Norris Religious Fellowship
NORRIS RELIGIOUS FELLOWSHIP
An Interdenominational Community Church
The Norris Religious Fellowship has grown from the desire of people with varied religious backgrounds to share experience and to search together for spiritual enrichment.
The idea is not to bind by creed, but to weld, through love of G!d and love of humanity. Our membership is open to all. Since the beginning in 1934 as a Sunday School class in a government-owned construction town, this church has been working toward its goals. During the years, hundreds have worked and worshiped here, leaving us their heritage.
The original buildings were built solely from resources in the community. In order to widen the source of inspiration and opportunity to serve, the Fellowship joined the International Council of Community Churches (www.icccnow.org).
It is in this spirit that our church continues to build, hoping that those who join with us will find their burdens shared and their joys multiplied.
NORRIS RELIGIOUS FELLOWSHIP
Norris Religious Fellowship is nearly as old as the town of Norris. Both the church and the community had their beginnings during the Great Depression of the 1930's. But neither was rooted in the despair common to that period. To the contrary, both were nurtured in a philosophy characterized by vigor, innovation, and soaring hope.
In November, 1933, when the Tennessee Valley Authority was six months old, it started its first major project, construction of Norris Dam. Construction of the model town of Norris began about the same time. First religious services were held within the first month construction. The Rev. C. C. Haun, a Congregational minister conducted hymn-singing, Sunday School and preaching service. Some of the Norris houses were completed in the summer of 1934. Families started moving here then. With the families came the need for a more formal religious organization. Answers to a questionnaire indicated that more than 200 Norris residents preferred a cooperative type religious program. Only two opposed it. What we now know as the Fellowship was started as a community church in October, 1934.
Fellowship members were below the average age of most congregations and above average in education and intellectual capacity. They came from a wide variety of geographic and religious backgrounds. While the Fellowship grew out of this variety of backgrounds, it was shackled to none of them. Nor has it bound itself within tight dogma of its own making. Members and ministers have been free to seek religious truth and to arrive and live with their own conclusions. The sermons, Sunday School classes, and other church activities provide inspiration and light for each to find his own way.
Mr. Haun was transferred by TVA in 1935. The Rev. E. Thomson succeeded him. Mr. Thomson also was a Congregationalist and a TVA employee, not a minister paid by the Fellowship. Mr. Thomson was particularly interested in helping indigent families near Norris. Under his leadership, the Fellows helped a family of 11 whose two room log home burned in the little Vasper community near Lake City. Fellowship members contributed enough money to buy a lot for a new house. Then the members built a five-room house on the lot.
First minister called by the Fellowship was the Rev. Jack Anderson, a Methodist. He came in April, 1936.
Mr. Anderson wrote what he called a "statement of fact" concerning the religious life of the community in 1938. It was addressed to Francis Biddle, then general counsel for a joint Senate-House committee investigating TVA. He wrote in part:
"It is true that there is no church building. It is the opinion of several that such a building would aid our work, but most of us feel that it should be built by the organization which intends to use it. At present, the population of Norris is so changeable that no one feels willing to assume the responsibility for such a long range enterprise."
Such was the first official mention of a church building for the Fellowship.
Mr. Anderson left the Fellowship Dec. 30, 1938 to resume connections with his denomination. The Fellowship then called the Rev. Thomas B. (Scotty) Cowan, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. He came here in April, 1939.
Under Mr. Cowans guidance, the Women's Fellowship was founded in June, 1939.
Before the founding of the Women's Fellowship, the Good Neighbors had been working in the community for a number of years, almost from the time families moved to Norris. As many as 15 women might have been found sewing at the same time for ill clothed children in the county. Once they were sewing for 76 children.
After the Women's Fellowship was founded, the Good Neighbors became one of its three main groups. The others were an International Study Group and a Southern Problem Group.
A "Young Peoples Group," forerunner of the present Youth Fellowship, was started by 1940.
The Fellowship members began discussions in 1940 about getting a church building. A committee reported on a number of suggestions. One suggestion was to obtain TVA help on the project. This idea was rejected on grounds of traditional church state separation.
The committee estimated that only $2000 could be raised by subscription. So that idea was discarded. Another suggestion was that Island Home Baptist Church, on Norris Freeway, be used - at that site or at a site to which it could be moved in Norris. None of these ideas got beyond the talking stage.
Fellowship members discussed a building again in 1943. The idea then was to build it as a memorial to Sen. George Norris, "father" of TVA. Those who advanced this idea proposed soliciting funds from persons of liberal viewpoint over the nation. An estimated $100,000 was needed, $30,000 for the building and $70,000 as an endowment fund to keep alive the liberal spirit associated with the late Sen. Norris. But this idea also never got beyond the discussion stage.
However, the Fellowship finally bought a building of its own. In late 1944 or early 1945, it paid TVA $20 for an old fire hall on West Norris Road. The Fellowship spent $379.59 more to put the little building in good, attractive condition. It was loaded on a truck and, moved to where it now stands. It was called Fellowship House, the name it retains. (2016 note, it is now the office)
It was in connection with Fellowship House that the Fellowship obtained its state charter. Before TVA could license the Fellowship to use the site for the building, TVA then owned all the land in the community, it was necessary that the Fellowship have corporate status.
Mr. Cowan resigned in October 1946, to accept a call to Everybody's Church, at Lexington, Ky. Dr. Philip Burton, then a Methodist, was elected in April, 1947, to succeed Mr. Cowan.
Under Dr. Burton's ministry, the Fellowship again began discussing a building program. It was estimated in 1949 that $100,000 would be needed to build both a sanctuary and an educational building. The Fellowship had nothing like that sum and had little prospect of getting it any time soon.
So it was decided to build only one structure at a time. By nearly a unanimous vote, the Fellowship chose to build the educational building first.
Stumps were blown from the site in late 1950. Work was started on the foundation in April 1951.
Nearly all the work was done voluntarily by members the Fellowship. This cut costs considerably. The job moved slowly, only as money became available for purchase of materials.
Although the building was not quite finished then, Jan 1953 was the date first services were held in it. It was debt free.
For several years, Fellowship worship services and Sunday School had been held in the Norris School Building, which then housed both the high and elementary schools. All activities of the Fellowship were moved to the new educational building upon its completion.
Dr. Burton resigned, effective Jan. 2, 1955, to become minister of a community church at Westport, Oregon.
Following Dr. Burton's resignation, a pulpit committee held a series of small group meetings of the membership, to determine as nearly as possible the characteristics most desired in Dr. Burton's successor.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Daniel M. Welch, a Unitarian, filled the pulpit while the pulpit committee sought a new minister. Mr. Welchs services continued over a period of nearly three months. While he was never the Fellowships official minister, he earned a place in its history.
The Rev. Sterling W. McHarg, ordained in the Christian Church, became the Fellowships minister in March, 1955, shortly after his graduation from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He preached his first sermon as minister of the Fellowship on March 27.
By early 1956, the congregation started plans to complete the building program. On July 26, 1956, ground was broken for the sanctuary.
The building was constructed almost entirely by members of the Fellowship. Few, if any, of the members have vocations in the building trades. But they became volunteer carpenters, electricians, painters and roofers. From five or six to as many as 40 men worked on the building nearly every Saturday for three years. Some worked on holidays. Several worked at night. Other members, who, for various reasons, were not able to help with actual construction, shared the financial burden.
The Women's Fellowship helped. It made substantial cash contributions, and its members served lunches to the Saturday construction workers.
The sanctuary was consecrated July 26, 1959, exactly three years after the ground breaking.
With the completion and consecration of the sanctuary, the Norris Religious Fellowship looks ahead with renewed intent of still greater service to G-d and community.