Celebrating a milestone

Bethel Missionary Baptist Church marks anniversary 150 years after founded by former slaves

Members of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church presents a $65,000 check to Habitat for Humanity to assist with the construction of a home for a family displaced by Hurricane Michael.

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

The evolution of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church from the days when it was founded 150 years ago was on full display Sunday morning.

Just before getting into his sermon to mark the kickoff of a year-long celebration of the church’s anniversary, Rev. RB Holmes asked the congregation to watch a video of James Brown performing one of his hit songs. This one was “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door; I’ll get it myself.”

As surprising as it was, the song was right along the theme of Holmes’ sermon, “An Open Door.” 

During his sermon, Holmes emphasized the Source, strength and security of the church.

Ironically, the topic could have easily been a reference to the approach that Bethel’s founder and former slave James Page took in the beginning when he started the church just south of Tallahassee in an open area known as Brush Arbor. He later built the first physical building in Belair near Woodville, establishing Bethel as the first Black church in Florida.

Page and a small congregation built the first church with just $250.

“For a Black church founded by father James Page in 1870; only a few years set free from slavery, to have $250 dollars to purchase land that became the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church is surely a miracle,” Holmes said. “That congregation demonstrated the power of faith and economic development.

Rev. RB Holmes stands in support of attorney Jami Coleman during a press conference that brought attention to racist covenants in the city.
Photos by St. Clair Murraine

“We would be very derelict in this day not to exercise more faith to build up the Black communities by preaching a transformational gospel of Jesus Christ. The Black church still matters.”

Page moved the church into the city limits in the vicinity of its current location, according to historian Larry Rivers, a former FAMU professor who also was president of Fort Valley State University.

“He started off building a church in the city to respond to the migration of Blacks leaving the plantations and farms in surrounding areas,” said Rivers who is completing a book on Page and the Bethel Baptist church. “He felt like a church in town would be better for the former slaves.” 

During the first of two services last Sunday, Holmes also led the congregation in a mortgage-burning ceremony that marked the last payment on its Life Center. Church members who spent 25 years or more in educators were recognized during the second service.

Activities highlighting kickoff of the anniversary celebration last week included a revival that featured two ministers who have history at Bethel. Rev. Al Williams II, pastor of New Sunlight Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Rev. Derrick Mercer, pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, preached during the noonday and evening services.

Senior church members 80 to 100 years old also were treated to a luncheon after the first of the midweek services. 

Minister Gerald Clay of Mobile, Ala., was the featured guest musician.

Both Williams and Mercer were part of the church’s collegiate and youth ministries before leaving for Louisiana and Jacksonville.

Mercer, whose ties with the church began in 2008 when he was a student at FAMU, said the celebration speaks volume for the church’s longevity.

“A hundred and fifty years is a long time,” he said. “It’s a testament to God’s grace and goodness for that kind of longevity; especially in these times when a lot of churches do not live to see 150 years.

“It’s a joy to share in the celebration. I’m thankful that pastor Holmes has allowed me to come to share the gospel and help celebrate this occasion. It’s a joy.”

Page, one of the 5 percent of literate former slaves, decided to use the church as a place to educate Blacks who were moving away from the traditions they practiced before being brought to America, Rivers said. 

“The Black church was a way of helping enslaved people deal with their enslavement,” Rivers said. “It was to give them hope, a self identity, a positive self-image. It was to relate to their African tradition with a mixture of what we call Afro-Christianity.”

As it’s believed to have been during Page’s era, the church continues to be the village that raises children in the congregation. Derek Steele, son of civil rights icon and former Bethel pastor Rev. CK Steel, recalled growing up in the church.

“The elders of the (church) community all knew the children and each one felt an obligation to help correct the children,” Steele said. “You had a sense of respect for your elders that is still there.”

Bethel hasn’t changed its mission to educate and inform Blacks. In fact, Steele, who was pastor from 1952 to 1980, was instrumental in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that was led by Martin Luther King. 

Women in the church were also civil rights activists, Rivers said, adding that Laura Dixie was one of the female trailblazers.

“Bethel was the incubator for a lot of the ideas that the civil rights leaders had,” Rivers said.

Civil rights are among the issues that are still being championed by Bethel. Holmes had the church in the forefront of an effort to do away with racial covenants. The church has also spoken out against guns, hate crimes and other issues.

The church has also provided new homes a family in Apalachicola when a forest fire destroyed their home. It did the same with help from Habitat for Humanity after Hurricane Michael left a Gadsden County family homeless.

Racial injustices, however, remain a key issue for the church, Holmes said. He pointed to suppression of the vote of Black people, criminal injustice to Blacks people and coping with a misguided President Donald Trump as some of the reasons the church can’t be silent.

“We will forfeit the right to call ourselves preachers and Christians, if we don’t stand up and fight against the rise of nationalism,” Holmes said. “It is imperative that we raise our voices to speak truth to power. God will not be pleased with a quiet pulpit.

“This celebration of Bethel’s 150 anniversary must be about a renewed charge to honor our ancestors and fight for the future of our children.”

That obviously includes a generation of young preachers like Mercer and Williams. Grooming young pastors is a role that Holmes insists that the church has to maintain.

“I read somewhere that if a leader does not prepare for his or her successor, he has failed,” Holmes said. “Bethel has been blessed to sit under men of courage, compassion and competence. Former pastors such as Reverends James Page, William Burns, CK Steele, Herbert Alexander and other pastors made it possible for me to have pastor Bethel for 33 years. 

“It will be a shame to them (the past pastors) for me to not joyfully prepare to pass the baton to the next generation. The great history of bethel is ‘encouraged by the past, engaging the present and embracing the future.’ “