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History of the Episcopal Church in East Tennessee

Diocesan History

In January 1826, James Hervey Otey, an Episcopal deacon, came to Tennessee to begin a teaching career. He was ordained a priest June 17, 1827. The first convention of the Diocese of Tennessee was held June 1-2, 1829, and Otey was elected its first bishop June 30, 1833. St. Paul Episcopal Church, now in Franklin, was the statewide diocese’s first congregation.

The diocese grew, and conversations about dividing it became serious during the episcopate of William Evan Sanders, its eighth bishop. The Diocese of West Tennessee separated in 1982 along the line of the Tennessee River west of Nashville. The Diocese of East Tennessee was born Jan. 1, 1985, when the eastern portion separated from the continuing Diocese of Tennessee along the line of the Cumberland Plateau. Sanders chose to go with the new eastern diocese and became its first bishop.

In October 1984, the Diocese of East Tennessee in convention adopted a seal. Three crosses on the blue background of a shield symbolize the three dioceses now present in Tennessee. The jagged line below the three crosses symbolizes the mountains, and a dogwood blossom is a symbol both of Christianity and of the East Tennessee region. The blossom is centered within a gold cross on a red field at the base of the shield, reminiscent of the seal of the original Diocese of Tennessee. The crossed key and crozier behind the shield are topped by a mitre, all of which represent the bishop.

St. John’s Cathedral in downtown Knoxville is the oldest Episcopal congregation in East Tennessee. It was organized as a mission in 1829 and attained parish status in 1844. It became the cathedral of the diocese on Dec. 4, 1986. St. Paul, Seymour, established as a Worshiping Community in 2006, was recognized at the 2012 diocesan convention as the newest parish.

Robert Tharp was elected bishop coadjutor in 1990. In 1991, he became the second bishop of the diocese upon Bishop Sanders’ retirement. Bishop Tharp retired in 1999, and Charles vonRosenberg was elected and consecrated third bishop of the diocese, and he retired in 2011. Bishop George Young was ordained and consecrated fourth bishop of the diocese in 2011. Bishop Brian Cole was ordained and consecrated December 2, 2017. Bishop Tharp died in May 2003. Bishop Sanders died in November 2021.

The convention conducts business on behalf of the diocese, and its proceedings are contained in each year’s Convention Journal. The Bishop and Council is the executive board of the diocese, and the bishop is its chairperson. A Standing Committee of three lay and three clergy members advises the bishop.

Ground was broken adjacent to St. John Cathedral on Oct. 9, 1987, for a diocesan center, which was completed along with the cathedral’s Great Hall in 1988. When the cathedral leadership indicated interest in purchasing the diocesan center to ease its space constraints, the diocese sold the building to the cathedral in March 2002. Ground was broken for new offices on two acres of land the diocese purchased from the Episcopal School of Knoxville. The current Diocesan House opened July 7, 2003. In addition to the offices of the bishop and his staff, it contains conference and work rooms and a chapel.