The following history, by Dr. Eric Cheezum, is taken from the program for Bethesda UMC’s 225th Anniversary, which took place in October 2010.
In 2010 Bethesda United Methodist Church celebrated two hundred, twenty-five years of continuous service to Preston, Maryland. The dating of this anniversary is somewhat arbitrary. By tradition, Bethesda has reckoned its age based on the year in which the church was established on its present site, 1785. Evidence suggests, however, that the congregation that eventually built Frazier’s Chapel – as the first church was known – began meeting in houses in the region of modern-day Preston by at least 1780. One of those houses belonged to Mrs. Sarah Haskins, a widow who opened her home to itinerant Methodist ministers preaching on the Eastern Shore. It was probably at Haskins’ house, on the present Fletcher farm, that Captain William Frazier, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and a Caroline County justice of the peace, and his wife were converted to Methodism. Their mansion on the Choptank River, now sadly gone, became a central meeting place for the Methodist society that emerged in lower Caroline, and in 1785 Frazier sponsored the establishment of a proper meetinghouse more or less on the site where Bethesda now stands.
This original church, Frazier’s Chapel, is largely a mystery to us. No pictures are known to exist, but anecdotal evidence suggests that in appearance it bore more resemblance to a barn than the kind of structure we would expect of a church today. It stood back about fifty feet from what is now Main Street, and was probably oriented more towards the center of town than to the road. The building itself was about twenty-five by forty feet, with two entrances, one for men and one for women. This division was typical for churches at the time, and would have been reflected in the internal layout, with sex-segregated pews and even separate “amen corners.” The early church had neither an organ nor a choir. On July 14, 1797, probably at the urging of Frazier, the church’s first board of trustees – Thomas Foster, Jacob Wright and Benjamin Collison, of Dorchester County, and James Andrews, David Sisk, James Sisk and Daniel Cheezum of Caroline – purchased the half-acre plot on which the chapel stood. The prior owner, Philemon Willis, specified in the deed that the church could have the land so long as the said lot of ground shall be held and occupied by the Methodist Episcopal Church as a place of worship for the worship of God on and to be applyed to no other purpose.” By this point the church had adopted “Bethesda” as its official name, although “Frazier’s Chapel” remained in local use for fifty more years – a fitting tribute to William Frazier’s unstinting support for Methodism in the region.
As the earlier, home-based Methodist societies had done, Frazier’s Chapel continued to attract itinerant preachers. Since American Methodism was largely founded on the Delmarva Peninsula, the young congregation had immediate access to some of the denomination’s greatest figures. Principally among them was Bishop Francis Asbury, whom John Wesley appointed, with Thomas Coke, as the head of the American church in 1784. Asbury preached at the house of William Frazier and visited the chapel on numerous occasions before his death in 1816. Other significant figures who passed through the Bethesda churchyard in this early era include Jesse Lee and Freeborn Garrettson.
On June 11, 1810, Bethesda was incorporated under Maryland law. In 1847, perhaps on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, the church formally dropped the name “Frazier’s Chapel,” and became, officially, “Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church.” Our knowledge of this period outside of these events is limited. What we do know suggests a period of intense growth matched with much continuity. The Board of Trustees provides perhaps the best index to the stability of the church at this time: not only did members stay on the board for exceptionally long periods, but prominent families in the congregation also passed down membership across multiple generations. Thomas Turner, for instance, served as a trustee for thirty years. John Rumbold was probably the longest serving, at just over thirty-seven years; elected in March 1816, he resigned from the board in June 1853. Col. Peter Willis, who was also the church secretary, served for over twenty years, until his death in 1834. Combined, Daniel Cheezum, Sr., and his son, Daniel Cheezum, Jr., acted as trustees for forty-six years, overlapping only for four. The former was on the first board in 1797, and the latter left the board when he moved to Easton in 1839.
Such stability was an important asset as Bethesda entered the turbulent waters of the antebellum era. A child of the Revolution, early American Methodism supported abolition of slavery, and evidence suggests that Bethesda both followed that pattern, and was perhaps influential in establishing a free African American community in the area. As wealthier converts came to the denomination in the decades before the civil war, however, and as racism became more entrenched as a basis for defining class relations, Methodism became more ambivalent on the subject of slavery. In Caroline County, where slavery was a relatively weak force, race relations within the church were complicated by the presence of a significant free black congregation.
Bethesda struggled to serve black congregants within this framework. Before the abolishment of slavery, church leaders were required to supervise blacks’ worship, both out of a sense of paternalism, and in order to ensure that worship was not a cover for rebellion. Church activities had to be regulated in order to ensure they were segregated, but not in such a way that they inconvenienced white members. By 1849, this policy evolved into full-fledged segregation. The existing church was augmented by the addition of a vestibule on its front, with a blacks-only gallery on the second floor. During the Civil War, in accordance with broader Methodist policy, Bethesda spun off its black congregants into their own church. According to the available sources, four separate African-American churches ultimately resulted from this process. The 1860s did not see complete separation, however. Black and white churches maintained connections, despite the rise of formal segregation across Maryland. This connection is perhaps best seen in the career of Gabriel Friend, reputedly the first black Methodist preacher in southern Caroline. Friend was ordained in a crowded, if segregated, ceremony held in 1850 at Bethesda. His funeral in 1869, according to one report, was one of the largest ever held in the region, and divided almost evenly between black and white mourners. In this context, it is perhaps no surprise that Bethesda became the home church for one of the great Methodist abolitionists, James M. McCarter, when he moved to Preston in the late 1860s.
Bethesda entered a second golden age in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1859, the church began hosting the Union Temperance Society. By the end of the decade the organization had signed up nearly 300 members, all committed to abstinence from alcohol. Although many members were Methodists from Preston, the society drew from all over the countryside, and became one of the most influential social organizations in southern Caroline and upper Dorchester. Around the same time, Bethesda began sponsoring large camp meetings. The first took place on Marsh Creek, near the present Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, in 1857. Afterwards, these meetings were moved to a place called Hubbard’s Woods, at the stream that crosses under present-day Payne Road, just outside town. Camp meetings quickly became major social events, and church leaders seem to have discontinued them after 1870 due to their decreasing focus on religion. Future revivals moved indoors, but did not lose any of their religious fervor. One 1873 revival lasted for over a month and resulted in thirty converts and a “densely crowded” church.
Bethesda was a victim of its own success: so many new churchgoers rendered the original meetinghouse inadequate. The trustees began exploring the possibility of financing and erecting a new (and larger) church in late 1874, and in March 1875 a building committee composed of some of Preston’s most distinguished residents was appointed. On April 27, 1875, Mannus, Fisher, and Co. was contracted to build and paint the new structure for $3,800. In July, “Frazier’s Chapel” was sold at auction to James E. Douglass, one of the trustees, for $168, and the old church was unceremoniously torn down a month later to make way for its successor. The cornerstone for the new Bethesda church was laid in September 1875. Writing in the 1930s, one church historian described the new building as “not only more suitable and commodious [than the original], but more churchy in outward appearance. With its sharply pitched roof, its imposing spire and church bell, it undoubtedly was a very dignified structure. The large oaks that stood in the church yard, for the church at this time stood back from the road some fifty feet, added to the dignity of the picture as a whole.” Outfitting Bethesda with a bell seems to have been the personal project of James E. Douglass, who donated the money for it to be cast by the McShane Bell Foundry, in Baltimore, and transported to Choptank via steamboat. The bell bears the inscription, “McShane Bell Foundry – Henry McShane Co., Baltimore, Maryland, 1875.” The interior of the church included a central pulpit, with an “amen corner” on either side for especially zealous, but still segregated, men and women. A communion rail was built in a wide arc from one corner to another. Although lingering debt would prevent the trustees from dedicating the new church until 1877, it was opened immediately for worship, beginning a new era in Bethesda’s life.
The pace of change rapidly increased for Bethesda, as it did for the rest of America, around the turn of the century. In 1890, after decades of renting properties around Preston, the church built its first parsonage, on Maple Avenue (then known as River Street), at a cost of $1,100.00. Construction of the house signified that Bethesda had finally escaped the financial troubles it experienced during the 1870s and 1880s. The location of the house also reflected a shifting center of gravity in Preston. In 1890 the railroad came to town, and Maple Avenue was the main route to reach the station. Naturally, town commerce and social life began to orient toward this area, and in the next few decades Maple Avenue was developed into the thoroughfare lined with grand houses that exists today. Bethesda had always been the leading church in the region, and it had long attracted members from the wealthier ranks of southern Caroline society – building the parsonage in this up-and-coming area of town could only have cemented the church’s reputation for means and influence.
Indeed, despite the severe financial crash of 1893-97, Bethesda continued to grow unabated, and in spectacular fashion. Around the turn of the century, the church began to feel the pinch again of too little space. Unfortunately, there was no place for expansion given the current positioning of the structure and the surrounding cemetery. The latter had been opened in 1856 on the east side of Frazier’s Chapel, and burial plots had been established such that Bethesda had no room to expand in that direction. The present church was built in 1875 on the same spot as the original, for the same reason. In order to add on a wing for Sunday School, the trustees had to take radical action. In 1903, the church was jacked up and moved to its current position on Main Street, and what is now the chapel was added to its east side. In 1903 the addition was merely an open room with a stove in it; four classes could meet in it simultaneously by dividing the room into four quadrants with sheets hung on wires.
With the addition came some radical changes to the rest of the church. The bell tower, which had originally stood in the middle front of the building, was moved to the east of it, or perhaps even demolished completely and replaced with a new tower. At the same time, the church was modernized by installing a steam heating plant. Most striking of all, however, were the stained-glass memorial windows added to the entire structure at the time, including the central one depicting Christ and his flock, which was placed where the old bell tower once stood. The total cost of this project was $4,950.00. As the church historian in the 1930s modestly noted, the windows “still attract the attention of visitors and indeed, compare favorably with those of any church in the conference. The beauty of these windows, their symmetry and blending of colors is due mainly to the effort of the late [Col.] A.W. Sisk, who having beheld some of the finest windows of European cathe drals, established his standards for our windows and held his ground that these standards should be met.” Sisk’s role in the installation of these windows is perhaps the most obvious example of the linked destinies of Preston and Bethesda Church. Two Sisks had sat on the original Board of Trustees in 1797. Over a century later, the town had become one of the most important on the Eastern Shore, thanks mostly to the canning industry. As the founder of A.W. Sisk and Son, the premiere canning brokerage on Delmarva, Sisk had been instrumental in bringing that prosperity to Preston. It was fitting that he would confer some of it on Bethesda, just as his ancestors had done.
In 1908, electricity came to Preston, and Bethesda was wired up for electric lighting. This development allowed for the installation, in 1917, of an Estey electric pipe organ, for $2,000. It is unclear whether there was an organ in the Sanctuary before that year. We know that a choir was first formed in 1866, and that the group sat in the congregation and led hymns for some time after that. If an instrument was bought, we have no record of it. In any event, the Estey would have been quite a purchase for the time – launching the church into the mainstream in both visually and aurally imposing ways. The Vermont-based Estey was the leading producer of organs for mid-sized churches like Bethesda, and, like many other church organs across the United States at the time, the purchase was made with financial assistance from the Andrew Carnegie foundation. Rev. J.T. Richardson, who procured the instrument, regarded it as a sign that Bethesda was on the cutting edge. The church, he reflected in 1929, “has kept pace with the town: the most progressive and up-to-date town of its size in the state.” The organ stood in the center of the Sanctuary’s back wall, where the altar is now, until around 1952. It was replaced with great reluctance only when it became apparent that refurbishing its workings would cost more than a new instrument. Still, many older members recall the Estey with fondness even after sixty years.
The new organ symbolized, perhaps a third golden age for Bethesda, both in terms of its Christian work, and its physical expansion. In the decade or so before World War I, for instance, women’s activism became an important factor in the church’s mission. Both the church, and prominent churchwomen, hosted regular meetings of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU), and a branch of the Ladies’ Aid Society was organized about this time. The latter has continued to meet, under different names, largely without interruption right down to the present. Likewise, in the early 1920s Rev. J.P. Outten organized a men’s Bible class comprised of over 100 members. According to popular repute, in its time this was the largest men’s class of any Methodist Church on the Eastern Shore, and nearly a century later it remains a point of pride for the church. The 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s saw Bethesda become a cultural center in addition to its church duties, probably because it possessed one of the best halls in the south county. During these decades, the church provided a facility for concerts, pageants, and even movie nights (usually of a religious nature) for the broader Preston community.
Significant physical changes followed. In 1933, under Rev. T.S. VanDyke, the church was completely renovated at a cost of $1,300.00; three years later, the steam heating system was replaced with an oil furnace for $1,100.00. As the church congregation expanded, however, the space acquired during the renovations of 1903 dwindled. By the 1950s, the Sunday School had outgrown its wing, and with classes already meeting in the Sanctuary there was little room to spare. Planning thus began on the construction of a new “Educational Building,” to be added to the western side of the Sanctuary. The groundbreaking occurred for this project on November 18, 1956. Since the new wing was constructed in brick, the trustees chose to veneer the rest of the church – originally covered in white siding – in brick in summer 1957. The next year, the Sanctuary received a total renovation, with the interior layout altered to its current arrangement and the white plaster walls covered in wood paneling. Together, these projects cost $68,543.25. At the time of their dedication ceremony in December 1958, the church historian wrote, “With its brick exterior and paneled interior Bethesda Church has completely changed its appearance and it continues to grow to meet the ever present challenge of the day.”
The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s brought further profound changes. In 1961 longtime member Ella Harrison passed away, and the trustees purchased her house – located directly across the street from the church – for use as an office and parsonage. The house was bricked to match the church a few years later, at a cost of $19,725. In 1967-68, the vacant Sunday School wing underwent a renovation more or less into its present form. The original schoolroom was turned into a chapel, and the second story was created, with a new church office (converted into a bathroom in 2005) below; these renovations cost $12,500. The chapel was dedicated in 1969, and remains the last major renovation at Bethesda – and also one of the most charming spaces in the whole building.
Religious work matched the improvements in the facility. Bethesda had always had a strong youth education program, hence the construction of the educational wing in the 1950s, but in the mid- to late-1960s, especially under the pastorate of Rev. Gary Trail, the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) thrived. Those developments carried on through the 1980s, with Bethesda supporting strong Sunday School and Bible School programs, the latter of which were occasionally held in conjunction with Immanuel Lutheran Church. Members of a certain age will no doubt remember the elaborate Christmas pageants performed during the Bedell and Wheatley eras, and many delightful Easter Egg Hunts at Rudolph and Mildred Coulbourne’s farm, near Choptank.
In October 1985, Bethesda celebrated its 200th Anniversary in grand style, with both a pageant and a special service. In a way, the events marked the end of an era, providing a final opportunity for the generation that had nurtured Bethesda since World War II to draw a line under its accomplishments and total them up for posterity. The focus of the celebration was the pageant, which depicted in tableau significant events in Bethesda’s, and Methodism’s, histories. Narrated by Mrs. Ruth Kleinwachter, with special music provided by the choir, the event was the result of much concentrated effort by the entire congregation. Almost as if the planners knew the celebration was a “last hurrah” of a sort, the pageant concluded with a poignant observation. “In first planning the close of this program,” Kleinwachter explained, “we thought it appropriate to have a grand finale – a great send off with rousing music. But on second thought we believed it right to end in a more humble manner, mindful of the work the Lord still has for us to do and aware that without him we are nothing.” If the 200th anniversary was the send off for this generation of Bethesda, there were few classier ways to exit the stage.
The 1990s were a decade of consolidation for Bethesda. In 1990, for instance, the bell tower underwent repairs, and the brick veneer was removed from it in order to prevent structural failure. In 1993, under the leadership of Rev. Alvin Willink, the Sanctuary gained a new, computerized Allen organ. When Grove Church – a charge on the Bethesda circuit – closed in 1995, its remaining members donated their church treasury to pay for a synthesizer box that significantly extended the organ’s range of sounds. An accomplished organist, pianist, and tenor, Willink drew many young instrumentalists into the church by having them perform special music during services. During the later 1990s, the Sanctuary got another, smaller facelift with the replacement of the carpet around the altar, installation of carpet in the aisles between pews, and the addition of cushions, in matching color, for the pews. Originally, the altar carpet had been a light green; now the entire Sanctuary was decked out in a stately, deep red.
The twenty-first century has been kind to our church. Under Rev. Mark Farnell, the congregation expanded significantly. The church began hosting its annual Peach Festival in 2002, and the event has become both an important fundraiser for the church, and an important event in the social calendar of southern Caroline. In July 2004, Rev. Joan C. Wolff became Bethesda’s first female pastor. A year later, the church celebrated 220 years of continuous operation. Now, five years later, we have a new minister yet again, Rev. William Cruikshank, and have reached two and a quarter centuries of continuous service.
Bethesda is challenged in 2010 with a world that is more dangerous, more turbulent, and filled with more unhappiness than perhaps at any time in her long life. Our task is not to shy away from such challenges, but to move forward, to rededicate ourselves to the work that was started long ago in that old meetinghouse, and at all the stages in between. We honor the past best by stepping bravely into the future and making something new. The church historian in the 1950s perhaps put it best when he wrote, “As we rejoice in the achievements of this day let us realize that there are new challenges and opportunities in the tomorrow. Just as we could not rest on the achievements of the builders before us, neither should we be content with our accomplishments, nor can the church of tomorrow rest upon our achievements of today. The future of Bethesda Church should be as bright and glorious as has been her past.” Let us begin a new golden age for Bethesda. Let us build ourselves a new church, together, for 2010 and beyond.