Bethlehem Methodist Church – The Church Journey
2020 May 14
I had the privilege to visit a beautiful old country church nestled in incredible landscape in the foothills surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains. Bethlehem Methodist Church is a historic church in Tennessee, and was organized in 1886. Its Gothic Revival building was completed that same year. Bethlehem Methodist Church was organized in 1886 in the Wildwood community. In 1921, the Bethlehem Cemetery Association was incorporated and governed by a board of directors. 
Association President Charles “Pete” Presley said when the church became inactive in 1966, the building was given to the association by the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. The bell at Bethlehem served as a way to call people to worship, but it also had another purpose. Presley explained, “This was a close community. Everybody knew everybody. They knew your age, and if you were sick, they knew. If you were to pass away, as soon as somebody found it out, they would come to the church and they would toll your age, one for every year. That would let people know who passed away. That would also let you know for everybody to put down what they were doing, get their shovels and mattocks and come dig the grave.” 
The association has record books from as early as 1915 that show baptisms, membership transfers, etc., that took place at Bethlehem. Carolyn Fancher Cunningham said, “I found my mother’s baptism, Rachel Donaldson Fancher.” Cunningham said her mother is the reason she is so passionate about preserving the memories of the church and making sure it and the cemetery remains in good repair. 
Cunningham has passed this concern to her children. Her son, Robert Walter Cunningham, made Bethlehem his project to earn the Eagle Scout award in the 1970s, she said. Her nephew, Tim Williams, is now a member of the association board and helps sell graves in the cemetery and measure them out, she said. 
Many of the memories of Bethlehem revolve around Decoration Day, which took place on Mother’s Day. Cunningham recalled that her family would dress in their Sunday best and take flowers to both Bethlehem and Pleasant Grove. She said, “We wore the red roses because our mother was still living. Mother and Dad wore the white ones because their mothers had passed on.” 
Clyde Peery Jr., a descendant of W.W. Peery, said his family was associated with the church since it was built. When the cemetery association formed, its intent was to maintain the cemetery, later the chapel building. “The good care went on through the 1970s or later, but then it started to fall into a bit of neglect, not being able to keep up with the maintenance,” he said. “But the church was soundly built and soundly maintained for so long. It is very repairable because of the maintenance that was done in the past. So, this generation is trying to pick the ball back up to what our previous generations did a good job to maintain.” 
The church and its adjacent cemetery were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Twelve Civil War soldiers are known to be buried in the cemetery. The church is now called Bethlehem Memorial Chapel no longer houses regular worship services, but many descendants of the people who played a part in its history gather for special events. The congregation was dissolved in 1966, but the church is still used sometimes for weddings, funerals, and other special occasions. 
Now called the Bethlehem Memorial Chapel, this bright white gothic revival church building is the perfect example of an old country church nestled in the rolling hills with scenic views of the Smoky Mountains in the background. Driving down Cold Springs Road I turned onto winding Bethlehem Road that leads 1.7 mile to the stunning white church. The excitement starts to build as you realize you’re getting close. Halfway down the winding road looking to the right provides the first glimpse of the back of the bright white wooden church sitting on a hill in the foreground.
Arriving, I parked in the partial gravel with patches of green grass adjacent to the church. Stepping out of the car and taking in the view, of the old white church, takes you back in time. I felt a calming breeze cresting over the hill where the church stands. The sound of the birds singing serenaded the sights of the countryside. The tranquil setting is majestic, complemented with rolling hills sprinkled with large mature trees, with thick green leaves. The trees have provided shade for this land for hundreds of years. The view to the right of the church encompasses the Wildwood Cemetery. Observing the cemetery, the scenic background provides a panorama of blue skies with the Smoky Mountains rising up to the heavens.
I spent time in prayer thanking the Lord for all my blessing with additional prayers for the people in need. I highly recommend visiting this old church in the countryside. The church is currently available for weddings. I can only imagine the wonderful weddings held at this location over the years.
I made a second visit to the church on May 10 Mother’s Day, which on the same day the church also celebrates Decoration Day. In the South this day is dedicated for rural communities gather to clean and decorate their local cemeteries. This was a special visit because my wife was able to go with me and we shared the experience together. The cemetery was already beautifully decorated with colorful flowers on many of the grave stones. It’s a small cemetery but is well maintained. The cemetery has 12 civil war veterans buried.
As we continue to walk through the COVID-19 pandemic more than 83,000 have sadly died in the USA and over 288,000 around the world. I think about the popular funeral reading in: Psalms 23:4 “YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL: FOR THOU ART WITH ME, THY ROD AND THY STAFF THEY COMFORT ME.”
This relates to our lives today just as it was relevant 2000 years ago. I believe David was writing about God’s provision in the hour of fear or death. When we’re afraid of dying, we can pass through that valley without fear, because we know our Shepherd is with us, and we’re comforted to know that he’s fully capable of guiding and sustaining us. During difficult times I find it comforting to read Psalm 23, It heals the soul, because it helps us to remember that the Lord, who is our Shepherd, is always with us.
It’s important to understand that this world is not our home we are just passing through. We are all here for a reason, God has provided everyone special talents. You have a purpose, and a mission for you while you’re walking the earth. Now rather you accept your mission is up to you. In times of trouble don’t turn your back on the saving grace of Jesus. Instead run towards Him use your special talents to glorify Him. During this difficult time, with so many people in need, it is imperative that we help our neighbors. Most of all we need to support and lift each other up as we walk through our daily life.
With the National emergency for the COVID-19 virus many churches are remaining closed to the public. I spent time outside the church in meditation and prayer. The lack of pictures from inside the church leaves a void in the stories I share.
Church Website: https://www.umc.org/en/find-a-church/church/?id=41268
Date Visited: 2020 May 10th.
Location: Bethlehem Methodist Church, Bethlehem Road, Walland, TN.
The church building was completed in 1886 in the Gothic Revival with a gable front, a prominent bell tower. The doorway and windows are crowned by Gothic arches, elements of the Gothic Revival style that was popular for late 19th-century churches in the region.
If you would like to learn more about this church, upcoming events, or listen to a sermon I encourage you to visit the church website listed above.
May our Lord continue to bless this church in Jesus name.
“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” – (Luke 14:13-14)
Please Pray for all our churches as they continue to face challenges in the year 2020.
May this find you well and happy, God Bless
- Wikipedia (2020, May 11) Bethlehem Methodist Church Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethlehem_Methodist_Church
- Linda Braden Albert, April 20, 2014 “Historic Church not Forgotten by Descendants” Retrieved May 10, 2020 https://www.thedailytimes.com/community/historic-church-not-forgotten-by-descendants/article_8e3996a5-38a1-5d8c-a6fb-fca18c69f85d.html