Myrtle Stanfill Plew's rendering of the wood frame Bethlehem Baptist Church as it appeared when it was built near the site of the present church in 1888.
It is hard for most of us to envision more than 175 years of history, let alone realize that one institution, one church, could endure all the pressures of a changing society to remain a cornerstone in the development of a community and a county which came into being long after its establishment.
But such is the history of Bethlehem Baptist Church, which was founded 15 years before the state issued a charter to create Scott County and a full 83 years before the emergence of the Town of Oneida.
Oral testimony reveals that the church was founded about 1834 in the Buffalo Creek section, as a group of people came together for services in the home of one of the church members. The oldest surviving document, however, is dated 1837 and grants a woman (Elizabeth Stephens) admission into the church. At that time, Buffalo Creek was a part of Campbell County, as was still the case five years later, when the oldest regularly-kept church records were first being documented in 1842.
What is known about the beginnings of Bethlehem Baptist Church is that James Lay was the first pastor and that the organizers included Samuel Owens, Jonathan Richardson and Samuel Prewet — who, incidentally, is listed as the church's first clerk. There were 21 members.
The year 1842 is of particular importance in the church's history and is marked by two rather momentous events. That year saw the building of the church's first meeting house, at the head of Buffalo Creek.
The late Will Litton, a faithful member of the church, recounted that in the mid- to late-1800s, Bethlehem Baptist Church was one of only a few in the area and that people came from miles around to attend the monthly service.
Litton told of a Rock Creek, Ky., family who traveled by horse to his home, arriving on a Friday. The following morning, the Litton family and their Kentucky visitors would begin the long trip to the head of Buffalo Creek for services, remaining overnight and returning home on Sunday evening. Then, on Monday morning, the Kentuckians would start for home.
In 1869, the church moved from the head of Buffalo Creek to the waters of Pine Creek, in the vicinity of where the Oneida City Park is now located. The building was also shared by the Methodist Church and the United Baptist Church. Rev. Blevins indicated that the move apparently followed a general shift in the population in Scott County at that time, which paralleled the construction of the railroad through the county beginning in the early 1860s.
Although it would be a full 48 years before residents of the area obtained a city charter from the State of Tennessee, the community which was to become the Town of Oneida was rapidly emerging, due mostly to the establishment of the railroad.
Prior to that, Bethlehem Baptist Church, like many other long-established institutions of the era, fell victim to the Civil War. While virtually flawless church records date back to 1842, there was a three-year period during the Civil War when no records were kept. It is speculated that church members, divided over the conflict, may have chosen to suspend services until the war's end.
Another relocation of the church came in 1888, as a wood frame building was erected on a small lot facing Chester Street in Oneida, adjacent to the church's present-day location.
Property for that church building was donated by Judge Will Terry, who served as Sunday School superintendent for a number of years. Terry desired Bethlehem Baptist Church to have the first opportunity to purchase the land on which he, as well as his daughter and son-in-law, John and Estelle Moore, had homes. This became a reality when the Moores decided to move to Florida in 1976. The church became the owner of the property, and the Moore home was moved and became the church's parsonage.
For more than 110 years the church has removed at its present location, undergoing countless remodeling and building projects. Because of the huge oak trees that dominated the site, the locale — and, indeed, the church itself — came to be referred to as Oak Grove.
When Roy Blevins answered the call to pastor Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1937, there were not quite 100 members of the Sunday School housed in a structure which measured 80 ft. by 36 ft. The outside of the church was faced with weatherboard, while the inside was sealed. It was one of the oldest and largest churches in Scott County.
Within a year after the 33-year-old Blevins became pastor, Bethlehem Baptist Church began to experience a period of growth. And, along with the growth of the membership, the church building itself began to undergo a series of changes, enlargements and additions.
The first major addition to the church came in 1938 when the building was "jacked up" and a basement was dug to house classroom space. Then, over the years, the building's exterior was brick veneered. The main auditorium was lengthened, first on one end and then the other. A west wing was erected, a two-story addition which changed the entire appearance of the church. And then a three-story east wing was constructed.
The lengthening of the auditorium, coming in two separate stages, saw a baptistery constructed in the choir loft and the designing of a modern vestibule. The most modern addition at that particular church site came when a fellowship hall was constructed on the grounds to accommodate church-related social activities.
On Dec. 20, 1981, a full 147 years after it was founded, Bethlehem Baptist Church dedicated its new structure, which was located adjacent to the old church site.
Bethlehem Baptist Church has reached out to other communities and helped establish other churches. Churches organized by its extended arm were Cave Creek Baptist Church (Pulaski County, Ky.) in 1845, Pine Creek Baptist Church (Oneida, Tenn.) in 1879, Second Bethlehem Baptist Church (Scott County, Tenn.) in 1922, Hazel Valley Baptist Church (Oneida, Tenn.) in 1932, Foster Crossroads Baptist Church (Scott County, Tenn.) in 1940, and West Oneida Baptist Church in 1945, in addition to a church in Muncie, Ind.
The first record of Sunday School was recorded on Dec. 10, 1932, with the following appointed officers: W.A. (Will) Terry, superintendent; Sterling Cross, assistant superintendent; and Oscar Litton, secretary/treasurer. The elected teachers were: W.E. Duncan, men's class; Mrs. J.S. Smith, ladies' class; Calvin Human, advanced class; W.C. Litton, intermediate boys; Mattie Lee Jones, intermediate girls; Lela Rause, junior girls; Stella Coffey, junior boys; and Dessie Lindsey, children's card class.
In later years, a walking track and ball fields were constructed on the church campus adjacent to the church building.