The fascinating history of Bethel Free Will Baptist Church dates to the late 1880s, when the congregation of Clifton’s Methodist Church decided to build a new house of worship across the valley. A number of members (who had already become dissatisfied with Methodist doctrine and government) decided to form a new church centrally located to the families who would worship there.
The new congregation began to meet at Stumptoe Community School, a name that recalled a small stump in the pathway of the men who constructed the building. In 1890, the church purchased an acre of land adjacent to the school from Priscilla (Council) Murphy for $80, and a year later, in 1891, a building committee was formed to begin work on the church building.
While few written records of these early years exist beyond the minutes of the Ladies Aid Society, according to the Centennial History of Bethel, “the new Free Will Baptist Church and its doctrine must have flourished.”
After founding pastor Wiley Stewart died in 1896, Rev. John L. Welch, Sr., became the second pastor. Welch’s son, John L. Welch, Jr., later became an influential leader in the Free Will Baptist movement and a key figure in the formation of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. While pastor, Welch led the church to join the Cumberland Association of Free Will Christian Baptist, Church of Christ. (The association of churches later dropped both “Christian” and “Church of Christ” and simply became known as the Cumberland Association of Free Will Baptists.)
The congregation had grown to more than 100 members when J.E. Hudgens became the third pastor around the turn of the 20th century. During the following decades, a number of men pastored the church, although they were often shared with other churches in the community. For instance, in 1919, the Minutes of the Cumberland Association indicate that W.B. Davenport preached at Bethel, Shady Grove, Good Springs, and Oakwood Churches on a rotating basis. Services were held at Bethel on the second Sunday of each month.
Starting around 1910, deacon George W. Fambrough and his wife Allie became leaders within the church. The couple lived in the Neptune community, where George was both postmaster and owner of the General Store. The couple carried the financial burden of the church through the Great Depression and remained active members until their deaths.
In time, the community around the church became known as Bethel, and Stumptoe School became known as Bethel School. It only follows that the church adopted the name as well. In the 1940s, the congregation dug and blocked a new basement beside the existing building, and the building was “picked up and moved” to its current location at an expense of $500.
Like many rural churches of the time, Bethel had worship services at least once a month, Sunday School every week, and revival every year starting the second Sunday in August. (The annual revival lasted a week or two, depending on the interest shown by the congregation.)
In 1953, Bethel took a big step when it hired Dan Merkh as the first full-time pastor. It was the right decision. Throughout this decade, the church grew and developed, establishing an “Official Board,” which eventually became the General Board. The board still exists today and includes deacons, trustees, leaders of each special ministry, and elected members-at-large.
The 1950s marked the beginning of a period of growth that continues today, more than half a century later. Under the leadership of men such as Jack Williams, Robert Woodard, Jerry Milom, Terry Forrest, and many others, the church has grown and expanded, both numerically and in terms of facilities.
Today, the congregation enjoys a beautiful 350-person sanctuary, a Christian Education wing, and fellowship hall in addition to the original sanctuary, which is fondly referred to as “The Old Church.”
Although Bethel has a vital part of the community for nearly 125 years, the church is not content to rest upon the success of the past but continues to look toward the future, working together to live out the Great Command and the Great Commission.