Modern-day First Baptist Church of Oneida, which is located at the corner of Second and Main in downtown | Ben Garrett/IH

Oneida is the retail hub of the northern Cumberland Plateau. With a population of 3,683, Oneida is also the northern plateau’s largest town. So it is perhaps surprising to realize that organized religion didn’t come to Oneida until near the end of the 19th century.

When Oneida’s first Baptist church was established, in the late 1880s, it was through a mission outreach effort by the newly-formed New River Association. One can only wonder whether the group of ministers and others who met in the New River community on a spring day in April 1886 realized that Oneida — which was at that time not a town at all, but little more than a crossroads and a small village in northern Scott County — would grow to become the region’s largest city. But, regardless of their vision for what Oneida would become, they had the foresight to realize the need for organized religion there.

It wasn’t until the railroad came to the northern plateau in the early 20th century that Oneida began to take shape as a town, with new businesses first springing up around the depot and later spreading north into the Oak Grove district. By the time Oneida did begin to take shape in the early 1920s — already an incorporated town by half a decade at that point — it had a well-established Baptist church . . . several of them, in fact.

But that wasn’t the case in April 1886, when a group of men representing churches throughout Scott, Campbell and Morgan counties met in New River to discuss the need for organizing a new association of Baptist churches in Scott County — one that would invest in missionary work both at home and abroad for the purpose of spreading the gospel.

From the Clinton and Big Emory Associations, the New River Association was formed. Its first annual session took place six months later, in October 1886, with T.W. Nash delivering the introductory sermon and J.C. Hudson elected moderator. Eleven churches were enrolled in the beginning.

It was one year later, at the New River Association’s second annual meeting, that attention was focused on Oneida. The recommendation from the association was simple: “We suggest that there be work done at Oneida.” 

Rev. John Bullock, from the eastern side of Scott County, was charged with the task of leading the New River Association’s efforts in Oneida. His assignment was to preach monthly sermons in Oneida, while also visiting other churches that were members of the New River Association. Assisting Bullock was S. Adkins, from Gum Fork. 

The very beginning of First Baptist Church of Oneida came on March 21, 1888. Four persons were baptized, the church was established, and it was welcomed into the New River Association the following November.

Originally, the congregation of First Baptist Church met in a school building — a facility it shared with the town’s Methodist church. The congregation would continue to meet there for the next 15 years.

In the early years of the church, one of its preachers was F.M. “Little Marion” Chambers, a circuit-riding preacher from Buffalo Creek.

In 1893, five years after the church was established, Rev. George W. Cecil was appointed its pastor. He would serve as pastor for 22 years, overseeing the church’s move to its first permanent facility. At that time, First Baptist Church of Oneida had 38 members.

Cecil did not have a formal education when he began his work in the ministry. In fact, he could not even read. Others would read to him from the Bible, and he would memorize the scriptures he intended to use in his sermons.

“When I started to preach I felt that all I had to do was open my mouth and God would give me the message,” Cecil once said. “I soon discovered, however, that all that happened was that my mouth got filled with gnats.”

In 1903, 10 years after Cecil accepted the pastoral duties at First Baptist, the church’s first permanent home was constructed. The location of the single-story, wood-frame church was the corner of Main and Second in downtown Oneida — the same location occupied by the church today. The property was purchased for a price of $75, essentially donated by Claiborn and Connie Cross. Years later, when the church was expanding in the 1950s, the Crosses’ daughter, Eva Massey, donated an adjoining lot of property.

Cecil continued to serve as the church’s pastor for another 12 years. When he resigned in 1915, which was one year before the Town of Oneida would be officially chartered, there were 80 members of the church.

Cecil’s tenure as pastor was followed by I.H. Bee, who served as First Baptist’s pastor for two years. After that, Moses L. Chambers was named pastor. The Jellico native was the first pastor at FBC to have formal seminary training. His pastorship was followed by W.D. Hutton, then Stuart Rule and W. Frank Moore. J.T. Jenkins was named pastor in 1926, followed by T.H. Roark.

During that time, which was also the early days of the Town of Oneida, First Baptist Church underwent significant growth. It became the first church in Scott County with a parsonage, and also started the first women’s missionary union in Scott County. A new and larger church building was constructed to house the growing membership, which ballooned to 125 members by 1918 and 448 members by 1930. A significant reason for the growth? A 1926 revival, led by Rev. George Moody, that saw 69 baptized and 90 members added.

By that point, the First Baptist Church of Oneida was well established — as, indeed, the town itself was well established. Just as the town would undergo significant changes through the years — first with the Great Depression, then the World War II era, and then the ushering in of the manufacturing era — the church underwent changes. There were financial struggles for the church in the 1930s just as there were financial struggles for all of Scott County’s families. But the church persevered, continued its missions work both inside and outside the local community, and prepared for another era of growth in the 1950s. 

Along the way, First Baptist Church was closely aligned with Bethlehem Baptist Church — also known as Oak Grove Baptist — and sponsored new churches in West Oneida as Oneida’s residential sprawl expanded towards what would become the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Among them were Big Ridge Road Baptist Church in the Grave Hill community and New Haven Baptist Church on Coopertown Road.

This article is the October 2018 installment of Focus On: Religion, presented on the fourth week of each month by Huntsville Manor as part of the Independent Herald's Focus On series. A print version of this article can be found on Page A3 of the October 25, 2018 print edition of the Independent Herald.