Several weeks ago, I learned something new about the history of the Royal Oak Presbyterian Church. As I became acquainted with the story behind the second site of the church and its accompanying cemetery (which is now occupied by The Henderson), I was reminded of an old church scrapbook. In the early months of the organization of the Smyth County Genealogical Society, the church graciously allowed me to scan the treasured volume of history that had been carefully compiled by church historian, Mary Hull Buchanan. It was obvious that she spent countless hours collecting photographs, articles, bulletins and biographies in an effort to accurately tell the story of one of the oldest congregations in Smyth County.

“In 1765, John Campbell bought the Royal Oak Survey, a tract of land in the center of what is now Smyth County, for his family to settle. He was able to persuade his sister Margaret to join him as the family housekeeper only on the condition that he erect a church on the Survey. This he did in 1776, dedicating a simple log building, located in what is now the Royal Oak cemetery. As a house of worship, this humble structure was the first home of Royal Oak Presbyterian Church, and continued to be used for worship until after the Civil War.”

“Meanwhile, in 1853, the congregation purchased a hilltop lot in the heart of Marion, and erected its second church building on the site, at the corner of Strother and Church Streets. In 1880, Mrs. Ellen Sheffey deeded property on the corner of Main and Sheffey Streets to Royal Oak Presbyterian Church, where the church’s third building was completed in 1885.”

A story in the church scrapbook offers more information about the choice to locate the church at this site. “Mrs. Ellen F. Preston Sheffey, widow of Captain James White Sheffey, had developed a bad heart condition, which made it increasingly hard for her to climb the slight hill and walk the short distance to her church. She told the church officers that she would give enough land off of her yard to build the new church, if they would locate it there, where she could reach it more easily.”

In 1923, additional land next to the churchyard was donated by Mrs. Virginia Sheffey Haller. The existing church building was torn down, and the sanctuary was erected. The new building was dedicated in April 1924. In the 1970s, Royal Oak bought an adjacent building, the former home of Marion Chevrolet-Olds, which was incorporated into its 1995-96 Ralph Richardson Repass addition.”

Some of the most impressive items found in Mary Hull Buchanan’s church scrapbook are the stories and biographies. She went the extra mile, when providing captions for her pictures. The back of the photograph for Officers of the Royal Oak Presbyterian Church from 1890-1896 offers significant details.

“Thomas Lumsden was one of the founders of Marion Foundry and Milling Company. Henry Brown Haller was a farmer. He married Virginia Sheffey, a sister of Judge John P. Sheffey. Mrs. Haller gave a portion of the land on which the fourth church building was erected. He died October 18, 1915.

“J. Brainard Rhea came to Marion from Tennessee after the Civil War. He was a merchant and farmer. He married Ellen Sheffey, a sister of Judge J.P. Sheffey. Died July 7, 1902.”

“D.C. Miller, lawyer and teacher. For many years, he ran the Marion Academy for Boys on College Street. He served as the first Superintendent of Schools for Smyth County (1870-1875); Judge of County Court (1880-1885).”

“Z.T. Atkins, farmer. Died October 17, 1931. His son, Newell Atkins, was an elder.”

These are just some of the brief biographies provided by Mary Buchanan.

In addition to biographies, Mary took the time to gather stories and interesting facts for inclusion in the church history.

“The cornerstone of the church was laid on June 16, 1923. It holds a Bible, used by Rev. G.A. Wilson Jr., during his student days, the names of the building committee and sub-committees, and a short historical statement. The stone was prepared by W.A. Reith, a member of the Royal Oak Church.”

“Mrs. Clara Hill Carner, local historian, said that the Royal Oak Church was the first church building in Marion to be lighted by electricity. She explained, ‘When Mr. Charles Lincoln built his first home in 1898 (on North Church Street), he had it wired for electricity, before there was any electricity here!’”

“About 1900, a 75 K.W. generator was installed at the old Look & Lincoln Wagon Factory at the foot of North Street. This generator furnished power and light for the factory and for the Lincoln homes for several years. A line was extended from this factory to the Royal Oak Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Main and Sheffey Streets, where the “juice” was free.’”

“When the bell in the Royal Oak Presbyterian Church was tolled in July 1902, for the funeral of J.B. Rhea, it cracked and could never be used again. The cracked bell was replaced in 1905.”

“Rev. William V. Wilson was long remembered as a preacher who had exceptionally long prayers. Many of his Marion congregation also recalled a time when he had an unexpectedly short one. Toward the end of his pastorate here, the parents of James White Sheffey, II, and John M. Preston, Jr., presented their sons for baptism. For some reason, this ceremony had been postponed until the boys were old enough to run around. It was a cold Sunday and the church was heated by a stove. After the baptisms were over, while the parents were still standing in front of the congregation, Rev. Wilson began his prayer. The boys became so restless, their parents set them on the floor. The boys wandered away and, in a few minutes, there was a loud clatter and the church was filled with smoke. The youngsters had managed to knock down the stove pipe. That was one of Rev. Wilson’s prayers that ended in a hurry!”

These stories bring to life those who helped build the Royal Oak Presbyterian Church. Every time I drive by the magnificent church building, I envision Rev. Wilson and his shortest prayer. I wonder what he and the other members of the early church might think of the growth of this congregation.

My heart is filled with gratitude for Mary Buchanan and other historians who kept the stories alive for future generations. If you have a church history or photograph that you would like to share, I may be reached at



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Margaret Linford is a professional genealogist and is president of the Smyth County Genealogical Society.

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