South Knoxville Baptist reduced to ashes 50 years ago

Beth KinnaneOur Town Stories, South Knox

The ruse was pretty elaborate for a 19-year-old kid. On Sunday evening, July 28, 1974, one Bruce Michael Partlow of Akron, Ohio, was singing with the choir of the South Knoxville Baptist Church on Sevier Avenue. He had never attended services at the church prior to that evening.

South Knoxville Baptist up in smoke (Photo credit: KNS Digital Archives, July 29, 1974).

While he was keeping an eye on happenings in the sanctuary, two accomplices (suspected by police) were tossing the rest of the church looking for valuables. That evening worship wrapped up around 8:30 p.m. Not long after, the nearly 50-year-old church went up in flames. As in the main building was completely destroyed.

The 3-alarm inferno involved 50 firemen (2 of whom were injured), eight pump and four ladder trucks. Partlow was detained for questioning that evening but not arrested. Yet. The congregation started making plans for where to meet in the meantime and rebuilding their church, which was insured for $300,000 against an estimated $1.5 million in damages.

The original South Knoxville Baptist Church around 1900. After the new church was built, the building became Ralph E. Berry Funeral Home (Photo Credit: C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library)

The gothic styled church of 1974 had replaced the original that dated back to 1889. The old church sat across the street on what was then still called part of Island Home Avenue. Construction began in 1926 and was completed the following year.

Partlow was picked up after his Jaguar had been surveilled along Locust Street. The car was seen leaving the church shortly before the fire was reported. Following a week of interrogation at the city jail, he was formally arrested on August 3 and indicted for arson with his bond set at $50,000 on August 15. That same week President Nixon resigned from office.

South Knoxville Baptist went about rebuilding while Partlow awaited his day in court. He never bonded out of jail. On March 15, 1975, eight months after his indictment, a jury of eight men and four women took about an hour and a half to return a guilty verdict on Partlow. Though the prosecution’s case was highly circumstantial, investigators did find multiple sets of keys to the church and its various buildings in the Jaguar.

The church today (Photo credit: City Church).

Partlow was sentenced to three to five years, though he could have been handed six to 20. It was rare instance of an arson investigation quickly coming to a conclusion with a conviction in hand. That same week, Aristotle Onassis died, the F.B.I. was on the hunt for fugitive Patty Hearst and Gov. Ray “Pardon Me” Blanton was seeking disaster relief following widespread flooding across the state.

The church was rebuilt more simply yet still honoring its predecessor. In 2018, the congregation, shrinking and unable to afford the upkeep, deeded the property to City Church. Though they no longer own their “home,” the membership continues to meet there, still finding a way to come together after 135 years.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Sources: Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives, McClung Historical Collection digital archives.

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