The arrival of Easter brings baskets filled with candy, children searching for eggs carefully hidden, family gatherings, and most importantly, a reflection on renewal and faith. This Easter weekend, it seems fitting to share the story of a local congregation that counts itself among the earliest in Smyth County—Marion Baptist Church. This fact is noted in Goodridge Wilson’s book, “Smyth County History and Traditions.”

“Apparently, the first people who came to make homes in what is now Smyth County were of Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran and Reformed families with an occasional Methodist and Episcopalian among them. On the South Fork some of the first settlers were Baptists. The Coles, coming from Connecticut, were either Baptists or Congregationalists before they came and were certainly Baptist soon after they arrived. Thomas Woolsey, one of the earliest South Fork settlers, was a Baptist preacher. The founder of the Smyth County Tilson family came from England to settle on the South Fork and his descendants have been Baptist for the most part.”

A more detailed history of the Marion Baptist Church was shared with me several months ago. It is a three-page document that recounts the story of faith-filled members, who made significant sacrifices to make the church what it is today. This story begins with the pioneer settlers of our area.

“The few early Baptist settlers who migrated to Southwest Virginia traveled across mountains to escape persecutions, but chiefly in search of better living conditions and better and more abundant land. In making this transition, they were true to the faith that they had been led to ‘espouse’ under virile preaching of the Baptist faith. The preachers were known more for their fervent zeal than for their learning, but they preached with power. Many a brush arbor, shaded grove, and private home, served as a preaching place, and from them, there resounded the fiery eloquence of these pioneer heralds of the Baptist faith.

“Tradition, or perchance early Association records, have preserved the names of some of these pioneer preachers who were chiefly responsible for establishing Baptist churches in this area. Dr. S.W. Dickenson, who served the Marion Baptist Church as a deacon for fifty years, made an extensive study of Baptist history. He found that the Reverend Thomas Woolsey was outstanding among the pioneer preachers. His remains are interred in the Maiden Burying Ground, now called Riverbend, near the home of Julius and Margaret Britton. Some years ago, a monument was erected at his grave bearing his name, 1794 (the date of his death), and the simple inscription, ‘A Pioneer Baptist Preacher.’

“Dr. Dickenson further said that there was a strong reason to believe the Mr. Woolsey was instrumental in organizing St. Clairs Bottom Church near Chilhowie. It was organized in 1791, and was the first church bearing the name Baptist to be organized in Smyth County. The next oldest is the Marion Baptist Church, organized in the Smyth County courthouse in 1845, with seventeen members and that outstanding man, the Reverend Noah C. Baldwin, as pastor. Unfortunately, the records of those early days have been lost, and names of those seventeen members are unknown to us. It is believed that Mr. Baldwin organized the church before holding the first Baptist service. There were no church buildings in the village at that time, and the Methodist, Baptist and other religious services alternated in the use of the courthouse which was the center of activity seven days a week—six days for municipal business, and Sundays for church services and related activities.

“In 1858, the congregation had a vision to meet in their own building, and the first building program was launched. They purchased a lot on Broadway from Mr. Wade Strother and paid $125 for it. The deed was dated November 21, 1859. A modest frame building was erected and the congregation worshipped there until 1891, when it was sold to the Farmer’s Alliance for $375. During this period in their first church building, the membership increased considerably, and the Cedar Bluff Baptist Church at Atkins, Virginia, was organized by members of the Marion church.

“In 1890, the church purchased a lot on the corner of North Lane and Church Street from Mr. W.C. Seaver and the trustees of the First Methodist Church at a cost of $250. The story is that the Methodists believed there was a ‘wet-weather’ spring under their church building, so they sold out to the Baptists ‘who were familiar with the use of water.’ The Baptists built a new brick building on this lot, and no sign of water was ever seen. There were several additions to this building, including a large educational unit built in 1921. On this street corner, a beautiful and expansive place of worship was used for seventy years.

“For a long period of time, the church was unable to support a full-time pastor and shared a field with other churches. Chief among these was the Saltville Baptist Church. The records show that in December 1919, the congregation decided to go to full-time services and called the Reverend C.W. McElroy to serve as pastor at a salary of $2,250 per year.

“The first parsonage had been built in the mid-1870’s behind the old jail and facing Strother Street. This was a two-story white frame building, and later served as the offices of Attorney Charles Harrington at 117 East Strother Street.

“It was the leadership of Dr. Carl Collins that led the Marion Baptist Church to move from the heart of downtown Marion to its present location, 1258 North Main Street. The move was the culmination of the efforts of three former pastors and 25 years of dreaming by members of the congregation. God had used Dr. Collins in several previous pastorates to lead churches in building and expansion programs. He readily recognized that the church was suffering due to limited parking space, no room for expansion, nor for future growth in the downtown location. Many members were fearful of moving out of town, but among the membership, there were leaders who had a vision for the future. They knew the need of the hour and were willing to commit themselves to God’s will and leadership in this awesome task. This was a giant step in the life of the church.

“After months of searching, and in due time, God opened the door and a 9.22-acre tract of land was purchased from the B.F. Buchanan heirs for the sum of $36,000. This location was in the Eastern suburbs of Marion.

“The church was blessed by having among its membership business men who were trained and experienced in finances and in architecture. They gave freely of their time and expertise. Maxie Page, with a wealth of experience in building, contracts, finances, and personnel, was the ‘Captain of the team.’ Lewis Williams was invaluable in his expertise in drawing plans, and Charlie Sebastian, a builder, volunteered to supervise the construction. The planning committee felt that it was not economically feasible to build the whole facility at this time and that it should be done in two phases. Phase I consisted of a worship center, fellowship hall, Sunday School rooms, offices, small library, and a kitchen. This was the second new building to be built by the Marion Baptist Church in 118 years. The first service in the new facility was held on Friday, June 4, 1960, prior to the congregational service on Sunday, June 6. Workmen of the building had asked the pastor to conduct a service for them. A portable organ furnished an accompaniment for music at the Friday noon service, and Dr. Collins delivered a short sermon. On October 26, 1969, 11 years after this first phase of the building program, including land and landscaping, had been paid in full ($400,000), a note-burning service was held.”

This brief history serves as an introduction to the stories of faith that accompany the membership of Marion Baptist Church. If you have photographs or other items related to the Marion Baptist Church, I may be contacted at mwlinford@yahoo.com.

 

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Margaret Linford is a professional genealogist and is president of the Smyth County Genealogical Society.

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