On Central Street, at the very foot of Cumberland Avenue, is a plain white cinder-block church. A wooden sign calls it the Romanian Church. Thanks to the scarcity of intervening buildings, you can see it from Gay Street.
The building’s not remarkable in any obvious way, certainly not ancient, probably 1950s. Still, it’s an indirect remnant a man who died much earlier, on the White Star liner Titanic.
Knoxville was right proud of itself in April, 1912, enthusiastically embracing the 20th century. Automobiles were suddenly all over the place, scaring pedestrians and horses. Reckless drivers were “running at from 20 to 40 mph, it is claimed.” The city decreed cars could not travel faster than 15 mph in city limits—or 10 mph on downtown business streets, especially Gay Street. But police had difficulty guessing. Officers were issued stopwatches to help them judge speeders.
The city was getting faster, and higher-toned, too. Later that month, Staub’s Theatre was hosting the New York Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Walter Damrosch, with guest Jan Kubelik, the “world’s greatest violinist.” It seemed proof of Knoxville’s modern metropolitan status.
But across the street at the Bijou that weekend of the 15th, people were happy to settle for a three-night stand by Billy Clifford, performing in the musical farce, The Girl, the Man, and the Game, starring “35 clever people, 80 percent girls.” Other theaters featured “photoplay shows” like “Hello, Central!” a brand-new romantic silent.
The Grand Theatre, which featured “Vaudeville of Quality,” touted Dr. Volta, Electrical Wizard, three shows daily for the entire week.
Knoxville was a big city, as far as any Knoxvillian was concerned, almost proud to face big-city problems. That Sunday, preachers across the city devoted sermons to raising awareness, and money, for a tuberculosis sanatorium.
And Tennessee was in the midst of Republican-primary campaigning. Mainstream Republicans supporting President Taft denounced former President Teddy Roosevelt as a “socialist” for favoring more regulation and taxation, but the progressive had lots of friends in Knoxville, members of the Roosevelt Club.
That Monday morning’s Journal and Tribune brought confusing news. On the front page, secondary to the Republican-primary dilemma and news of a major flood in Louisiana, was a headline: “Liner Titanic in Distress”—then on page 12, a late-breaking bulletin: “Giant Liner Titanic is Reported Sinking.”
The next day brought the doomsday headline: GIANT TITANIC SINKS, already estimating that more than 1,200 had died. And on an interior page, a headline that gave many Knoxvillians a chill.
“Rev. Bateman Aboard Titanic.”
Robert J. Bateman was an English evangelist and reformer who had first visited Knoxville as a young man, in the 1880s, preaching in the slums from the back of a wagon. He impressed well-heeled Knoxvillians who were concerned about the city’s growing reputation for vice. In 1896, streetcar magnate C.C. Howell and others persuaded Bateman to come to Knoxville to open a mission in the middle of the city’s most dangerous quarter, South Central Street, known as the Bowery. It was the part of town that the affluent wanted to erase, or, the more idealistic ones, to save.
The intrepid Bateman opened the People’s Tabernacle, a mission at the corner of Central and East Cumberland, where he supplied food, shelter, clothing, and strong advice to the poor, within spitting distance of whorehouses and gambling saloons where murder was more common than charity. Bateman, whose stocky frame, glasses, and mustache made him resemble Roosevelt, was a leading progressive, much admired at both ends of the social slope.
By 1902, he’d left town to establish other missions, but left behind his grown daughter, Daisy, who had fallen for Knoxville pharmacist John Walker. Bateman moved back to Knoxville for a few months in 1907, but eventually settled in Jacksonville, Fla., where he started another mission. For decades, his Knoxville Tabernacle endured, a rare shelter from Knoxville’s extremes of poverty and violence.
In February, 1912, Bateman returned to his native England for the first time in 23 years, to explore mission efforts. On his way back to Jacksonville, he boarded the Titanic. Accompanied by his sister-in-law, Ada Ball, he booked second-class passage. On Sunday, April 14, she later reported, Bateman conducted the Titanic’s only religious service.
Intimations of his fate came early. He had appeared in the passenger lists, and the Journal explained, “It seems but few of the male passengers were saved.”
“Friends of the Rev. Mr. Bateman here are numbered in the hundreds,” reported the Journal. They assembled at the People’s Tabernacle the next Sunday night to conduct a service for him, with a male quartet singing Bateman’s favorite hymns, including “Nearer My God to Thee.” Ada Ball had reported that Bateman had requested the hymn of the Titanic band.
Just seven days after the sinking, Gay Street’s Gay Theatre displayed images of the rescue effort, from the Carpathia.
Later that month, just south of Knoxville at Stock Creek Baptist Church, was a reunion of survivors of the Sultana, the riverboat that blew up in the Mississippi River in 1865, America’s deadliest maritime disaster. Most of those killed were former Union soldiers, rescued from Confederate prisons. “Come and spend the day with these old soldiers,” went the invitation. “The time won’t be long until taps will be sounded, and they will be no more.”
A few weeks later, a cable ship discovered Robert Bateman, floating on the surface of the North Atlantic.
The People’s Tabernacle survived for decades, even as the neighborhood Bateman built it to serve vanished with urban renewal. In the 1950s, the Tabernacle built a new building on the property that had been donated to Bateman in 1896. Because its original address, East Cumberland, was about to be erased, they oriented the new building toward Central. It has served other congregations since.