On a peaceful knoll just above Jellico Creek, beneath what might very well be the largest and oldest tulip poplar in Scott County, is the final resting place of Rev. Sterling Adkins — or, as his headstone reads, Elder Sterling Adkins.
Adkins (1833-1905) spent more than half a century in the ministry, and was one of the northern Cumberland Plateau’s most prolific preachers of his era, traveling by foot throughout Scott and Campbell counties. The Adkins family was also one of the largest in the region. He and his wife, Motlaney Low Adkins, had eight children and at least 68 grandchildren, and a large number of their descendants still live in Scott County today.
Yet surprisingly little is known about the life of Rev. Sterling Adkins — other than he devoted it to the preaching of the gospel. He started two churches in Scott County, and was instrumental in the foundation of other churches — including First Baptist Church of Oneida.
Both of the churches founded by Adkins remain active today, a century and a half later. Originally from Smokey, Adkins founded Smokey Creek Baptist Church in 1873. Just over a decade later, he had moved north to Jellico Creek — where he would spend the rest of his life — and founded Upper Jellico Creek Baptist Church of Christ in 1885.
Sterling Adkins was born in the Smokey Creek area in 1833, the son of John Stanton Adkins (1798-1882) and Mary Saunders Adkins (1805-1870). He was the fourth of six kids. Not much is known about the Adkins family, except that John Adkins migrated to Smokey Creek — which at the time was still a part of Campbell County; Scott County would not be formed until 1849 — from North Carolina.
In December 1857, about a week before Christmas and exactly one month after his 24th birthday, Sterling Adkins married Motlaney Low (1838-1907). She was the daughter of Phillip Low (1801-1885) and Sarah Nancy Carroll Low (1806-1864), the seventh of 12 children. The Low family was a prominent one in the Norma-Smokey Creek area. Motlaney’s grandfather, Mikel “Grand Mikey” Low (1771-1852), was born in Pennsylvania but eventually wound up at Smokey Creek after receiving a land grant in the area. He was the first white settler of what would become Scott County, and most of the Lowes in Scott County descended from him.
Adkins was ordained as a Baptist minister in the 1860s, and in 1873 established the church at Smokey Creek.
For some reason or another, the Adkins family left Smokey Creek, and by the mid 1880s had settled on Jellico Creek. Rev. Adkins’ mother, Mary Adkins, had died in 1870, three years before the Smokey Creek Baptist Church was established. In 1882, Rev. Adkins’ father, John Adkins, died and was buried on Jellico Creek — an indication that he had made the move from Smokey Creek with his son, and that the family had moved by 1882.
It was three years after his father’s death that Rev. Adkins helped start the Upper Jellico Creek Baptist Church of Christ. The Baptist Church of Christ was a relatively new denomination that began in Tennessee in the early 19th century, later spreading into other parts of the South. It was intended as an alterative to Calvinist teachings that were becoming prominent in Baptist churches in the region.
The Upper Jellico Creek church was formed on the fourth Saturday in May, 1885, when a group of members of the Sugar Grove Missionary Baptist Church met to start a new church. Adkins was appointed moderator, and the church’s first members included Robert Burchfield, Lucinda Burchfield, Margaret Burchfield, Jarret Burchfield, Lusia Trammell, Nancy J. Chitwood, Rachel Honeycutt, Maynard Cross, Cordelia Cross, Melvina Crabtree, Jon Webb, Mary J. Honeycutt, Adkins and his wife, Motlaney. Maynard and Cordelia Cross were Adkins’ daughter and son-in-law.
Adkins pastored the Upper Jellico Creek church for four years, and pastored again in 1900 and 1904. Later, his son, Gallant Lee Adkins, pastored the church in 1913 and in 1920. He also had a grandson, Harvey Adkins (son of Floranzo and Elisabeth Davis Adkins), who pastored the church from 1940 until his death in 1944.
Adkins also played a role in the establishment of First Baptist Church of Oneida. In November 1887, he was one of seven men who met in Oneida for the purpose of establishing the new church. He was appointed moderator of the meeting.
In all, Rev. Sterling and Motlaney Low Adkins had eight children: Nancy Rene Adkins Lowe, Sarah Jane Adkins Low, Gallent Lee Adkins, Phillip Adkins, Cordelia Adkins Cross, Florany Adkins, John Stanton Adkins and Henry Sherwood Adkins.
Rev. Adkins died in 1905. His wife died two years later. They’re buried side-by-side in the Adkins cemetery, along with a number of their descendents and other residents of the Upper Jellico Creek community.
Today, the Upper Jellico Creek Baptist Church of Christ still stands on the banks of the stream from which it and the community around it take its name. Of course, the word “community” is relative. Whatever Upper Jellico Creek might have been towards the end of the 19th century, when Rev. Sterling Adkins’ sermons were thundering from the pulpits of the small church, it is today nowhere near the beaten path. There are only a handful of residences along the road to begin with. Beyond the church, there are only three homes — and one of them is presently unoccupied. The old road eventually becomes impassible for most street-legal vehicles as it winds its way up and over the ridge to the head of Piney Grove.
But inside the small country church house at Upper Jellico Creek, time stands still. Stepping inside might as well be stepping back to the late 1880s. If not for the red-back Baptist hymnals that were not made availably publicly until 1951, the Singing Convention No. 7 hymnals (a product of the Mull’s Singing Convention) that were published still later, and the electric lights that rendered the oil lamps hanging on the wall for decoration only, it might well be more than a century past.
Upper Jellico Creek is hardly the oldest church in Scott County; not even close, in fact. It isn’t even the oldest church building still in use. But the quaintness of the church founded 135 years ago by an evangelist who walked to country churches all over Scott and Campbell counties before settling on Upper Jellico Creek is without compare.