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Glimpses From a Teacher Historian: Bethel holds true to its tenets

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By Mark Banker

Members of Bethel Presbyterian Church invite our neighbors to a concert at Fort Southwest Point on Friday, June 1, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Lively music and good fellowship will celebrate appropriately Bethel’s 200 years of community stewardship and cooperation.

Present Bethel minister, the Rev. Wendy Neff, traces this tradition to Old World Calvinist legacies that called Believers to address earthly as well as spiritual matters.

The Rev. Isaac Anderson brought this vision to the Tennessee frontier when he led 20 women and six men in organizing Bethel Presbyterian Church on June 6, 1818.

Glimpsing the image of a generous Creator in “others” — including native Cherokees, both enslaved and free blacks, and immigrants — Anderson bequeathed to Bethel a distinctive response to human diversity.

More broadly, this calling nurtured a ballast that has steadied Bethel’s responses to 200 years of incessant and bewildering change.

Appropriately, Bethel’s original home was the log structure of the Rittenhouse Academy that sat atop Kingston’s cemetery hill. William Eagleton, Bethel’s first minister, served as headmaster of the Academy. Thus began a commitment to public education that has been a Bethel hallmark for 200 years.

Religious ferment in the early 19th century gave rise to Baptists and Methodists. When families who preferred those faith traditions first arrived in Roane County, they initially worshipped at Bethel. But, as their numbers increased, Bethel members aided them in establishing congregations of their own.

As time and the western frontier advanced, East Tennessee fell behind the rest of the nation. Caught in the middle between North and South, our forebears suffered further from the nation’s sectional conflict and Civil War.

In response to these challenges, members of Kingston’s various Protestant denominations bridged sectarian lines to develop a sustainable economy and stable society. Bethel’s characteristic openness was essential to these goals.

For example, Bethel folk welcomed German immigrants who arrived in the mid-19th century. Among them was Ferdinand Roth, the skilled carpenter who constructed today’s white frame sanctuary on cemetery hill in 1855.

Three decades later, Roth and a young son of a prominent Kingston family dismantled that structure piece and piece and relocated it to a more suitable site at the bottom of the hill.

Descendants of some of these emigres, including members of the Muecke family, became prominent in the Kingston community and eventually led Bethel’s flock.

When endemic economic ills continued to plague Kingston’s development in the early 20th century, Bethel’s traditional openness once again proved beneficial. Unprecedented federal funds and the host of newcomers that accompanied TVA and other New Deal reforms in the 1930s brought new energy and a host of talented individuals to Kingston.

Bethel responded with open arms. The pattern became even more pronounced a decade later when the Manhattan Project and Oak Ridge transformed nearly every facet of East Tennessee life.

One result was the Bethel of my youth: an energetic, dynamic, creative place that welcomed change and a host of engineers, physicists, administrators and technicians.

These individuals, their gifted spouses and often precocious offspring energized Bethel and enriched the broader community as teachers, supporters and participants in such public activities as sports and scouting, and in an array of public offices and capacities.

Bethel’s ecumenical spirit and community outreach reached new heights in the final third of the 20th century during the long pastorate of the Rev. Richard Hettrick.

Dick genuinely appreciated Bethel’s legacies of mission outreach, education and ecumenism. But he gently nudged the church to adapt those traditional emphases to changes then unsettling American society.

During Dick’s tenure, Bethel’s education building truly became a community center. An array of farsighted endeavors, including scout troops, the Michael Dunn Center, and Child and Family Services used its space.

Ever the ecumenist, Dick was an early proponent of Roane County Cooperative Ministries, Habitat for Humanity and the Kingston Ministerial Association.

When he retired in 1998, one Kingstonian aptly lamented that “the whole community was losing a pastor.”

Over the past two decades under the leadership of Marc Sherrod and Wendy Neff, Bethel has continued these traditions and reached out to the broader community in new ways.

For example, 28 people including six Bethel members presently participate in a diverse array of arts-related classes and activities sponsored by BAM (Bethel Arts Ministry). Classes in tai chi have been added to the activities that make use of Bethel’s facilities.

Finally, many people from the broader community participate in Bethel’s “fair trade” buying group that seeks to bypass purchasing practices that are unfair to Third-World producers of coffee, chocolates and other imported items.

Like the broader American experiment in religious freedom and pluralism, Bethel’s loftiest visions have eluded our grasp. Still our faith shields us from cynicism that may accompany both our accomplishments and disappointments.

At our best, we strive to be humble servants.

As we know from the broader American experience, attempting to serve the needs of an inherently diverse society with a birthright commitment to freedom is fraught with conflict. But our American genius has been our capacity for making that conflict creative and constructive.

May Americans bewildered by today’s polarization and Roane Countians currently mired in a heated school debate be mindful of this blessed inheritance.

For inspiration, they need only consider Bethel’s 200 years of community stewardship.

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Mark Banker is a retired teacher and historian who lives in Kingston. He may be reached at MTBanker1951@gmail.com.