good reason was given for the absences, the person was excluded. In December 1877 the church adopted as a rule of discipline: that any member guilty of engaging in dancing, frolicking or any other disorderly conduct, or permitting the same to be done at his or her household would be dealt with by the church. In October 1900 the church appointed a Discipline Committee of 5 to bring charges against members "not in fellowship" and to deal with the problem. At one point the deacons were assigned the job of hunting down members failing to attend services.
As the years passed the church gradually expanded its ministries. In 1877, after several unsuccessful attempts, a Sunday School was established. In 1899 a Woman's Missionary Society was organized with the assistance of Pastor, W. E. Wilkins. Miss Anne Peek was the first president. Ten years later a church training program for young people (BYPU) was added. In 1937 a Daily Vacation Bible School was held for children of all age groups.
During the late thirties Pastor William Lynch reorganized the worship services. Up until that time all services were quite informal. Under Lynch's leadership Sunday worship services began to follow a planned order and to include special music. A choir was organized and a director elected for both adult and children's choirs. A new piano was purchased and a second-hand pipe organ was bought from an old theater in Washington, D.C.
Gradually additional staff members were employed to take care of an expanded program. In the mid-forties Elwood Roberts, a member of the music faculty at the college, was employed part time as minister of music . He directed the Adult Choir and his wife directed the Children's Choir. In the early fifties, Irene Olive was hired as full-time minister of education. In April 1956, the church voted to hire a full-time secretary and Barbara Bennett was chosen for that position. That same month Irene Olive resigned and Cary Mumford was chosen to succeed her as minister of education. Dean Minton came to serve in that position in April 1958. Noel Lykins took his place in July 1961 and Sue Fitzgerald succeeded him in April 1963. Brenda Buckner served one year after Sue resigned in 1978 to work at the college.
As his health declined, Elwood Roberts gave up his work as minister of music to another member of the music faculty at the college, Dorothy Roberts. She was succeeded by Bob Russell. Douglas Therrell and William Thomas did short terms as choir directors in the mid-sixties. In July 1978 Jerry Jarrell came and took over the combined work of both the minister of education and the minister of music. His wife, Sandra became the organist in December 1978.
In addition to the Chancel Choir, Jerry and Sandra have added an excellent program for children. Two choirs (a third was added this year) provide training in music and worship for young children in the church family, and children in the entire community (almost one-third of the children involved are non-church). Three handbell choirs provide training for older children.
In recent years new ministries have been added to the regular church program. An outreach ministry for Senior Adults has been added. The Senior Adult Council, representing six committees, plans and supervises this work. The committees carry out a visitation program for shut-ins and residents in nursing homes, provide a variety of activities for "Dynamic Adults" (those who are still active), distribute tapes of the Sunday morning worship services to shut-ins, maintain a prayer chain to offer support for those experiencing crises in their lives, and provide reassurance calls to elderly persons living alone. The council also provides a weekly Bible study for residents in the Madison Manor Health Center.
Through a Board of Missions the church supports mission organizations as well as its schedule of offerings for Home, Foreign, State, and Association missions, also a number of special mission projects. A clothes closet provides clothes and household items for several hundred people each year. For a number of years youth groups have gone on mission trips to Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. to work with inner-city churches and homeless shelters. The church has also sponsored a number of individuals to serve on mission projects in Poland, the Caribbean, Africa, Brazil, and Cuba. The congregation also supports Madison County Habitat for Humanity, Neighbors-in-Need, the Crisis Center, and Hospice.
In 1999 the church added an “Inasmuch” project to its local missions efforts. Once a year, in October, members have been asked to give at least one day of service for those in need of help. Through this project ramps have been built at homes of handicapped persons, other structural improvements made in several homes, gowns and bed-pads made for the health department and other social service agencies, etc. More than thirty projects are undertaken each year, involving persons from age six to ninety years. The program has also drawn participants from other churches and the community at large.