Recently I was sitting with a group of pastors, each sharing about the future of associational work, but my thoughts were captured by the history of Bradley Baptists. It was a little more than sixty-five years ago that pastors and laymen were discussing the “multiplication” of the Ocoee Baptist Association to meet the needs of cooperating baptist churches in Hamilton and Bradley counties. To understand why this need arose, we need only look at the history of the Ocoee Baptist Association.
In the late 1850’s, mission-minded churches of the Ocoee Primitive Baptist Association sought to unite missionary and primitive elements of the association. This was met with resistance and the effort failed. Fourteen mission-minded churches then formed the Ocoee Missionary Baptist Association in 1859 at Blue Springs Baptist Church (Bradley County). Six of those churches were located in Bradley County, and also included one church in Whitfield County, Georgia. By 1860 the Ocoee Primitive Baptist Association was disbanded. From those original 14 churches (680 members) the association grew to 126 churches (43,785 members) by 1949.
Because of the association’s size (numerical and geographical), the association’s Executive Committee (with the opinion of many church leaders) appointed a commission in 1948 to study the possibility of dividing the association into two new associations. In March 1949, moderator Rev. Samuel Melton (Blue Springs) reported “concerning the action passed by the Ocoee Executive Committee to look on the organization of a Bradley County Association with favor if the churches see fit to organize.” The Preacher’s Conference, in which Melton served as President, took on the responsibility for laying the plans for the new association. In a June meeting, after much discussion, it was decided that the churches take action to form a new association.
The date was set for October 14, 1949, the second day of the Ocoee Baptist Annual Meeting, to organize the Bradley Baptist Association. During its annual meeting, the Ocoee Association moved to transfer $1000.00, gifted the historic gavel made from a log of the original Blue Springs meeting house, and pledged their prayer support and best wishes for the new association. Along with these came the field missionary JC Williamson, who had served as clerk. The Ocoee Baptist Association granted letters of dismissal for 28 churches, who joined with 7 churches from the McMinn Association, to form the Bradley Baptist Association.
Our history reveals a passionate belief in mission-minded cooperation for the sake of the gospel. The decision to “multiply” into two associations was intended to increase the effectiveness of associational work. The geographical size was too large for the work of the associational field worker. In those years, the work of the association involved such things as organization of programs in the churches, like Sunday Schools, WMU’s and Brotherhoods. The association was also the funnel of denominational communication for the state and national conventions. JC Williamson noted in his report to the Ocoee Association in 1947, “I am afraid many of our people do not realize the size to which our work has grown, but a comparison with the figures a few years ago, with work being done in other fields, will show our growth and work being done and make us want to do a little bragging, yet the challenge of unreached fields and undeveloped churches humbles me when I think of the opportunities God has placed here for us to grasp.”
Needless to say the work of the association has changed tremendously since Williamson’s statement, but the motivation remains the same. There are still “unreached fields and undeveloped churches.” There are peoples with limited or no access to the gospel. There are communities in desperate need of gospel-focused, Christ-centered churches. Thankfully, God is still placing “opportunities…here for us to grasp.” Williamson went on to challenge the association by stating, “We need to be about the Master’s business in so many ways and in so many directions that it staggers the imagination to think about what ought to be done and what can be done.” I believe this is still the challenge for today.
Effectiveness in the past meant getting smaller in geographical size so the associational workers could meet the needs of every church. Even though the territory was small the structure and organization of the association grew larger. Today, to be effective as an association of churches means be willing to grow geographically while staying small organizationally.