The oldest Church of Christ in America? It’s complicated
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — What’s the oldest Church of Christ in America?…
TUCKERS CROSSROADS, Tenn. — The Bethlehem Church of Christ has a long history — 200 years and counting.
It has a bright future, too, lifelong member Carolyn Ragland Poston believes.
“This congregation probably has 20 babies under 6 years old,” Poston, 74, said at the rural church’s two-day bicentennial celebration. “I mean, I’m telling you, we are busting loose with babies.”
The 80-member congregation worships God in a red-brick building about 35 miles east of Nashville. A yellow sign along the two-lane blacktop — just a few miles off Interstate 40 — warns motorists to slow down in the church zone.
Fires and floods forced the Middle Tennessee church to rebuild multiple times — and relocate in a few cases — before erecting its long-standing meeting place in 1941.
As Poston greeted guests in the fellowship hall, old photos, letters and documents surrounded her. Two centuries of mementos recounted past and present ministers, elders, deacons, song leaders, mission efforts and children’s programs.
“I’m in there,” she said, pointing at a black-and-white Vacation Bible School picture from 1960, “but I was like 11 years old at the time.
“Have y’all seen this Bible?” she added, turning to a different part of the exhibit. “This was actually my grandmother’s, and her daddy gave it to her. Hang on, and let me show you the inscription.”
Poston’s links to the congregation extend through two sides of her family, including four generations of Raglands and five generations of Neals.
Two other multigenerational families still active in the church — the Bobos and the Harlans — also trace their lineage to the flock’s early days.
Poston helped gather recipes for a 150-page cookbook produced for the recent 200th anniversary celebration.
It features handwritten recipes such as Maggie Lou Whitefield Kirkpatrick’s angel biscuits, Virginia Powell Waters’ chicken dressing casserole and Leigh Nora Miller’s peanut butter Rice Krispie bars.
Poston views the cookbook as a way to preserve the memory of beloved fellow Christians.
“We’ve got members now that don’t have a clue who any of these people are,” she said, “and I want them to know how important they were in structuring us as children.”
The Bethlehem church’s history stretches all the way back to frontier preacher Barton W. Stone.
It’s one of only 24 Churches of Christ nationwide — out of roughly 12,000 total — that have met continuously for at least 200 years, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian. Some of the others have roots in other religious bodies dating prior to the Restoration Movement.
In the early 1800s, Stone — who believed the Bible, not human creeds, should be the basis of Christian practices — traveled through this Wilson County community.
One of the key figures of the Restoration Movement, Stone stayed at the home of John and Sarah Sweatt Scoby.
Before retiring for the night, the minister suggested reading Scripture and praying with the couple. He ended up studying New Testament doctrines with the Scobys and their friends and neighbors for several days.
Christian families in the area met sporadically from house to house until they organized as the Bethlehem Church of Christ in 1823, according to a historical marker dedicated by the congregation and community dignitaries.
“I have no idea how the Bethlehem Church of Christ got its name,” said elder Charles Poston, who is a cousin of Carolyn Poston’s husband, Terry. “There are several churches in Wilson County named after places mentioned in the New Testament, such as Bethany, Rome, Philadelphia and Bethel.”
Of course, Bethlehem in the hill country of Judea was the birthplace of Jesus.
While located in the unincorporated community of Tuckers Crossroads, Tennessee’s Bethlehem church has a Lebanon address. The Wilson County seat, established in 1802 on an overland stagecoach route, was named for the biblical Lebanon.
At its 200th anniversary, the Bethlehem church remains committed to its original convictions — among them baptism by immersion at the age of accountability, singing without instrumental accompaniment and partaking of the Lord’s Supper each Sunday.
“We are simply called Christians and practice simple New Testament worship,” the church’s website declares. “We love one another and are dedicated to show the love of God to all. It is our prayer that you would come and join us on our journey.”
For the congregation’s bicentennial, church members gathered under a large white tent on the church lawn. On a rainy, 72-degree Saturday afternoon, they listened to special presentations on the congregation’s history and applauded 200th anniversary proclamations issued by county and state officials.
Area minister Mark Adams spoke on the significance of the Restoration Movement — sometimes called the Stone-Campbell Movement in recognition of Stone and Alexander Campbell, another prominent minister and reformer.
“It was their conviction that the existence of so many church options, all claiming to study the same Scriptures and follow the same Lord … was ultimately harmful to our witness to the world and went against the will of Christ.”
Adams, an amateur church historian and pulpit minister for the Tusculum Church of Christ in Nashville, characterized the Restoration Movement as “an attempt to unify Christians from all denominations.”
“It was their conviction that the existence of so many church options, all claiming to study the same Scriptures and follow the same Lord … was ultimately harmful to our witness to the world and went against the will of Christ,” said Adams, who earned a Master of Divinity degree from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., and a doctorate in ministry from Lipscomb University in Nashville.
“In John 17, when Jesus prayed for all future Christians … his will for the church was that we would be one,” the preacher told Bethlehem members. “So, many people came together in an attempt to unify Christians, and this effort has now a very global footprint that we’re all still participating in today.”
Another speaker, Jane Elam Hundley, 79, reflected on her late grandfather E.A. Elam, a former president of Lipscomb and editor of the Gospel Advocate. Hundley displayed a suit that Elam wore when he preached at Bethlehem a century ago.
“I want to say how wonderful it is today to celebrate 200 years with this church,” said Hundley, who attended the congregation regularly as a first grader. “It is such a gift that we all bring here to celebrate.”
Pal Neal, 65, is one of the Bethlehem church’s three elders and has attended the congregation all his life. His father and great-grandfather also served as elders.
“So many churches out in the rural areas like this didn’t survive the last 50 years,” Neal said. “We’ve been able to maybe not grow that much but, you know, to keep everything going. We’ve got a lot of young people now, so we’ve been blessed for sure. The Lord has given us everything we need.”
Neal has fond memories of former longtime preacher Kenneth Head training the church’s children to serve the Lord. Head, who returned for the 200th anniversary festivities, served the congregation for more than 50 years starting in 1966.
“I remember the young people’s class that he had,” Neal said. “He’d bring everybody down front on Sunday night at 5:30 before the 6 p.m. service and teach us memory verses and play games with us. He just related to the young people and kind of kept everybody interested, which is part of the reason we’re still here today.”
Neal and his wife, Sheila, have three children and six young grandchildren.
Neal thanks God that all are a part of the Bethlehem congregation.
“You see so many of these congregations, and it’s just a bunch of old people, and they start dying off.”
“You see so many of these congregations, and it’s just a bunch of old people, and they start dying off,” the church elder said.
“I don’t know why,” he said of Bethlehem defying that trend. “I guess it’s the luck of the draw. And then we’ve had some good programs for the youth down through the years.”
The Neal family alone takes up two full pews on Sunday mornings.
“It’s a really close-knit community,” said Sheila Neal, interviewed while cuddling one of her grandchildren. “Everybody just cares for each other. If someone needs them, they’re not lost here.”
Tyler Alverson, the 26-year-old son of Bethlehem elder Travis Alverson, is now a preacher in Kentucky.
He serves the Seven Oaks Church of Christ in Mayfield.
But many of Alverson’s formative faith experiences occurred at the Bethlehem church — be it playing football with fellow teens outside the building or attending youth rallies inside its walls.
He worshiped with the congregation from age 4 until he left to attend Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.
He was baptized at Bethlehem, preached one of his first sermons in its auditorium and got engaged to his wife, Leslie, on the church’s front steps.
“We got married here, too,” he said.
Church leaders invited Tyler Alverson to fill in for pulpit minister Donnie Rhoten and deliver the Sunday morning sermon at the 200th anniversary celebration.
A crowd of 152 people — nearly double the normal attendance — squeezed into the pews and extra folding chairs brought in for the occasion. Afterward, they enjoyed a catered meal under the tent.
Past and present members shared hugs, handshakes and memories. They sang familiar hymns such as “Give Me the Bible,” “Jesus, Hold My Hand” and “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.”
The guest preacher titled his lesson “Who is Jesus?” and took his text from Colossians 1:13-20.
“It’s amazing to see a group of Christians when they come together … for a common purpose to glorify God and further the cause of the Gospel.”
“As I’m sure is true for you, this congregation holds a special place in my heart, and it always will,” Alverson told the congregation. “So I’m thankful to be here today, thankful for all the work that has gone into this celebration. It’s amazing to see a group of Christians when they come together … for a common purpose to glorify God and further the cause of the Gospel.”
While extolling the congregation’s long history, Alverson urged against putting too much emphasis on the “Bethlehem” in its name and not enough on the “Church of Christ.”
“If we leave here today with a greater knowledge of this congregation, but we don’t leave with a greater knowledge of our Lord Jesus … do you think we’ve placed our emphasis on the wrong part of that description?” he asked.
The purpose of the church, Alverson stressed, is to love and serve Jesus.
“We want to grow in our knowledge of Jesus,” he said. “We want to fall deeper in love with Jesus. We want to form relationships with Jesus. We want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps (and be) more faithful and more devoted on a daily basis.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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