T.A. Smith has not spent his entire life worshipping at Bethel Church of Christ in Bledsoe County, but he has spent most of it there. His parents took him there as a child, he was married there and, for the last 18 1/2 years, he has served as its minister.
His connection to the church, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary from Aug. 3-6, goes back even further. Before congregants constructed an actual building to worship in, they met in the home of John Rains, Smith's great-great-grandfather. His grandfather was an elder later at Bethel as well.
"It's where my family always went. My grandfather passed away some time ago, but people who remember him, when they find out who I am, it gives them a special glow," he says. "I hope to stay there as long as I preach ... It means the world to me."
The current church, which is nestled between the Cumberland Plateau and Walden Ridge, sits about equidistant between Dunlap and Pikeville on Highway 127, and is located about a block from at its original location. Members today worship in a new, 10-year-old building because they outgrew the "old building," which was built after a fire destroyed the original in 1881.
The new, brick building, includes classrooms, offices, a kitchen/dining around, a playground and and a pavilion out back.
The old building, a simple single-story clapboard sided building that has been added onto over the years, currently serves as the church's Benevolent Center, in which the church provides furniture, clothing and appliances to families in need. Its roof is new and the grounds are well-maintained, indicating that not keeping the building was not an option.
"Oh no," says James "Buck" Ewton. A member for all of his 83 years, he bristled at the mere notion of abandoning or selling the building and property.
"Not as long as I'm alive."
Smith says deciding to build a new church was emotionally difficult, but a practical need. Like a number of churches of an age, Bethel has seen its membership rise and fall, but it simply outgrew the old building in recent years.
"When I was a little boy, 25 or 30 people was a good Sunday crowd," Smith says. "Yesterday [June 29], we had 235." The biggest gathering was about 425 for one of the church's Friday night singings they host, he says.
Church elders considered holding a Sunday school session in the old building and then having everyone walk over to the new church the first Sunday it opened, he says, but thought it might be too emotional for some.
Smith says that Bethel's members are proud not only of the church's longevity, but the fact that it remains so near its original location.
"It is a source of pride for everyone, but I'm trying to temper that enthusiasm and remind them when we gather on Aug. 3, we will mark and acknowledge the occasion, but it is still the Lord's day," Smith says. "We have to worship."
Minister Bill Greer of the Soddy-Daisy Church of Christ will be the guest speaker at the morning and evening services on Aug. 3. Greer's great-grandfather was also one of the founding members, and he has preached at Bethel several times over the years.
He points out that celebrating 150 years of existence is an accomplishment for any church, particularly "one out in the middle of nowhere."
"You have six and seven generations of people that are members there," Greer says. "I think it says something about their faithfulness to do what God wants them to do and it shows a concerted effort to do what they said they would do."
Smith says he anticipates the celebration will draw plenty of former church members who moved away to find jobs and opportunities.
"We'll have a big dinner and I suspect people will stay around all day to visit and share stories."
Celebrations are also planned for the evenings of Aug. 4, 5 and 6.
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...