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Over the course of the past year, Focus On: Religion has examined the histories of several of Scott County’s oldest congregations, and will continue to do so. Sometimes, however, it’s interesting to take a step back and view the broader picture. This is an abridged examination of the origins of Scott County’s faith — established by this region’s first settlers, many of whom migrated here years or even decades before Scott County was even a county of its own. 

Today, Scott County’s Christians are overwhelmingly Protestant, and predominantly Southern Baptist. As of 2010, the percentage of Scott Countians regularly attending services who were Southern Baptist were 69 percent. The next largest denomination in Scott County, Methodists, made up just 3.7 percent of the county’s believers who regularly attend services. Following Methodists were Missionary Baptists at 3.4 percent, Church of Christ at 2.9 percent, and Church of God at 1.6 percent. More than 15 percent of the county’s believers belong to non-denominational congregations.

If the percentage of Southern Baptists in Scott County seems overwhelming, it has actually declined in recent years. In 1980, a whopping 87 percent of Scott County’s believers who regularly attend church services adhered to the Southern Baptist denomination. 

But the same does not hold true in some neighboring counties. In Fentress County, for example, Southern Baptists make up a plurality of believers, but most Christians belong to other denominations. As of 2010, just 44 percent of regularly-attending church-goers in Fentress County were Southern Baptists. Just over 14 percent were Methodists. (Other counties more closely align with Scott County’s religious demographics. In Campbell County, 64 percent of those who regularly attend services are Southern Baptist; in Morgan County, the percentage jumps to nearly 80 percent.)

The Southern Baptist Convention wasn’t even formed until 1845 — just four years before Scott County would be established from parts of what are today its neighboring counties. It was then that Baptists in the South split from Baptists in the North over the issue of slavery. The Home Mission Society — one of the earliest Baptist conventions — prevented slaveowners from being missionaries, leading to the split, and the Southern Baptist Convention was born. (Baptists weren’t the only denomination grappling with the issue of slavery; Presbyterians and Methodists would also split over the issue.)

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So how did Southern Baptists come to play such a large role in shaping Scott County’s faith-based community? To start understanding that is to understand the faith that the earliest settlers of Scott County carried with them.

Baptist faith in America

The earliest settlers of America were not Baptists. By the time the Jamestown colony was established in 1607, the Reformation Period was well underway in Europe. Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” had been published more than 90 years earlier, and many of those who sailed to America did so in hopes of securing religious liberties. Yet, the first Baptist church wouldn’t be established — in Amsterdam — until two years after the Jamestown colony was born.

In the New World, the Baptist denomination wouldn’t arrive for more than three decades. In 1638, Roger Williams established the First Baptist Church of Providence in Rhode Island.

Williams’ history was a fascinating one. Like so many others, he came to America in search of religious freedom. A former priest, he became a Puritan — one of the earliest groups to break with the Roman Catholics during the period of English Reformation, and forerunners to the Congregationalist and Presbyterian denominations. He was forced to flee England when he faced imprisonment after becoming too outspoken about his beliefs.

Yet, Williams would soon discover that religious freedom didn’t truly exist in the colonies. In 1636, he fled under the cover of darkness after disagreeing with his Puritan church in Boston. And, so, two years later, he established America’s first Baptist congregation, which consisted of just 12 members.

Baptists in the Cumberlands

By the 1780s, still several years before settlement really began to take off in what would become Scott County, the Baptist doctrines had reached the greater Cumberlands region. Tennessee’s first Baptist church was established in Fincastle, a settlement just north of modern-day LaFollette in Campbell County, in 1783. 

By the early 1800s, about 30 years after the establishment of the first Baptist church in Campbell County, the Baptist doctrine had made its way up the Cumberland Plateau and into what would eventually become Scott County. According to historian H. Clay Smith, in his book “Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past,” one of Scott County’s first Baptist churches was Sugar Grove. Others soon followed, including New River — which would play an instrumental role in the spread of the Baptist doctrine in Scott County — in 1819.

Methodists flourished in the 1800s

At about the same time the first Baptist church was being established in Scott County, the Methodists arrived on the scene. The first Methodist minister in Scott County was Isaac Smith, who began attending camp meetings locally in 1812. 

Smith was heavily influenced by Francis Asbury (1745-1816), who is credited with riding tens of thousands of miles on horseback to spread Methodism in colonial America as part of the Second Great Awakening. Asbury — who had been ordained by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church — took part in the Revival of 1800, which originated in Kentucky and greatly influenced the spread of Methodism in the South.

Asbury was one of Wesley’s circuit riders, a new ministerial role that had been established by Wesley in England. The goal was to ride a horse for weeks at a time over wild country to spread the gospel to rural and remote areas. While the Methodists were the first to use circuit riders, other denominations — including Baptists — followed suit.

Smith was the circuit rider who would eventually reach Scott County … and he eventually settled down here after receiving a land grant near what is today Ponderosa Estates.

Sometime after Smith took up permanent residency in Scott County, the First Methodist Church was established in Oneida. For a decade and a half, services were held in the home of Smith’s son-in-law, Jim Terry. In the 1850s, a proper meeting house was constructed where Oneida City Park is today, and the Methodist congregation began meeting there. Still later, the congregation of Bethlehem Baptist Church, which had been established in 1834 — three years before the Methodist Church, moved from the headwaters of Buffalo Creek and became the first Baptist congregation in what would later become Oneida. The Baptists and Methodists both met in the meeting house until 1902, when a new building was built where Tibbals Flooring Co. would later be constructed. A few years later, that church was moved to North Main Street, and has been the home of the Methodist congregation ever since.

At its peak, the Methodist denomination had 12 churches in Scott County. By the late 1800s, there were Methodist churches in Oneida, Winfield, Norma, Glenmary, and other locations in Scott County. According to Smith’s book, “Dusty Bits,” the Methodist Church in Winfield had the first musical instrument of any church in Scott County — an organ — and parishioners would walk for miles to hear it played.

The Methodist denomination has gradually dwindled in Scott County. From a peak of 12 congregations, today there are just two: Oneida First United Methodist and Rugby Road United Methodist in Elgin.

Then the Presbyterians came

The Presbyterian doctrines were introduced to Scott County in the 1850s, and one of the first moves was to establish the Huntsville Debating Society, a one-room, log school just west of where the historic Scott County Jail would later be built.

The academy soon closed, but reopened in 1885 as the Huntsville Presbyterian Academy just east of the county’s courthouse. The academy closed in 1909, after Huntsville High School was built, and the two-story building burned in 1928.

The Presbyterians initially met in the county courthouse, but a one-room, wood-frame building was built in 1882 to house the First Presbyterian Church. That first meeting house was also used by Methodists, Baptists and other denominations.

In 1909, after the Presbyterian Academy closed, the church organized the Mossop Memorial School, a boarding school for girls. But Dr. Henry Butler — who at the time was pastor of Huntsville’s Presbyterian congregation — retired from the pulpit and was moved to Harriman, and the school went with him. It was one of Harriman’s earliest high schools and remained open until World War II.

At one point there were two Presbyterian congregations in Scott County, but the one in Helenwood eventually disbanded. 

Later denominations

Among the major denominations, last to arrive in Scott County were Congregationalists and the Church of Christ.

The former arrived in 1885, with Rev. William E. Barton. A well-known Congregationalist minister in New York, Barton moved to Tennessee to do research on the Cumberland Mountain way of life at Vanderbilt University. In 1885, he established the pilgrim Church in Robbins, which at the time was Scott County’s largest town. In 1926, Barton Chapel was built from brick that was produced at the nearby Southern Clay Manufacturing Co.

Last to arrive was the Church of Christ. Although Disciples of Christ arose in the early 19th century, it wasn’t until 1906 that a new entry was added to the federal census of religion to enumerate Churches of Christ.

Smith’s book, “Dusty Bits,” gives mention to a Church of Christ in Glenmary, near Wolf Creek, but the date of its establishment is not known. In 1913, the Oneida Church of Christ was established after several preachers from David Lipscomb held tent meetings in several locations in Scott County.

A.C. Terry, an influential early businessman in Oneida, is credited with establishing the Oneida church. Terry was an active member of the First Baptist Church of Oneida, while his wife, Jennie Davis Terry, was a former Methodist. 

Early church services

In his book, “Dusty Bits,” Smith relates the following about early church services in Scott County:

“Whatever was the subject of the sermon, services were rather long, often lasting for two or three hours. On all occasions they were, as they were called, ‘tear jerkers.’ Almost everyone was in tears but the ‘scorners’ and the sinners, although, occasionally, the latter did weep and bring encouragement to the preacher; but the ‘scorners,’ as they were called, were the hardened sinners consisting, mostly, of horse thieves, drunkards, gamblers, and general ruffians.

“The ‘sinners’ were classed as those who did not live up to the best in church regulations, which prohibited cheating or defrauding and lying; condemned not-visiting the sick and not-offering a helping hand with the crops or failing to say a kind word about neighbors but, rather, talking about them; and failure to take in a neighbor or a decent-looking stranger or to offer food for his horse and bread and the hospitality of the home for the night. The host also was to inform the wayfarer of the many pitfalls ahead of him and to give him enough food to tide him over until he could reach another good neighbor (whom the host would recommend).”

Smith went on to relate:

“There were other things that were stressed in the sermons, such as working hard, being decent, saving and walking in such a way in daily life as not to be scorned by the neighborhood.

“Some preachers went about their delivering of the Sunday sermon with reading of the Bible, songs and testimonies, then the general delivery, which often was in a monotone of yelling, shrieking, wringing of his hands, pulling of an ear, walking from one side of the church to the other, sobbing … on and on … until some good lady began to shout, then another, until there were both men and women, along with children, crying hysterically. This would go on for an hour and, at times, there would be someone going down with the heat and from exhaustion, moaning or shaking until he or she would have to be carried outside and taken to the spring, on fainting, for freshening up with water.

“After services, there was a great pairing off as to where each should take dinners, as it was called, with just which neighbor, as everyone was wanted at all neighbors. Some had come on horseback and others afoot, for miles; these last were the ones who went to dinner with the neighbors or relatives.

“Before church services was a good time to find out how each fellow’s crops were coming, how the little ones were doing after a siege of the measles or smallpox and other diseases, how the folks had made out during the last cold spell, had they hard from any of the relatives back in Virginia, North Carolina and other places and, most of all, about the Indians and politics.”

This article is the February 2020 installment of Focus On: Religion, presented on the fourth week of each month by Huntsville Health & Rehabilitation as part of the Independent Herald’s Focus On series. A print version of this article can be found on Page A3 of the February 27, 2020 edition of the Independent Herald.