Organized in August 1866, the Beth Salem Presbyterian Church was the first African-American congregation established in the three-county area of Polk, McMinn, and Meigs.
The church’s establishment is a significant example of the impact of White missionaries on Tennessee’s religious institutions in the wake of the Civil War. Among the founders were two African-American ministers. Rev. George Waterhouse and Rev. Jake Armstrong, and a white Presbyterian missionary. Rev. Fate Sloop. Patsy Fight, a White woman, donated land for the original church building of 1866. The Beth Salem congregation first met at a brush arbor on the current church property: at an undetermined date a log church was built. For rural African-American Presbyterians, Beth Salem became a religious and social gathering place, just as the First United Presbyterian Church in Athens, eight miles to the northwest, became a religious center for urban African-American Presbyterians in McMinn County.
This log church building also served as a public school for African Americans; the first black teacher was Smith Henderson. The congregation used the initial log building until a fire destroyed it circa 1920.
The leaders of the construction of the frame church building circa 1920 were John Melton, Jim Melton, George Walker, Calvin Prater, Horace Melton, and Ray Lessely. Lessley was a white neighbor who donated the lumber for the building’s construction. With a horse-drawn wagon, Horace Melton hauled the lumber sixteen miles to the church lot. The building also served as a school for an undetermined time; most blacks in McMinn County attended school during the 1920s at the Rosenwald School Building Program’s schools at Athens, East Etowah, West Etowah, and Union.
In 1928, the Beth Salem church hosted a two-week camp revival for African Americans from McMinn, Monroe, and Loudon counties. At this time the tradition of “Hattie’s Kitchen’’ began. Hattie Buchanan wanted a kitchen for food preparation for the revival attendees. Nearby the church, where the current pavilion now stands, men from the congregation constructed an eight by ten foot frame kitchen. The men included Jim Caves, Luther Boyd, Alfred Caldwell, and Abner King. Helping Hattie Buchanan in the kitchen were Mary Caves, Jane Springs, Alice Webb, Callie Ferguson, and Mary Brown. “Hattie’s Kitchen” became an important tradition at the church and the food preparation is still outdoors when the annual Beth Salem Homecoming takes place in August.
Regular church services at Beth Salem ended in the 1950s due to the migration of rural African-Americans to the towns and cities and the ease of automobile travel; many rural black Presbyterians could drive to Athens and attend services at the First United Presbyterian Church. Beth Salem then became the site of an annual August homecoming, which attracts one hundred or more former members and their descendants to this rural setting. As recorded in the Athens Daily Post-Athenian, August 31, 1988:
The tin roof is rusted and warped, and the sanctuary needs a little whitewash, but the church looks much as it did 60 years ago. An electric fan is the only modern convenience, and a lamp on the pulpit for the preacher to read the Bible, all powered by a generator out back-----But visitors can understand why the church is special. It was built in a time of turmoil and still stands for what it was built for-a house of worship.
Since that 1988 report, the roof was repaired and the building painted. Otherwise, the church still retains its circa 1920 materials and appearance and it is a rare and extremely important example of the type of unadorned, yet dignified architecture found in rural African-American churches during the Jim Crow Era. Most black congregations that still meet regularly have typically replaced their late nineteenth and early twentieth century frame buildings with brick or brickveneer buildings. If the congregation had still been viable in the 1950s and 1960s, the church at Beth Salem perhaps would have been rebuilt in that manner. However, the end of the congregation also meant that there was no need to expand or remodel the old church building.
Thus, it survives as a compelling artifact of the past African-American religious experience in McMinn County.