History of Bethel Baptist Church
Madison Mills, Virginia
Nestled off of Route 15 sits Bethel Baptist Church, one of the many Black churches located in Orange County. Following the Civil War, many freed slaves stayed in Orange County becoming an integral part of the community. Some became tenant farmer. Others acquired land to farm or to set up their own businesses. Several of the small Black settlements founded during this time period are still in existence today. Some of these settlements are Browntown, Freetown, Jacksontown, and Little Petersburg.
Little Petersburg! It was also known as “Madison Mills” and “Little Skyline Drive”. According to tradition, the land, which covered some 200 acres, was conveyed after the emancipation to former slaves of the Clark and Kemper families. Some of the original families were Kemper, Ruffner, Davis, Humes, Dade, Fields, Gordon and Washington. The community had a one-room schoolhouse which served as school, church, lodge, and home. Little Petersburg has been described as a close-knit community where the old folks corrected everyone’s children and respect for elders abounded. Bethel Baptist Church grew out of this community.
It was in this community of Little Petersburg in 1897, that religious services were held on the fourth Sunday of each month in a building called Fisherman’s Hall. The services were conducted by Reverend Whales. Fisherman’s Hall also had a cemetery where many Blacks from the community were buried. Though a number of families in Madison Mills had private family cemeteries, Fisherman’s Hall was the main burying location.
The community began to grow and so did the membership at Fisherman’s Hall. It became evident that a larger building was needed. Reverend Whales organized a committee to discuss the construction of a church. The committee consisted of the following eight members: Sister Francis Fields, who was the first “Mother of the Church”, Brothers Lawrence Dade, Jr., James Elkins, Ambrose Fields, Henry Fields, Fred Johnson, Frank Paige, Jr., and Lewis Ruffner. The first meeting of the committee resulted in the present site of the church being purchased from Mr. William Walker. Construction of the church began immediately. Reverend Whales died before construction was completed; hence, he did not live to see his dream realized.
Reverend Willis Duvall succeeded Reverend Whales. He worked diligently and tirelessly to raise funds to complete the building. On the fourth Sunday of June in 1898, the cornerstone was laid. Dedication services were held in August 1898 with the Reverend Jack Johnson and Reverend Phillip Johnson officiating. The Dedication Service encouraged and inspired many others in the community to join and the church congregation grew. Reverend Duvall resigned in 1907 after nine years of serving and Reverend Albert Thurston from Louisa, Virginia, became pastor. He served Bethel for 27 years, resigning in 1937, due to failing health. In 1938, Reverend P. R. Mansfield became Bethel’s third pastor. Under his leadership, membership continued to grow and Bethel began to hold services on the second Sunday as well as the fourth. In 1976 Reverend Mansfield died a sudden death ending 38 years of service to the church. Many of Bethel’s current congregation was taught under the guidance of Reverend Mansfield.
Since Reverend Mansfield’s death in 1976, five other pastors have served Bethel making a total of eight pastors over 113 years. Their contributions of over the past 40 years have also been instrumental in the spiritual and physical growth of the Bethel family. The origins of Bethel Baptist Church lie with all of the above mentioned families, individuals, and pastors. Reverend Whales and the eight founders had a vision for a church to serve the community of Little Petersburg. Their early sacrifices and efforts have not been in vain as Bethel celebrated 113 years of serving God on August of 2011.
*church uses Westview Cemetery located on Constitution Hwy just past Preddy Funeral Home
Contributed by Alexis Kemper