The church that’s not supposed to be there
National laboratories have their share of odd structures. Often, these are architecturally impressive, state-of-the-art research facilities or relics of bygone R&D projects waiting to be dismantled.
But among ORNL’s quirky structures is one that has little to do with science. In fact, it has survived for over 75 years in spite of science.
Stand across the street from ORNL’s Physics building, and you will see an imposing granite monument bearing an unusual inscription: “Erected in Memory of New Bethel Baptist Church, Open 1851 Closed 1942 ... Church Building Stood 47 Feet in Front of this Stone.”
If you then turn around, you can see what makes it so unusual. About 47 feet in front of you is a little white church that’s not supposed to be there anymore.
The New Bethel Baptist Church was founded in 1851 in the small farming community of Scarborough. The community itself was established in the 1790s and was named after three brothers—Jonathan, David and James Scarborough—who were early settlers from Virginia. The area had previously been called Pellissippi by the Cherokee, and the church building that stands on the site today was built in 1924.
Unfortunately, the community didn’t have a lot of time with its new building. In 1942, after the United States entered World War II, the federal government purchased 59,000 acres in the area for the construction of Manhattan Project facilities, forcing residents of Scarborough and several other small communities to relocate.
Assuming that the building would be torn down, church leaders voted to erect the granite memorial at the front of the hillside cemetery as their last official action. Yet somehow the church dodged the wrecking ball.
In the early years of the Manhattan Project, the building served as a planning office for construction of the Graphite Reactor—the world’s first continually operating nuclear reactor. The reactor would eventually play a key role in scientific advancements ranging from the development of nuclear power and the field of neutron science to the production of medical radioisotopes for treating cancer.
In 1949, former church members were allowed to hold a final service and officially close the building as a house of worship.
Over the years, the church building was used for storage, temporary meeting space and even scientific experiments. When the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, it reopened as an interpretive center and museum highlighting the Scarborough community. It underwent extensive repairs and restoration in 2004.
Today, the little white church is a regular stop on DOE’s public bus tour of Oak Ridge facilities. More importantly, it’s a reminder of the history and culture of the region and of the sacrifices made by ordinary citizens to support their country in a time of need.