The following narrative mainly details the construction, in 1875, of the second (and current) church occupied by Bethesda’s congregation. Written by church historian Eric Cheezum, it was originally printed in the bulletin accompanying Bethesda’s 230th anniversary service.
This year, 2015, Bethesda United Methodist Church celebrates 230 years of continuous ministry to the Preston community. Bethesda’s origins are well known. In the late 1770s and early 1780s several Methodist societies formed in the vicinity of what would later be the town of Preston. In 1785, with the patronage of Revolutionary War veteran Captain William Frazier, a meetinghouse was erected close to where the present-day church stands. Founded on a dirt track in the wilderness, Frazier’s Chapel, as the new church was known locally, became the focal point of Methodist ministry in southern Caroline County, and for the development of a settlement that eventually became the town of Preston. Perhaps because the new church was a sort of oasis in the middle of nowhere, a sanctuary for the lost and weary, its earliest members adopted a name for their congregation that conjured up thoughts of healing and revivification: Bethesda. The name was derived from the story of the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus healed a sick man who could not walk. “Stand up, take your mat, and walk,” Jesus ordered the man, after he had made him well again, and the man left and went on to spread the gospel.
Right from its founding, written into Bethesda’s name, was the spark of revival. In its first ninety years, our church grew fast, fueled by the enthusiasm and emotion of the Second Great Awakening. Bethesda baptized and converted the countryside through large camp meetings it hosted at Marsh Creek (1850s) and in Hubbard’s Woods on Payne Road (1859-ca. 1875), and at “protracted meetings” held at the church. Some of the most famed preachers in Methodist history passed through Preston. Even in the shadow of slavery during the antebellum period, the spirit of revival attracted African American worshippers and preachers into Bethesda’s congregation. And although there were many slave owners and slavery sympathizers at Bethesda, abolition had strong support as well. During and after the Civil War, the revival spirit led Bethesda to oppose alcohol consumption. The Union Temperance Society (1859-1870) drew hundreds of supporters from all over to its moral suasion effort. The years from 1784 through 1864 were the Golden Age of American Methodism, nationally and locally, and in those years the meetinghouse in the wilderness matured into a venerable institution in its own right.
But it is not merely Bethesda’s first ninety years we commemorate today. Revival came to our church again in the 1870s, and resulted in the construction of our current building. Today we celebrate the revivification of the church that led to a second Golden Age, and to the spirit and tenacity of the Building Committee of that time, who 140 years ago persisted in the face of great challenges and built a new church for a new era of ministry.
The road to Bethesda’s new beginning started in 1869, when the then-Wilmington Conference granted Bethesda station church status, making it the center of a circuit comprised of Harmony, Bethlehem, and Friendship Methodist Episcopal (M.E.) churches. The arrangement did not last long: in 1874 Bethesda’s circuit was joined to Union M.E. Church’s circuit in Federalsburg, where it would stay until the late 1880s. Nonetheless, in those five years as a station church Bethesda successfully developed Methodism in and around Preston. The church’s Sunday Schools grew in number and attendance, and in 1872 Bethesda even held a Sunday School Convention. Although camp meetings declined after 1870, protracted meetings continued to net converts to the faith. “Extra meetings have been in progress for about two months with varying interest,” wrote the pastor, Rev. E.H. Hynson, in 1872. “The tone of religious life is improving very much on the charge.” In November 1873 the Denton Journal reported that a “protracted meeting at the M.E. Church, in Preston, has been in progress for more than five weeks. The revival, which commenced early in the first week, still continues. Great interest is manifested, the church being densely crowded every evening. Already 30 persons have united with the church as probationers.” By the time Bethesda joined the Federalsburg circuit, Preston had become a hotspot for revival. An assessment of the circuit from May 1874 concluded, “There is a good degree of life at the different appointments on the circuit; the classes are well attended and the congregations are very good…. The society at Preston have determined on building a New Church, which, when completed, will give strength to Methodism in our circuit.” Ironically, by mid-decade Bethesda had become a victim of its own success: so many new churchgoers had rendered the original meetinghouse inadequate!
The expansion of the church mirrored the development of Preston as a town. In 1785, when Bethesda was founded, the church had been a lone outpost in the wilderness. By 1875, the little village of Preston was still pretty primitive, with a population of only about 150. Less than twenty years before, it had still been called “Snow Hill,” and even now it was seventeen years away from gaining incorporation and self-government. Housing was sparse: most residential development had taken place in the area around and to the west of the church; the West End would not exist for another forty years. There were no sidewalks or telephone poles, no automobiles, no paved streets. There were few roads at all: the only thoroughfare was present-day Main Street, which was then more properly the road from Federalsburg to Dover Bridge (which had been a ferry until fairly recently), and a few dirt lanes that led to the “back landing,” Medford’s Wharf (now Choptank), and the county seat in Denton. The railroad would not arrive in town until 1890. Preston and Bethesda have always had a symbiotic relationship, as far back as when they were Snow Hill and Frazier’s Chapel. It should come as no surprise that when the church revived in 1875, the town came alive, too.
The idea to build a new church emerged in the early spring of 1874. By this point the original building – still known colloquially as Frazier’s Chapel – was growing increasingly dilapidated and out of date. Although it had been renovated in 1849, after ninety years of use a new meetinghouse was, as pastor Isaac Jewell put it in 1877, “badly needed.” In April 1874, Bethesda’s trustees met to discuss whether to repair the existing church or raze it and build a new one. The pivotal issue was funding: any money for the project would have to be raised via special subscriptions from members of the congregation. This prospect seems to have raised the question of whether it was worth it to spend so much merely on a refit, when a new building surely would not cost much more. The trustees debated spending up to $1,500 on “repairing the old church,” but in the end no decision was reached. Instead, a committee was appointed “for the purpose of securing [the] Best Plan for building or repairing.” Reading between the lines, it appears that the issue was a contentious one, but ultimately renovating seems to have won out. On May 4, 1874, the trustees received “a Plan for remodeling the old House,” and the group resolved to do so “in modest style.” A Building Committee was now appointed, and the Subscriptions Committee authorized to go seek funds for the project. On May 23, 1874, the group agreed to “procure a contractor,” and the matter seemed to be closed.
Few records are available to tell us about the events of the next ten months, but evidently the trustees had a change of heart in that time. On March 10, 1875 they rendered a new decision: “Resolved by, & unanimous vote to, build a New Church.” The group immediately began raising money for the project, and a new Building Committee was appointed, consisting of Colonel James E. Douglass, Jeremiah B. Fletcher, Edward T. Moore, William W. Williamson, and Dr. Henry F. Willis. All five of these men had distinguished themselves in the civic life of Preston, Caroline County, and, in some instances, the state, and were highly regarded community leaders. Their presence on this one committee at the same time, at such a pivotal moment in the history of the town and church, is nothing short of miraculous.
Col. James Elbert Douglass was perhaps the most important Prestonian of the nineteenth century. Born in Dorchester County in 1820, Douglass was a carpenter by trade, but entered local politics in his thirties. A Whig in the 1850s, Douglass was politically connected, and served as an aide to Governor Thomas Hicks in the 1860s, from which assignment he received his military title. He married Mary Catherine Davis in 1852, and they had seven children; the four who survived became successful and influential in their own right. Douglass was a shrewd businessman who built an empire of over 1,800 acres, including most of the farms on the outskirts of Preston, by the time of his death in 1880. In the mid-1850s, the Douglasses moved to Preston, and lived in the (now razed) Forrest Deneau House on the north side of what is now Havercamp Road (across from Harlan and Anita Davis). There, Douglass operated a sawmill and was a shipwright. In 1863, Douglass bought the land and mill and about the same time the family moved to the farm now owned by Helen Fletcher, which was part of a tract called Bennett’s Purchase that had belonged to Mary Catherine’s family. Mary Catherine died in 1866, and a year later Douglass married widow Ann Mowbray Clark. Their son, Stephen Elbert, known as Elbert or S.E., was well known in Preston until his death in 1963. In 1870 Douglass bought and expanded the Jacob Willson house (presently occupied by the Preston Historical Society), where he lived until his death. Douglass left a legacy of community service: he served as a school commissioner from 1867 to 1870, and was then elected the president of the board until his death; he was on the board of directors of Dover Bridge; he was a member of the Odd Fellows; and an Overseer in the Grangers, an agricultural union with significant social and political clout in nineteenth-century Caroline. Many in the community gave Douglass the credit for making Preston what it had become by 1880. As a eulogist opined the day after Douglass’ death, “the town of Preston has experienced a loss which is irreparable. Its pillar has fallen. Who, now, will beautify our town and increase its educational and business interests? The M.E. Church and the academy of this place stand as memorials of his unceasing efforts towards adorning our village. Yes, Preston has received a blow, keen and powerful.” The Denton Journal called Douglass “the most enterprising citizen in his neighborhood” and claimed that the “prosperity of the people and the smiling appearance of farms around Preston are largely due to his efforts.”
Jeremiah Bartholomew Fletcher was born in 1837 in East New Market, and married Henrietta Kelley in 1859; they had nine children. After Henrietta’s death in 1874, Fletcher married Sarah Varnes, and they had seven children. Fletcher owned many parcels of real estate around Preston, and operated a dry goods store on the corner of Main Street and Maple Avenue (it was demolished and replaced in 1906 by the Covey Building, which has, in turn, also been razed). He was a prominent Republican and served several multi-year appointments as postmaster of Preston under Presidents Lincoln, Harrison, and Roosevelt. He also served as justice of the peace, and sat for several terms on the Republican State Central Committee. He died in 1910.
Edward Thomas Moore was born in 1837 near Federalsburg, but moved to land in Preston, across from Bethesda, by about 1860. He married Emma Andrews of East New Market and they had nine children. During the Civil War, he served in the Union Army and, as his obituary noted, “bore a prominent part among the Eastern Shore’s quota of the Federal Army.” He built and lived in the house on the corner of Main Street and Lednum Avenue (known today as the Lednum House), although it has subsequently been expanded significantly. He died of consumption in 1892 after an illness of twelve years. His obituary described him as “for many years a leading member of the M.E. Church at Preston.”
William Whiteley Williamson was born at Concord in 1821, and married Mary Jane Fletcher, sister of Jeremiah B. Fletcher. They had four children. The Williamsons owned considerable property around Preston, including the square of land bounded by Main Street on the North and the railroad on the South (the Williamsons sold the right-of-way for the railroad in 1890), and Backlanding Road and Maple Avenue on the East and West, respectively. Of this land, they did not own the frontage on Main Street from about Preston School back to Maple Avenue. The Williamsons are responsible for much of the development of the eastern stretch of Main Street, and on the eastern side of Maple Avenue. They lived in the Dora Mitchell House, which they expanded significantly, and sold the neighboring property to the congregation of Immanuel Lutheran Church in 1900. In 1922, the last of the Williamson land was sold to Thomas W. Harmon, who planned an ambitious, but ultimately failed, residential development for the area between Main Street and the railroad. Williamson Street, installed in 1924, is the only remaining evidence of that plan. As well as farming, Williamson was politically active, a staunch Democrat, and served as justice of the peace and trustee at Preston School. Williamson died in 1905 and was eulogized in his obituary as one of Preston’s leading citizens. “Mr. Williamson’s friends were numerous and the whole community appreciates his life usefully and charitably spent,” the Denton Journal reported. “A friend to the poor, as well as to those in better circumstances, he was highly respected by all who knew him.”
Dr. Henry Fisher Willis was born at Friendship in 1831 and as a young man taught school. After finishing his medical training Willis lived in Millsboro, Delaware. He married Emily R. Patton, of Grove, in April 1856 and they had four children. Around 1860, lower Delaware experienced a malaria outbreak, and Willis, afflicted with the disease, moved to Preston in 1862 to recuperate. There, he took over the practice of Dr. E.E. Atkinson during the latter’s stint in the Civil War. The Willises owned the tract of land that now comprises the Preston School grounds and Noble Avenue and lived in the house owned by Fred and Lena Edgell, which has now been torn down. Dr. Willis gifted to Caroline County the property upon which Preston School stands. Willis was something of a polymath, and in addition to serving on the Board of Trustees at Bethesda, was an Orphan’s Court judge, delegate to the National Medical Association, a farmer, and Granger. He was received into probationary membership at Bethesda on November 13, 1868, and so was a product of the revival that characterized the church in the period. Willis’ daughter, Cora, died suddenly at the age of eighteen on February 4, 1875, and one wonders how her death shaped Willis’s participation in deliberations over the new church. He died in 1890.
Of the five members of the Building Committee, Douglass and Williamson were probably new to the Board of Trustees – they do not appear in the extant minutes before the pivotal meeting of March 1875. They were also probably the two wealthiest committee members. One wonders if their addition to the board of trustees was a political action by those who wanted to build rather than renovate. Or, perhaps they arrived coincidentally, and their presence merely encouraged a majority of the trustees to take risks with the building project instead of playing it safe. In either case, the decision was perilous. The mid-1870s were absolutely the worst time to invest in a large capital improvement. In September 1873, a banking panic struck the United States, crippling the economy overnight and leaving the country in the worst economic depression up to that point in its history. The Panic of 1873 had been the result of rampant speculation on the stock market in the preceding ten years, particularly in the booming railroad industry. While Bethesda had been preaching temperance and winning converts in camp meetings and revivals around Preston, the Federal Government and Big Business had been engaged in the work of financial corruption. Between 1873 and 1877 the United States economy was in freefall. Unemployment reached nearly fifteen percent by 1876; a year later, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, sparked by falling wages, crippled America for nearly two months. Under such conditions, even a large renovation project would have been a difficult proposition. Douglass and Williamson were influential, but were they influential enough to cause the Board of Trustees to take such a leap of faith? As businessmen themselves, it seems unlikely that either man would have approved such a risky venture. So what possessed the trustees to embark on a construction project under such circumstances?
Prestige was probably one factor. To be sure, space consideration meant that there was a real need for a new church building in 1875. At only about twenty-five by forty feet, the increasingly crowded services in Frazier’s Chapel must have been getting very intimate indeed. But Bethesda’s status in the community had to be considered, too. The Chapel, even with improvements made in the 1840s, had been built in a simpler style with fewer amenities. Ten years after the Civil War the old meetinghouse was an antique, out of touch. With conversions on the rise and the town entering its own period of growth, the trustees must have felt a strong need to erect a building that could keep pace, not only with the church’s growing numbers, but also its growing status. The new Bethesda needed to reflect the importance of the people who were erecting and worshiping in it, and the expansion of the town that it had anchored for so long.
But religious fervor mattered, too. The trustees – probably especially the men who made up the Building Committee – genuinely sought revival, and wanted to build something grand for Christ. In this, their pastor, Rev. William J. O’Neill, no doubt encouraged them. An Irishman in his early forties in 1874, O’Neill was remembered as “a man who made and held friends by his personal magnetism, and by the sterling qualities of his character. As a preacher he was clear, strong, logical, always fervent, and often eloquent. His individuality was marked, and he was courageously loyal to his convictions of right.” O’Neill seems to have been a strident advocate of the cause of replacing rather than renovating, and his forceful and charismatic leadership no doubt helped convince the men that a new Bethesda could – and should – be built.
Whatever the impetus, the Building Committee attended to its business quickly. By mid-April, $1,463 in subscriptions had been realized from the congregation, and the committee voted unanimously to erect the structure that is present-day Bethesda’s Sanctuary: “a new church, 38 x 56 feet half Gothic all round with steeple, etc.” A few days later, contractors Mannus, Fisher, & Co. were hired “to build said church for the sum of three thousand & eight hundred dollars to be completed & painted with three coats of paint all ready for use.” To our eyes, $3,800 seems a tiny sum to pay for a whole building, but in modern money that amount is perhaps closer to $90,000 – a princely sum for a small, rural congregation like Bethesda’s.
In the spring and summer of 1875, the congregation prepared for the construction. As the new meetinghouse would be built on the same site as its predecessor (about fifty feet behind where the building currently sits), arrangements were made to auction off the original building on July 17, 1875. Douglass himself purchased the building for $168, and a month later, on August 14, demolition began. The man who broke up the old chapel, Thomas F. Cox, ran a blacksmith shop on one of Douglass’ many properties. (In one of history’s ironies, Cox’s grave was one of two relocated in the 1950s to allow for the construction of the Fellowship Hall wing.) Cox first removed the pews, pulpit, and windows, before breaking down the building itself. What happened to the constituent parts of Frazier’s Chapel after demolition remains one of the enduring questions of Preston’s history. With the exception of the pews, it seems likely that the fixtures Cox removed were reused in the new building in some capacity. The pews – “seating,” as the records call them – were probably sold in a sale of “old furniture” that took place in June 1876. If the windows were reused, then they were replaced in 1903 when the stained-glass windows were added to the building. The whereabouts of Bethesda’s pulpit – at which so many famed early Methodist ministers preached – is a mystery. Was it installed in the new church in 1875? If so, then the tantalizing possibility exists that Bethesda’s original pulpit, dating back to 1785, may have survived at least until renovations in the late 1950s. Sadly, we will probably never know for sure. As for the lumber that came from Frazier’s Chapel: since Douglass owned many properties in and around Preston, including most of the farmland to the north and west of town (notably Bennett’s Purchase, immediately adjacent to Bethesda), the materials could have been taken virtually anywhere. Is it possible they were incorporated into a new structure somewhere on one of those other properties? For years it has been assumed that Frazier’s Chapel was lost forever in 1875, but in fact it may be that it still exists somewhere around Preston, even today, waiting for another revival.
By the end of August 1875, Frazier’s Chapel had been torn down. The cornerstone of the new church was laid in a ceremony on Sunday, September 12, 1875 – a little over 140 years ago. Rev. O’Neill officiated, with the assistance of Rev. Charles Hill of the Wilmington Conference and Rev. James H. Williams, Presiding Elder. The Denton Journal’s account of the services is a fine example of nineteenth-century journalistic bombast, and is worth reporting in full:
The corner stone laying at Preston of the new M.E.C. on Sunday 12th was entirely successful, over one thousand dollars being raised. Rev. Charles Hill officiated on this occasion and preached morning and evening, winning golden opinions both as a preacher and beggar.
The P.E. Rev. Mr. Williams was also present for the first time [following the recent death of his predecessor, Rev. Wesley Kenney] – though youthful in appearance for an Elder, he shows culture and fitness for his work and will wear the mantle of the loved and lamented Kenney gracefully. The Pastor Rev. Mr. O’Neil[l] was in his element and must not be forgotten for his exertions on that and other occasions when a new church in Preston has been the theme. He has worked hard and now there is a bright promise of his most sanguine expectations.
Construction proceeded apace through the autumn of 1875. By February 1876 the building seems to have been completed. Then-Presiding Elder Rev. John Hough called the new edifice “a model of chaste beauty.” Writing in the 1930s, Bethesda’s church historian described the 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.” The interior of the church included a central pulpit, with an “amen corner” on either side for especially zealous, but sex-segregated, men and women. A communion rail was built in a wide arc from one corner to another in front of the altar. 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. According to church historian Dora Mitchell, Douglass’ son, Elbert, who was only four years old in 1875, later “recalled standing by his front window and watching the bell go by on its way to the church on a cart drawn by a team of his father’s oxen.” The bell bears the inscription, “McShane Bell Foundry – Henry McShane Co., Baltimore, Maryland, 1875.” It still rings from Bethesda’s tower every Sunday, 140 years later.
With construction reaching completion, the Building Committee was appointed to buy the furniture for the church on January 31, 1876, and by the end of May the trustees prepared to open it to the public. Yet, one problem lingered: when could the new church be dedicated? The building could be opened for use as soon as it was finished, but until all debt had been retired on the project it could not be properly dedicated. From the beginning, financing construction was an almost insurmountable challenge for the trustees and the Building Committee. Numerous appeals to the congregation for donations failed to produce sufficient funds. In 1876, hard times were still ahead, and giving to Bethesda was probably a luxury few could afford. The debt issue reawakened the old renovation–versus–construction tensions that had plagued the project since its inception. The Building Committee’s inability to underwrite its ambitions seemed to prove that the whole enterprise had been ill-advised from the beginning. During construction, these squabbles erupted into a bitter conflict between the Building Committee and either prominent members of the congregation, other members of the Board of Trustees, or possibly both.
Rev. Isaac Jewell became pastor of the Federalsburg Circuit in 1876 and inherited both the project’s debt problem and Bethesda’s in-fighting from his predecessor. Born in England in 1848, Jewell was only 28 when he went to Bethesda. Unlike O’Neill, whose father had been a constable and who had a bluff, gregarious personality, Jewell was more reserved, scholarly type; he was described as “essentially a true gentleman, polite, agreeable, sociable.” His refinement may not have been appreciated in Preston, where even the prominent men of town were farmers and laborers. As the conflict widened and grew more rancorous, opponents of the Building Committee seem to have held the church’s money hostage, blocking expenditures and – although he tried to stay impartial and act as peacemaker – perhaps even punishing Jewell for cooperating with the committee. “While it was building, and ever since,” an exasperated Jewell later wrote, “those people have been very much dissatisfied and are constantly in hot water; nothing seems to please them, this year they have not paid me my salary…by $90.00. In all of my ministerial life I have never seen two factions hate each other as [much as] those people at Preston.” By April 1876, the trustees were virtually paralyzed, lacking the cash on hand to complete the project, and lacking the wherewithal to raise more. On May 30 the trustees and Building Committee met jointly and, with the exception of one trustee, agreed personally to assume the remaining debt. With that issue seemingly out of the way, the two committees resolved both “that the Church be opened at once for regular service and continue to use it,” and “that a day be set apart as early as possible for dedication.”
Although the words were bold, they were not enough to rescue Bethesda from its financial crisis, or to restore confidence between the two factions. By the end of 1876, the church was still not paid off, and was no closer to a dedication service. “These dear people have in the past year cost me many a tear & prayer,” Jewell complained in early 1877. “The church is still $1600.00 in debt.” In February, an increasingly desperate Board of Trustees once again attempted to convince subscribers to make good on their commitments. They appointed an officer “to call on each party who did not have the money…[and] to take a note for same payable to the Building Committee, payable 30 days after date.” The Board also offered a more humbling course of action – perhaps at Jewell’s suggestion: it would ask one of Bethesda’s richest members, Robert Dines Bradley, to pay off the debt to contractors Mannus, Fisher, & Co., and hold a lien on the new building. An inventor who held numerous international patents, Bradley was not a trustee, but was almost certainly one of the main detractors of the Building Committee’s work, and perhaps leader of the faction opposing construction of the building. If he was willing to go along with this plan, the trustees agreed that “the whole of [the] building committee [would] resign as committee & as Trustees now, henceforth, & forever.”
The suggestion to approach Bradley was almost certainly a political maneuver that was never seriously considered. It seems, however, to have bought the Building Committee time to find more subscribers to underwrite the church’s debt. In late February 1877, the committee renewed a bank loan in the amount of $1,600, and began shaking the trees for more donations. Around the beginning of May, Jewell was instructed to begin planning a dedication ceremony, and by September 10, the trustees had secured sufficient subscriptions from the leading men of the congregation to ensure the service could take place. Tellingly, perhaps, all members of the Building Committee except Moore pledged $100.00 to the cause – more than any other individual donor. For his part, Moore apparently made a significant contribution to Bethesda after his wife survived a serious illness, which donation Dora Mitchell speculated could have been to support the building project in 1875. Unfortunately, Bethesda’s records are not complete enough to know for sure.
When the Denton Journal reported the impending dedication of the new church on September 23, 1877, it was almost with a tone of relief. Perhaps it was: the paper had already published a few false alarms in the past year. “We are reliably informed that satisfactory arrangements are made,” the Journal told potential attendees, “and that not more than two hundred dollars will be asked for on the day of the dedication. Therefore, everybody can come, and all are invited.” The article noted that the dedication would take place “D.V.” – deo volente, a Latin expression meaning “God willing” – a hint perhaps at the new church’s tortuous path to consummation. Delivering the sermon for the event was Col. James M. McCarter, a Methodist minister then residing in Chincoteague, Virginia whose wife, Elizabeth, was Henrietta Fletcher’s sister. The McCarters had joined Bethesda in 1864, and owned the farm that until recently belonged to Rudolph and Mildred Coulbourne, on Choptank Road. McCarter had gained fame as an orator on both religious and secular subjects, and, with his personal connections to Preston, was a natural choice for the dedication. Sadly, no account of the service is known to survive.
The story of Bethesda’s construction project is, in the end, a parable about faith and commitment – not merely in the sense that great works can be realized through unwavering belief, but also that, despite the pain they bring, discord and adversity are essential aspects of Christian living. Just as Bethesda’s new church could not exist without first tearing down Frazier’s Chapel, revival cannot take place without decline and dissent to provoke it, or the Holy Spirit to inspire it. By staying the course in the face of financial challenges and vocal opposition, the Building Committee made Bethesda ready for a new generation of ministry, and ultimately for our own era. Their vision and faithfulness are the benchmark by which we should measure the depth of our own convictions.
Isaac Jewell certainly held Douglass and the rest in very high esteem. “The greatest difficulty we have had to contend with,” he confessed in March 1878, “has been the debt of Preston Church, which is now all provided for ($1700). The building committee are very much commended by their Pastor and all Loyal Methodists. The faction that have operated against them are not worth noticing. The Pastor who does do so will involve himself very much. In consequence of the aforesaid faction, they have short-paid me ($150.00)….” By this time, however, the malcontents at Bethesda were the least of Jewell’s worries. In June 1877 his wife, Jennie, died suddenly. “Again I look back over another year,” he wrote. “It has blown rapidly, brought with it to me a sorrow-affliction and death, my precious wife has been taken from me and I linger here in darkness, sometimes fearing, sometimes hoping.” Jewell clung to his faith to pull him through. “In all things God is gracious to me…,” he concluded. “God is good – [I] have wanted for no ‘good thing.’ He has been my preserver.”
Lest we question the motivations of the people who rebuilt Bethesda in 1875, it is worth noting that few of the people directly involved with the enterprise lived long enough to see just how successful, how central to the life of Preston, our church would become. Douglass, the great benefactor, died in 1880, only three years after the dedication. O’Neill, Willis, and Moore passed away in 1887, 1890, and 1892, respectively. Jewell eventually abandoned the Eastern Shore entirely and moved to the west coast, and never looked back. At the time of his death in 1908 he was in the middle of establishing a new church in Colton, California. The congregation changed its name to Jewell Memorial M.E. Church two years after his death – a fitting, if belated, tribute to the man who had suffered so much in Preston. Williamson and Fletcher both lived long enough to see the church radically reinvented one more time, in the renovations of 1903, during which the church was moved adjacent to Main Street, and the stained-glass windows and the present chapel wing were added. We have no way of knowing how they felt about such profound changes being wrought upon the building they had fought so hard to erect, but one hopes they were pleased that their legacy would live on – as surely it has.
In the twenty years after construction of the new Bethesda, the town experienced its own revival. In April 1876, observers from Cambridge were dismayed to discover that Preston had outpaced their own city. “We were particularly surprised at the beauty of Preston, to which the press of Caroline has not yet begun to do justice,” opined the Cambridge Chronicle. “Its buildings are far superior to those of Cambridge, small town as it is, and the shade trees, lawns, and flowers added thereto lend to an air of elegance which makes it by far the handsomest village we have ever seen.” The Caroline press eventually took notice. In February 1884, the Denton Journal profiled what it called “Progress Around Preston.” After complimenting the town on its modern business and agricultural practices, the paper went on to describe a recent boom in school, church, and housing construction in the south county. The Journal credited none other than the “late lamented” Douglass with “promoting” such development. “The progress toward a higher civilization in this locality,” the paper gushed, “– better farms and better farming; better schools and better attendance; more comforts and better manners; better churches and better preachers; more culture and more refined tastes; more music and more pictures – in short, more of everything that makes a locality a desirable place to go to and stay when you get there, has been wonderful.”
The consequences of revival can be incalculable – and both church and town are still here in 2015 to prove it. For the men who rebuilt Bethesda the church was a gift to God, and an index to the rising fortunes of the town they loved. Precisely due to their faith, and not to chance, we are worshipping at Bethesda –in the building they erected, in the town they fostered – today. Their revival casts a long shadow. Will ours?
To borrow the words of Isaac Jewell, who knew the consequences of revival first-hand, in all things, God is gracious to us. He is good. And he is our preserver. It is time to stand up, take our mat, and walk, as our ancestors have done before us. The cornerstone is laid – let us now finish the job that our forebears started.