The ‘Home’ church

Bethel Baptist ‘instrumental’ in forming four other churches

The Bethal Baptist Church Bell, put in place in 1889. (photo:Pete Gwada )
This area, as part of the Bible Belt, certainly has its share of churches, many of them dating back to the early days of settlement. One such church is Bethel Baptist Church, which as been ministering to the Bethel Community, adjacent to the Museum of Appalachia, since 1833. As well as serving the immediate community, Bethel has been instrumental in the formation of four other Baptist churches including First Baptist of Clinton.

The “Baptist Church of Christ at Bethel” was formed March 29, 183,3 by members of Mount Hebron Baptist Church, which was meeting in the home of Chesley Boatwright. Feeling the need for a church in the Big Valley area of Anderson County, 14 members of New Hebron asked for letters of dismissal to form the new church.

In the following month Boatwright and his wife also joined the new church. Boatwright had previously been licensed to preach, a preliminary step to ordination in the Baptist denomination, by Mount Hebron. In Nov of 1833 Boatwright was ordained as a Minister of the Gospel by Bethel. He and his wife were members of Bethel for only a short time, before moving back to Mount Hebron some time in 1834. The first records of Bethel are sketchy and at some early, unknown date Boatwright served as pastor of Bethel.

In the early days worship services lasted all day with morning preaching, a lunch break and afternoon preaching along with singing, prayers, exhortation, testimonies and Bible reading. At first services were held only on the first Saturday of each month. At some unknown date after the formation of the church, Sunday School began to be held once a month on the first Saturday. The practice of monthly worship and Sunday school continued until well into the 1900s. In 1932 services were held on the first and third Saturdays but the following year services were cut back to the first Saturday. Beginning in 1943, services and Sunday school were held every Sunday. Until the 1940s baptisms were held in nearby Buffalo Creek.

In the early years members of Bethel were serious about giving and church attendance. Article 12 of the 1833 constitution required each member to contribute “as the Lord may prosper them.” To enforce this article at the beginning of each year deacons contacted church members to see how much they would commit to giving that year. A record was kept of each person’s giving and if they fell short of their commitment, someone from the church would visit them to find out why. Article 14 of the constitution called for each member to attend regularly and if they failed to do so they should be prepared to render a reason for their absence to the church.

Member of the church were also concerned about missions as well as spreading the gospel in their own immediate area. In Feb of 1840 members of Bethel united with members of Clear Branch Church, (now Longfield Baptist Church) to organize Zion Hill near Hinds Creek. As he had with Bethel, Boatwright was instrumental in the formation of the new church. That same year nine members of Bethel asked for letters of dismissal to constitute Clinton First Baptist Church which was organized Nov 7, 1840. Once again Boatwright aided in establishing the new church. In May of 1883 eight members of Bethel along with members of Red Hill and Oak Grove joined together to form the “Baptist Church of Christ at Andersonville.” The missionary effort continued in September 1897 when 25 members of Bethel were granted letters of dismissal to form a “Baptist Church at Island Home, Anderson County.”

The first recorded donation to missions was in 1895 with $4.00 to home mission and $4.00 to state missions.

The present church building, built in 1976, is the fourth building to serve the congregation. It is believed the first church building was in the area now occupied by the cemetery. The second church building was built across the road from the present church building. The dates those two buildings were built is unknown and there are no known photographs of them. In 1892 the church authorized the addition of a vestibule with a bell in the second building. However, church records show that the bell was not installed until the fall of 1898. The third church building was built in 1911 adjacent to the site of the present church building. A photograph of the third building shows steeples on the two front corners. The taller steeple, on the right corner, held the bell. That bell is now housed on a stand in front of the education building. Entrance to the church was through double doors in each steeple. Timber from the church property was used in the construction. It is estimated the building cost $1,700 to build.

In 1945 the third church building was remodeled extensively and the appearance changed drastically. The two steeples were removed and replaced by a smaller steeple at the peak of the roof on the front of the church and entrance was through a single set of double doors.

That third church as demolished January 11, 1996 to make way for a new education building and fellowship hall and because it contained asbestos. There was a photograph of the building being demolished in the January 14-15 issue of The Courier News. The caption said that church member Darlene King, who was baptized into the church as a child and grew up in the church watched the demolition with tears in here eyes. “Four generations of my family attended church in that beautiful old building.” King said. “Some may believe me silly for crying like this, but it has been the foundation in my life from childhood on. Like everything else in life, change is inevitable, but this is like having a death in the family. I know we will be getting better facilities for our youth but I will miss the old church so much.”

On a small hill adjacent to the new education building is the church cemetery which was started some time after the formation of the church. A fire destroyed early cemetery records, but the first mention of the cemetery in existing church records is in February, 1887 when a trustee was named for the cemetery. Property for the cemetery was deeded to the church in 1899. A trust fund provides for perpetual care of the cemetery and several former pastors and members of long time Bethel families are buried in the cemetery.

Editor’s note: Much of the material in this article came from the booklet prepared by Janice M. Blanton in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the church in 1983 and updated by a committee for the 175th anniversary in 2008. Ms. Blanton did extensive research into church minutes and other records. Information was also gathered from conversations with the pastor, the church secretary and a long time church member.