In the hills of Campbell County, the little town of Bethlehem isn't really a town. It's a small unincorporated community where you will find livestock, mangers, and the message of Christ. Locals refer to the area as "the Bethlehem community," which is centered on the old Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church that was founded in 1897.
"A lady came to visit the church with her child and he said, 'Bethlehem? Is this where Jesus was born?' I said, 'No. It's not where he was born, but it's where he lives," said Bill Braden, pastor of the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church.
Braden began serving as pastor of the small church in Bethlehem in the 1980s. Since then, he has learned about much of the congregation's history in black and white.
"We have this old black and white picture of the original church here that was torn down. We've added a lot to the building, but we still worship in just an old-fashioned way."
The fabric of previous generations is also on display in the sanctuary with a flag the congregation displayed in the 1940s.
"We found this old flag and framed it. It has stars on it with all of the local boys' names in each star. It represents the men who went off to war during World War II. The church kept it up during the war to remind everyone to pray for those young soldiers," said Braden. "They re-stitched one star in gold for one of the men who died overseas."
Bethlehem is a very popular moniker throughout Tennessee. In addition to Bethlehem in Campbell County, there are at least six other communities named Bethlehem in the Volunteer State. In Larry Miller's book Tennessee Place Names, he writes that many of the communities could have been assigned their names by settlers who relocated from the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Ultimately, any town or city named Bethlehem in the United States refers to the village where the gospels of Matthew and Luke say Jesus Christ was born.
In Biblical times, the word Bethlehem translated into a few things. In Canaanite the word meant the village of the fertility gods Lahmu and Lahamu. The Arabic translation is house of flesh.
Bethlehem means "House of Bread" in Hebrew. That is a somewhat fitting translation for a name now found in Christian communities and churches around the world where congregations break bread in celebration of their Lord and Savior.
While there is a fair amount of documented history for the small country church in Campbell County, there is not an exact explanation for when and how the community was given its name. Whatever the source, the name continues to inspire those who live and worship in the area.
"I thank God for leading me to Bethlehem Church. I think of this church, the name of this church and how special this name is," said Braden. "It's a beautiful place and I'm blessed."
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