In understanding our past, we find direction for tomorrow. The qualities of courage, love and adventure are our heritage. As we move forward, we do so with the same love in our hearts to continue the Christian ministry to our community that our church founders established over one hundred and fifty years ago.
Our heritage begins in the summer of 1820, when a group had a vision for beginning a new Baptist church in the Sweetwater area. At that time, Monroe County was sparsely populated, and folks had to travel long distances across the county to meet in the home of Daniel Duggan in the Fork Creek Valley.
In the meanwhile, other Baptist churches came into prominence. In 1824, individuals met at the home of John Howell on Pond Creek in McMinn County. The church was fairly prosperous and missionary in faith.
After the town of Sweetwater was constituted in 1852, it became increasingly difficult and inconvenient for the members to attend services at the Pond Creek Baptist Church. The decision was made in 1854 to construct a building in town and move the location of that church to convenience more people. The last meeting in the Pond Creek area was held in January 1857. It is not known where services were held, but there was some degree of activity from 1857 until 1860.
In 1860, First Baptist Sweetwater occupied its first building located on the corner of Monroe Street and Athens Road (now High Street). We were one of the first rural churches to recognize the need to move into an urban area and act on that need to better minister to the community.
As was true in regard to most churches in the era, the “War Between the States” interfered with activity and progress. The church building was occupied intermittently by Union and Confederate Troops. Very few services were held from 1862 until 1866.
Due to a much larger membership and under the leadership of pastor E.K. Cox, the site of the church building was moved to its present location on Wright Street. The lot was purchased in February 1904, the cornerstone laid in 1905, and the building occupied in 1906.
Construction on our new sanctuary building began in September 1975 and was dedicated on June 19, 1977. Renovation of the Education Building and the Children’s Building was completed in 1997.
First Baptist Church Unabridged History
In August 1860, the First Baptist Church of Sweetwater occupied her first building. It was located on the corner of Monroe Street and Athens Road on a lot donated by I. T. Lenoir (a member of the Methodist Church whose wife was a member of the Baptist Church). At this meeting, 7 new members were received into the fellowship: Elizabeth Bailey, Elizabeth Cleveland, Mary Caroline Lenoir, James J. Sheldon, Mary E. Sheldon and Esther E. Yearwood (by letter) and W. B. Lenoir (by experience). W. H. Taylor was appointed Clerk and Elder Robert Snead was Moderator. These men continued in their offices during 1861 and 1862. The first pastor elected by the church in January 1861 was H. W. Taylor of Deep Springs, Grainger County, Tennessee.
There seems to be some confusion among historians as to who was the first pastor. Some have called Elder Robert Snead the first pastor. It is definitely known that he had been preaching at the Pond Creek Church for some twenty years and that he was among that group when they moved to Sweetwater. He was either the first pastor or, at least, served as an interim. W. B. Lenoir (in his History of Sweetwater) refers to Elder Hughes Woodson Taylor as the first pastor. If Mr. Snead was the interim, then this would be true. If Mr. Snead was the first pastor, then Mr. Taylor would be the second. Whichever is the correct order, it is known that both men were strong in personality and leadership and deserve to be honored in the history of the church.
Robert Snead was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, April 20, 1801. He came to the Sweetwater Valley in 1824 and married Frances Henley soon afterwards. (His second wife was Samantha Ann McReynolds whom he married on September 17, 1852.) His first recorded purchase of land was in May, 1831: 80 acres. He acquired other tracts of land and at the time of his death owned a very large farm on the public road between Philadelphia and Sweetwater.
Mr. Snead was one of the most versatile men in this section of the country. Whatever he was called on to do, he always rose to the occasion: he was a brick-mason, farmer, minister of the gospel, railroad director and capitalist.
The building superintendent of the first actual building of the First Baptist Church of Sweetwater was Elika A. Taylor who had moved to the “western frontier” of the Sweetwater Valley in 1837 from Grainger County. He was also overseer of construction of the first school house in Sweetwater which was located where the church now stands. As a lay preacher, he had been a member of the Pond Creek Church.
He was a very “progressive” farmer of the Pond Creek valley (his old brick home—bricks made by hand—still stood in the valley in 1985). He introduced the first two horse wagon, the first threshing machine and built the first machine shop in this section of East Tennessee.
He was the son of Hughes O. and Elizabeth Taylor of Grainger County, Tennessee. Born July 30, 1811, he married Elizabeth Mayes and they had 5 sons and 3 daughters. His family served the church in various capacities: some as ministers, church clerks, etc. and some of his descendants served in foreign countries as missionaries for Christ. He died on May 10, 1903 at the age of 92.
Due to the ever-growing membership of the church and under the leadership of Reverend E. K. Cox, the site of the church was moved to its present location on Wright Street in 1905. The new site was purchased in February of 1904 at a cost of $900. The cornerstone was laid in 1905 and the building was occupied in 1906. Cost of the building and furnishings was $16,000. The church was dedicated Sunday, October 6, 1907 in what a newspaper article termed “one of the largest congregations ever assembled in Sweetwater”. The Rev. I. W. Martin was pastor and the church membership was listed at 275. Foresight of the members was amazing during those days, for that building proved to be adequate for worship services for 55 years.
A building program was initiated in 1975 and construction began on a new sanctuary. The church held services in the new auditorium for the first time on March 6, 1977 and special services were conducted a few weeks later to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone. On June 19, 1977, following special services, dedication of the new building was completed with the laying of the corner stone.
The original bell of the first Baptist Church that was built in Sweetwater in 1860 was hung in a little brick structure in the church yard (this was erected by the children of the late Joe C. Bilderback).
First Baptist Church History from our 150th Celebration on August 15, 2010
The Historical Committee is working on updating until current.