Family Matters

A Beloved Mountain Preacher
(Edward Jesse Burgin)
-by Emily D. (Mrs. John) Burgin, granddaughter-in-law

Edward Jesse Burgin was a typical example of a struggling country preacher in the depression years of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s. However, there was nothing typical about his ministry and his efforts to help people in the mountains of East Tennessee. He was pastor of twenty churches, sometimes three or four at a time. They had names like Briar Thicket, Grassy Forks, Long Creek, Mountain View, White Oak Grove, and Slabtown. He was naturally a good sermonizer and gifted and able in prayer. He had no scholastic titles or degrees, but he was a student of the Bible and ministerial students from Carson-Newman College came in groups to talk with him. His ministry began at age 46 and until the last days of his life, he was a pastor and also a missionary in the mountains of Tennessee.

Edward Jesse Burgin,   #152641B
Son of Merritt and Mary Jane Burgin

His first church was Point Pleasant in Cocke County. One member recalled that he wore a black suit, a stiff white collar, cuff links and a black hat. He must have felt the call to be a church builder, for he organized and built twelve churches. One of these was so isolated in the mountains of Cocke County that he built it with no windows. Another was Enterprise Baptist Church on Long Creek Road in Hamblen County. It is now a large congregation. In the beginning, this church met in his home, outgrew that, then met at an old mill he owned across the road. This was in 1934, when times were hard and money scarce, but they were given land and lumber, and their building began. His son, Martin Burgin, oversaw the construction and others were willing to help, often at night after working elsewhere all day.

During his ministry, what he enjoyed most was going to the mountains to preach and conduct revivals in the isolated areas of the Great Smoky Mountains. This was home to him, for his grandfather lived in sight of the Appalachian Trail and Mount Guyot, one of the highest peaks in the mountains. For years, he traveled by horseback over the steep terrain to visit with isolated mountain people and twice almost drowned in flooded streams. Mountain people were wary of anyone who approached their homes but he understood them and knew how to have their favor and trust.

It was not unusual for him to come upon distillers at work. Sometimes, he would be held captive until they realized who he was. There was an old saying that the only persons in Cocke County not moon shiners were the preachers. At the start of prohibition, it was estimated that 200 stills were in operation. Ed’s nephew, John Herbert Burgin, said a person could stand on his porch and see ten or twelve trails of smoke from stills. A farmer with a couple of acres of corn could sell a bushel for ten cents or he could properly prepare the corn and ferment it with molasses or honey and make corn liquor worth a couple or more dollars. One acre could yield about 24 bushels of corn and one good still could average close to 20 gallons a day. Illegal whiskey enabled poor families on poor land to survive and it was an accepted way of life. The quality of Cocke County whiskey was said to be higher than some sold legally and it was sold from New York to Florida. But almost everyone living in the county knew someone who died of lead poisoning from bad moonshine. Most producers were sober, outstanding citizens and church leaders who never drank what they made.

One of Ed’s best friends was Joe Stevens, a fellow Baptist preacher. Sometimes they went together to preach in the mountains and one day they came upon a still in full operation. Rev. Stevens said he was going to turn them in to the law, but Ed Burgin wouldn’t let him do it. Later, one of these men came to their meeting and gave Ed five dollars.

When Ed was pastor at Grassy Forks, he preached a revival on Uncle Joe Cutshall’s porch that lasted six or seven weeks and resulted in a new church.

Moonshiners were generous in support of these revivals and Ed ate many meals in their homes. They kept their loaded shotguns on the table and blessing was said with eyes open.

One year, there was a severe drought in the mountains and Rev. Ed led the congregation in prayer for rain. Hours later the rains came. The story spread around, leading at least one grateful bootlegger to decide to come to church because of the faith of the people. At one revival, ruffians would sometimes come in or put their heads through the windows and taunt the worshipers, so the reverend kept a large rock on the pulpit. His words of rebuke could easily be heard by the detractors. One of his sayings was, “By the lives you are living, some of you drank at the pond instead of the fountain.”

Revivals were not limited to Baptist congregations. In small communities, everybody wanted to come. Sometimes, Baptists and Methodists cooperated in a meeting. Many wanted to be immersed, so they dammed up a nearby creek and the Methodist and Baptist pastors baptized the new converts. Sometimes they were not inclined to wait for warm weather to be baptized and a hole had to be cut in the ice.

Rev. Burgin's first baptismal service, April 22, 1928, near the White Oak Grove Church in Jefferson County, TN.

When preaching in the mountains he often stayed with Ed Burgin, grandson of his brother, John Wiley “Black John” Burgin. It is interesting that Rev. Ed spent so much time with the moon shiners. Perhaps he remembered how his own grandfather, James Burgin, had to eke a living in the mountains of Cocke County and had a still behind his flour mill. James Burgin’s land was described as being “on the waters of Dry Fork Creek of Big Creek. . . running to below the mill. . .”

Times were often very tough in the Ed Burgin household. Swatsell Burgin’s daughter, Mary Kirk, said her Uncle Ed preached a revival at Fairview Church in Greene County and the entire collection for the two weeks was fifteen cents. His first-year salary at Liberty Hill Church in Bybee was 98 cents a month and he had to collect that himself. When he was old and sick, almost blind and without a pension, there was little money for food and essentials to care for his wife and his grandson Keith, who said they looked forward to his grandfather’s birthday because church members brought them food. Ed’s old friend at the Liberty Hill church, John Johnson, attempted to get the deacons there to pay him what they owed from many years before, but the effort failed. He said that he had lived a long time and E. J. Burgin was the best man he ever knew. Older people always speak well of him and note his name in connection with the founding of churches.

Edward Jesse Burgin was born in 1882 in Cocke County, one of fourteen children of Merritt and Mary Jane Black Burgin. Ed’s grandfather James Burgin was the son of Merritt and Mary Patton Burgin of McDowell County, North Carolina. James lived in the mountains of North Carolina “on the south side of the Catawba river on the west side of the North Fork.” He came to Caney Branch in Greene County, Tennessee in 1850 and gave a stream the name Burgin. He died at Big Creek, Cocke County.

Ed Burgin’s children were Gertrude Burgin Linkous, Martin Lee Burgin, and Carroll Eugene Burgin and he also raised his grandson, Keith Burgin. When he was in his forties, he developed pneumonia and became seriously ill. He promised God, if he lived, he would preach the gospel and he did that faithfully until his death at the age of eighty-one. His favorite verse in the Bible was Psalm 37:25: “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. He is ever merciful, and lendeth; and his seed is blessed.”

NOTE: Emily and John Burgin can be reached at: