(1929) History of Bethesda

Former Bethesda pastor Rev. James T. Richardson, who served in Preston from 1916 to 1920, authored the following narrative of the church’s history in 1929. Richardson had access to (or, at any rate, remembered from his tenure in Preston) records that no longer exist in the church archive, and the flavor and specificity of some of the information also suggests that his account might have captured distant memories that had been related to him by locals. Although some of the information has been contradicted by later research, it is an important, and first, attempt to place Bethesda’s present in the context of its past. It is transcribed verbatim, with annotations, from the original, which is held in the archive at Barratt’s Chapel and Museum.

William Haskins, a lawyer, afterward a Methodist Episcopal minister, was converted to the Methodist faith in the year 1780. His mother, a widow, soon followed her son and joined the Methodists. Mrs. Haskins lived in a house located on the southwest side of the road leading from what is now Preston to Linchester (Hunting Creek).[1] Methodist services were held in private houses in the neighborhood at irregular intervals. When the “Itinerant” gave notice that he could be present, the word was sent around and services planned for at the most convenient home. It seems that the home of Mrs. Haskins soon became a Methodist center, and in her home were held the Quarterly Conferences.

In the year 1785, Captain William Frazier and wife attended one of these Quarterly Meetings and were both converted to Methodism. The same year that Captain Frazier was converted, and largely because of his influence, a small chapel was built on what is now Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church yard, Preston. This chapel was for a time frequently spoken of as the “Hunting Creek” chapel, but later as “Frazier’s” chapel.

In the year 1797 the society was more formally organized and took the more dignified name of “Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church,” and became an official part of “Kent Circuit.” This circuit included all the counties of the Eastern Shore of Maryland as far south as the north bank of the Nanticoke river. As there was an older church on the circuit in Kent county, called “Bethesda,” and as it was not convenient to have two churches of the same name on the same circuit at the same time, the name “Frazier’s” chapel remained in use. Bishop Asbury in his Journal, as late as April 1813, records having preached in “Frazier’s Chapel.” In fact, the name “Bethesda” has never been particularly emphasized, or even used, outside of the official records. When a village grew up about the church and was called Preston, the church became, and is yet, generally known as Preston Methodist Episcopal Church. The deed of Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church is dated July 14, 1797, on which date, Philemon Willis, for the sum of ten shillings sold to certain trustees, in trust, as a Methodist Episcopal Church, etc. This deed was recorded August 21, 1797, in liber T.R. No. F, Folio 116, on the land records for Caroline County, Maryland. The following trustees are mentioned – Thomas Foster, Jacob Wright and Benjamin Collison of Dorchester County, and James Andrews, David Sisk, James Sisk and Daniel Chezum of Caroline County: seven, all told.

On June 11, 1810, the society was duly incorporated according to the laws of the state at that time. The papers of incorporation were taken and acknowledged before Percy F. Bayard, Abel Gowty and John Cooper. The secretary of the Board of Trustees at the time of the incorporation of the church was Peter Willis. The records available do not state the official position of the men before whom the papers of incorporation were acknowledged.

While the church has in her possession a record kept of the Trustees and their doings since July 14, 1797[2], the writer could find no record of Quarterly Conference proceedings or of the Board of Stewards, later[3] than 1868, at which time the Reverend James Esgate, was pastor. Yet the above facts show that there have been continuous services, held by the Methodists, in what is now Preston, Maryland, since the year 1780, or since four years before the Christmas Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, and the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church. And that since one year after the organization of Methodism in America, or 1785, there has been on or near the present site of Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church, a chapel or building in continuous use as a place of worship by the Methodists.

In the year 1903, the building[4] was moved nearer the street, to make possible the addition of a Sunday School room without trespassing on the graves of those buried about the same. At this time the church building was completely transformed into a beautiful modern church. The audience room was made yet more beautiful by putting in the most beautiful and costly memorial windows to be found anywhere outside of the city. Also, at this time steam heat was installed and later electric lights. In the year 1916, the Trustees contracted with the Estey Organ Company for a pipe organ, which was duly installed April, 1917. It is a triple organ, two banks of keys, electric motor, enclosed in dull finish golden oak.[5] Thus Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church of Preston, Maryland, has kept pace with the town: the most progressive and up-to-date town of its size in the state.

Rev. J.T. Richardson
Sept. 25, 1929
Middletown, Delaware

[1] Richardson was probably incorrect in three ways in his statements about the Haskins family. First, it was not William but Thomas Haskins who abandoned a career in law to enter the ministry. Second, it has been fairly well established that Thomas Haskins was not the son of Sarah Haskins, but in fact her nephew. On this point see Dora Mitchell, A History of the Preston Area (Denton, MD: Caroline County Historical Society, 2004, Revised 2005), 120. Finally, Richardson positions the Haskins house on what is now Main Street. Mitchell claims the house was on the present-day Route 16 (see Mitchell, 118). Without further information, we will probably never know.

[2] This book seems to have been lost.

[3] Richardson probably meant “earlier” here, as Bethesda’s extant records commence from 1868.

[4] Richardson omits the demolition of the original Frazier’s Chapel and construction of the present building in 1875. It was the new structure that was moved in 1903.

[5] The organ was purchased during Richardson’s pastorate, so it is no surprise that, for him, Bethesda truly arrived in the modern age with its installation!