History of Bethel Baptist Church
12108 Marquis Road, Unionville, Virginia As we pause to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Bethel Baptist Church, Unionville, Virginia, we recall the rich history of this ‘way station for our Lord.’ We recall that as freed slaves, many of our first members attended church with white congregations at the Macedonia Christian Church and at the North Pamunkey Baptist Church. Using a side door, they were allowed to sit in the balcony. Besides hearing the scriptures and interpretations of them, they learned by observation, the organization of a church and how to conduct a church and its services. We recall that the founders of our church were first members of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church on Rout 629 [Lahore Road]. In 1890 because of political differences, some of the members decided to organize another nearby area. The building in which we now worship is the original
building, having been erected after the first meetings were held in a brush harbor. It was under the pastorage of the Reverend McAlister that an acre of land was purchased from George W. Lee and Ann Elizabeth Lee on October 3, 1891. The deed to this land was given to the trustees, Chester Lewis, Fleet Quarles and Nathan Green. The first service was held in this building in 1892. We recall that the next years were a time of molding and keeping the congregation together. Each of the following ministers was helpful in doing just that: The Reverends McAlister, the founder; Brewer, John Ford, James L. Garfield, Joseph Perry and Robert Strother. We recall that during that time several traditions were established. The revival services, held each year, were a high point of the year. The services during revival week were held nightly and on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday during the day. Fellowship meals were served with love and pride after the daytime services. On Friday, baptism services were held. Our records show that worship services were “to go on until the people say stop.” We recall another tradition observed by this congregation. In efforts to take care of the members, a health care/medical aid plan was devised, named the ‘Children’s Circle Lodge #6.’ Through this organization, the church paid doctor bills, purchased medicine and contributed financially to the funeral expenses of its members. We recall another tradition. The freed slaves believed that education was the way ‘up from slavery’ for their children. School was held in the home of Chester Lewis and his wife, Lucindy, in Freetown for all the Negro children in the community. In 1909, Mrs. Isabella Lightfoot, an educator with high goals, became a member of our church. She was a graduate of Hampton University in Virginia and of Oberlin College in Ohio. It was she who was responsible for the first accredited high school for Negro girls and boys. She, herself, raised money to help establish and keep the school. It was called “Isabella Lightfoot Training Academy.” Later when Orange County assumed its responsibilities of education for Negro children, the new school was called “Lightfoot Elementary School.” We recall our later pastors were: the Reverend Dr. Robert F. Bowles—17 years; the Reverend R. L. A. Reid; the Reverend William Fuller; the Reverend Charles Smith; the Reverend Raynard Pringle; the Reverend Winston Brock; the Reverend James McIntosh; the Reverend Reginald Williams; the Reverend Norman Gray; the Reverend Anna Allsbury and our current pastor the Reverend Dr. Vernon Pettus.
We recall a congregation which at times has numbered 200. Our decline in membership reflects the economic picture for the Negroes of our county. There were few jobs for our children who subsequently relocated in cities and states elsewhere. As our older people ‘crossed over Jordan,’ their homes and lands were sold. At this point much of this richly populated area is devoid of Black people. However, over the years, children who have moved away have remembered their religious roots with financial gifts. This has helped the ‘remnant’ to carry on and to be here for them when they ‘come home.’
We do not know what this ‘way-station for our Lord’ will mean to this community during the coming years. We trust that it will continue; but if that’s not to be, we know that the influences of those who go out from here will be a blessing to all whose lives they touch as has been the influence of those we recall who “Dropped a stone into the water; in a moment, it was gone, But there are a hundred ripples; Circling on and on and on. Said a word of cheer and splendor; In a moment it was gone; But there are a hundred ripples; Circling on and on and on.”
These facts have been gleaned from the Orange County Court Records, the old Minute Books of Bethel Baptist Church and by Word of Mouth.
*Church cemetery is located diagonally across Marquis Road from the church.
Excerpts taken from the Homecoming and Centennial Celebration of the Bethel Baptist Church, Unionville, Orange County, Virginia 1890-1990. Additional information provided by Ruth Lewis Smith