A Tennessee landmark is celebrating a milestone this week.
The oldest African-American church in the state, Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on Cherokee Drive will commemorate its 216th anniversary on Sunday.
“I was intrigued by the age of the church and the history,” said Rev. Clifton D. Jackson, the 13th pastor at Bethel since its founding in 1803. “Just being an African-American church with their history that still exists is incredible.
“I’m proud of being pastor of this church, and this community.”
As part of the celebration, Bethel will have a guest pastor for the afternoon service. Rev. Lester Laffley from Friendship Baptist Church in Johnson City will give the yearly sermon, and the church’s choir will perform. Jackson said it’s a decades-long tradition he has been a part of since leaving Macedonia Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Tennessee for Bethel.
“Each year, we have another pastor come in and do the afternoon service,” said Jackson, who has pastored Bethel since 2000. “We’ve been doing this every year for decades.”
Dr. Dean Haun from First Baptist Church in Morristown an Rev. Jack Hawthorne from Cathedral of Faith in Pensacaola, Florida will give video messages thanking Bethel Baptist for its contributions to the community. Morristown Mayor Gary Chesney and City Councilmember Kay Senter will also give remarks at the celebration.
Jackson also said he is pleasantly surprised how diverse and unified Morristown is as a community.
“Morristown is a little different. There isn’t a designated black neighborhood, or a white neighborhood,” he said. “People live next to other people, and that’s unique for a small town.”
Organized in 1803 by the Rev. Isaac Barton, the congregation was composed of members who had migrated to Morristown from East Hamblen County, specifically in Whitesburg, to distinguish itself from another congregation in another part of the county sharing the same name, the “mother church” soon called itself Bethel South, with “south” meaning the southern end of the Holston River.
According to Bethel’s records, the original house of worship was a log building dating to 1856, and was located on the corner of what is now North Cumberland Street and Cherokee Drive. This building also served as a slave market and a hospital for both Union and Confederate troops of the Civil War.
This building was eventually conveyed to Rev. Dr. Judson S. Hill, a white Methodist missionary and educator and founder of Morristown College. The former church building became the first building of Morristown College. Extant records from the period indicate that there were several black members of Bethel South, which later became First Baptist Church of Morristown.
Though it is uncertain the exact date Bethel Baptist broke away from Bethel South, it likely emerged from freed black persons and sharecroppers that attended First Baptist Church in the 1800s. It is more certain that the first building to be owned by the fledgling black congregation was a building on South Cumberland Street, and was deeded by Henry Mullins to Arthur Poe, chairman of trustees. Other trustees from the period were Luke Brownlow, Dave Dickson, Andy Greenlee, Dolphus Harrell, Prince Jackson, Lafayette Kent, Henley Mason, Adam Weaver and William Wingate. That building served the needs of the congregation until 1987.
“(The founding of the church) happened during slavery, so to have your own church and not be bothered was a big deal,” Jackson said. “We’ve come a long way.”
The names of several of the early pastors are also well-known, according to church records. Historical records of Southern Baptist churches in the area bear the names of men who also served at Bethel during its early days.
Among them are Revs. Azariah and Buck Thompson, who served several churches in Hamblen and surrounding counties. Over the years, Revs. G.A. Nance, H.E. Brown, M.M. Upton and Thomas Knight each held the pastorate of Bethel. Nance returned to the pastorate of the church and served for 33 years until his death, and was succeeded by Rev. E.H. Bragg, who served for 18 years.
Following Bragg’s tenure, Revs. Isaac Robinson, William Prince, Van B. Wynder and Charles L. Willis served the church for a combined period of 10 to 12 years. Rev. Frank Houston, who began as a “teenage preacher,” held the pastorate from 1973-1999.
“It also tells you each pastor served for a good number of years,” Jackson said. “There have been some ups and downs, but the the good has always outweighed the bad.”
This year’s celebration will be the finale for Jackson, who will be retiring next year. Looking back, he thanked the Morristown community for welcoming him and his family to the area, as well as the growing diversity of his church.
“Morristown has been a good place for me and my family. It’s been a loving place with a mixed congregation,” he said. “Everybody is welcome, no matter who you are.”
The event is open to the public. For more information, call the church at 586-2173.