3 Hidden Gems Uncovered at This 200-Year-Old Church in Cades Cove

the primitive baptist church in cades cove

This 200-year old church in the Smoky Mountains is full of hidden gems (photos by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove is now over 200 years old, here are a few of the hidden gems that lie within

Growing up a short drive from Cades Cove, I went to school with the descendants of both the early settlers and the last remaining residents of the Cove. And like others, I drive the Cove looking for wildlife and scenic views. I also visit the historic homesteads and churches. Unlike others, I suppose, I like to explore the old graveyards, looking for familiar names. That’s so-and-so’s great-grandfather. That’s probably a cousin an aunt or an uncle. 

The Cove is full of more than scenic beauty. It’s full of the stories of the people who lived and died there. It remains a tribute to the people who worshipped and farmed and just existed in the place before it became a National Park. 

The beauty of Cades Cove is almost overwhelming. There’s so much to look at, so much to see, that a lot of little pieces of history can go unnoticed. From John Oliver’s Cabin to Tipton Place, from the Methodist Church to the Primitive Baptist Church, Cades Cove manages to hide many secrets right out in the open.  

primitive baptist at cades cove
Some visitors have speculated about the metal plate in the floor inside the church (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

1. The Strange Metal Plate on the Floor 

What became known as the Primitive Baptist Church began in 1827, less than a decade after John Oliver and his wife, Lurena or Lucretia, became the first settlers in the area in 1818. Meetings were held in members’ homes until 1832 when a log cabin was built. It sat to the rear of the current church building, which was erected in 1887. The building today remains much as it was while in use. The church was built by hand and the fingerprints of those who built it remain on the ceiling. 

Today, in the middle of the church floor, you’ll see a metal plate. Many a visitor wonders why the metal plate is there, does it have some religious significance? Nope. It was there to protect the wood floor from the stove which was used to heat the building. That wood-burning stove kept congregants warm on cold mountain Sundays. 

Primitive Baptist Interior With Pulpit and Bible Cades Cove
If you spot a crack in the floor of the church, it is not from church divisions that occurred (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

2. A Crack in the Floor Dividing the Pews

As you walk into the church, if you look down at the floorboards, you’ll see a wide crack running through the middle of the church right up to the place where the stove once sat. Some will tell you that crack was brought about by a division in the church. There were a few of those over the years. 

The church began as a part of the Wears Cove Church – officially known as the Cades Cove Arm of Wears Cove Church. Eventually, they separated and became Cades Cove Baptist. However, in the 1830s, there was a schism in the Baptist Church over mission work. It wasn’t simply a local debate. Baptist churches across the South face a similar division. 

In 1839, 13 members left Cades Cove Baptist and formed Cades Cove Missionary Baptist – which now sits further down the Loop Road. In 1841, the church officially adopted its Primitive Baptist name. Another division of sorts occurred during the Civil War when the church congregation stopped meeting altogether. 

The National Park Service says that the hiatus was explained in church records thusly, “we was Union people and the Rebels was too strong here in Cades Cove.” In fact, in the church cemetery is the grave of Russell Gregory who was killed by North Carolina Confederates. However, since the current church wasn’t built until 1877, neither the Missionary Baptist schism or the Civil War can be blamed for the divisive crack in the floor. 

Cemetery at Cades Cove Primitive Baptist
Exploring the cemetery offers some insight into the history of the Cove (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

3. Familiar Names on Early Graves

The Primitive Baptist Church is also home to the graves of many of the now-famous original Smoky Mountain settlers. Many of whose names you might recognize.

As we mentioned John Oliver and his wife – the grave marker calls her Lurena but the NPS refers to her as Lucretia – are buried in the cemetery along with many other prominent names in Cove history. Names in the cemetery include Shields, Gregory, Anthony and others. 

John and his wife came to the Cove at the recommendation of a former neighbor in Carter County. They arrived in 1818 with their one-year-old daughter Polly. Luckily for the Olivers, the Cherokee people who had lived in the area for thousands of years helped them through the extremely harsh first winter. The Olivers had seven more children and their family continued to live on the homestead until the National Park’s arrival more than 100 years later, though some built their homestead. You can visit the Elijah Oliver homestead in the Cove as well. 

John – who was a private in the War of 1812 – is buried in the Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery as are Lurena and six of their children. George – who died in infancy in 1824 before the existence of the church – is buried in Davis Cemetery. John N. Oliver evidently moved to Georgia where his youngest daughter was born in 1862, the year he died. It’s unclear where he is buried. 

Primitive Baptist Church and Sign Cades Cove
The sign at Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

How to find the Primitive Baptist Church  

The Primitive Baptist Church is easy to find. Just take the Cades Cove Loop Road past the John Oliver Cabin. You’ll go through a couple of forested areas before you see a road to the left. There is a small sign directing you down to the Primitive Baptist Church. If you get to the Methodist Church or the Missionary Baptist Church, you’ve gone too far. But since you can’t circle back, you’ll have to catch it on your next trip around. Or you could park at the Methodist Church and walk back. Despite the schism, it’s not that far. 

The history of Cades Cove is often overshadowed by the scenic beauty and natural wonder. But the stories of those who lived their lives in the Cove and the buildings the National Park Service has preserved are worthy of your attention as well. Many secrets lie in those old buildings and the grounds that surround them. 

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