The “Focus On: Religion” series continues its look at the early days of the Christian faith in Scott County by examining some important singular moments in the growth of the church in this remote corner of the world.
Last month, this feature included excerpts from H. Clay Smith’s Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, in which the historian painstakingly detailed some of the early religious practices and habits in Scott County. Prior to that, we focused on the growth of the Baptist denomination and how it spread first from Europe to the British colonies in North America, then through the Cumberland Gap and into East Tennessee, eventually reaching the Cumberland Plateau. We have also included a history of several of Scott County’s oldest churches.
As we continue this look back, we again draw heavily from Smith’s valuable Dusty Bits volume. It is available for purchase from the Scott County Historical Society on the upper floor of the old county courthouse in Huntsville.
Formation of the New River Association
According to Smith’s writings, the New River Association of Baptist churches in Scott County was a result of the fallout over secession and the Civil War.
Scott County was a pro-union enclave during the war, although Tennessee had seceded from the Union. In fact, Scott Countians had voted overwhelmingly against secession, and county leaders later declared the Free and Independent State of Scott, a declaration of independence from the Volunteer State as a show of support for the Union.
When the final vote was tallied in Scott County and the results were dispatched to Nashville, 541 Scott Countians had voted against secession, and only 19 had voted for it.
Smith wrote, “During the Civil War, churches, as well as all other establishments, had to take sides. That was the case with the Clinch River and Big Emery Associations. Most of the people who belonged to the churches of these two associations were sympathizers with the North, although there were enough who favored the South to cause arguments to an extent that a new body was formed and named the New River Association.”
There were 11 churches that were charter members of the New River Association, and the association began with $9 to its name.
The Great Revival of 1895
In 1895, one of the largest revivals in Scott County’s history swept through the community — and it began, interestingly enough, with the unusual death of a Winfield girl in a sort of Appalachian version of Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo & Juliet.
According to Smith’s Dusty Bits, the girl — who lived in the Pleasant Grove area east of what is now U.S. Hwy. 27 — was engaged to a man named Ambers Cordell. But Cordell was a preacher, and the girl’s mother had her heart set on her daughter marrying a farmer.
Smith wrote, “The girl’s mother was very much opposed to Ambers and tried hard to split them up; but everything she did seemed only to bring them closer and closer together.”
During an argument between the mother and her daughter one day, a thunderstorm approached Winfield. At one point, the mother said that “she would rather the girl were dead than that she would marry Cordell.”
Just after she said that, Smith wrote, “the young lady leaned up against one of the porch posts. Just then came a sharp clap of thunder instantaneously following a lightning bolt that struck and killed her.”
As Rev. George Davis and Whig Duncan preached the girl’s funeral at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, revival began. Over 40 people were taken into the church by baptism, after which the revival spread to Second Bethlehem, Buffalo and Paint Rock, with “not less than 40 people being taken into these four by baptism alone,” Smith wrote.
A Huge Baptism
Perhaps the biggest baptism in Scott County’s history took place on Sept. 9, 1926 — a Thursday — at a pond in Winfield.
On that day, 90 people were baptized after professing their faith following a large revival that had taken place the previous June.
The revival had been led by Rev. George E. Moody and Adlai Loudy. The tandem of minister and song-leader traveled throughout the Southeast between 1924 and 1926 conducting such revivals, including a series of stops in East Tennessee. Of the 90 converts in Scott County, 69 joined First Baptist Church of Oneida.
Smith wrote that the revival saw professions of faith made by “some of the worst and most dangerous members of society in Scott County.”
A Sign Ministry is Born
In his audio-recorded memoirs, Rev. Hobert Wright talked about the conversion of Oneida’s Bates Pennycuff, who was long regarded as one of the “meanest men in Scott County” before converting to Christianity during a revival at Mountain View and becoming one of the community’s best-known workers for Christ.
Wright told the story like this: “Between 1950 and 1960, I was elected pastor of the Mountain View Baptist Church. At the same time, I was working in the coal mines on day shift. I was section foreman at the Brimstone Coal Company.
“Just a few days before they elected me as pastor at Mountain View, I was standing in the mine office looking out the window and cleaning my safety lamp, getting ready to go inside to work. I knew they were having some union trouble at the mines and as I looked out the window, I saw a group of the men from the second shift gathered at the bridge with the mine superintendent.
“The superintendent was a small man and they seemed to be having a pretty hot fuss. At that time we had a man in Scott County, Bates Pennycuff, who was just about the meanest man I had ever seen. Sometime before this, Bates had shot the sheriff. The sheriff recovered, then shot Bates. Bates had gotten well, but he was still a mean man. But he was a good worker.
“I was watching these men on the bridge and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I saw Bates Pennycuff. I saw him reach down, pick up that little old superintendent just like he was a baby, and throw him over the bridge banister and into the creek.
“The superintendent waded out and went on his way. Bates went on to work and that was all that was done. Bates worked right on in the coal mines as he had always done before.
“I was preaching at Mountain View in revival one night, and we had three or four seekers come down at the altar call. Just before I bowed to pray with them, I looked back in the center of the church and there sat Bates Pennycuff. I had never known of him going to church. I was never so surprised in my life. After we prayed and I stood up, I looked for Bates but couldn’t see him anywhere.
“A man standing beside me said, ‘Brother Wright, tell me who that man is right there.’ I looked down and Bates was in the floor, and he was trembling all over like he would die. He was praying so loudly you could have heard him from a mile away. He thought he was going to die. I said, ‘Brother Ward, that is the meanest man in Scott County.’ He said, ‘Brother Wright, he is not going to be mean very long if he stays there and talks to God that way.’
“It wasn’t five minutes before Bates came out of there. He shouted all over the house. He said that he could feel the Holy Spirit even to the end of his toes. I believe he was the happiest man that I have ever seen.
“I like to fish, and when I go fishing and catch a fish, I want to get him on a string before he gets away. I felt like I had caught a good one when I got Bates, so when the services were closing, I gave church privileges and he joined the church. He wanted to be baptized. He was so big that he had to look down at me; he must have weight close to 300 pounds. He said, ‘Do you think you could do the job?’ I said, ‘Brother Bates, I will do it or be founding trying, if that’s what you want.’ So I baptized him.
“Bates didn’t stop there. He went to work. He went after the roughnecks, the mean ones. We had six or eight baptized. Most of them were grown men. When Bates went after one, he generally got him. He went on to become a preacher and pastored a church at White Pine.”
Pennycuff was perhaps best known for his sign ministry, placing signs all over Scott County reading, “Jesus is Coming, R U Ready?”