June 10, 1817, fifty free people of color gathered
at the home of James and Elizabeth Clendenin to
strategize how they might establish a separate house
of worship for Africans in Lancaster. This group of founders identified
two committees: 1) three men of color--Clendenin,
Edward Burgess, and Jeremiah Bular-- to speak on their
behalf and 2) six white men from nearby Episcopal
and Lutheran churches whom Clendenin, Burgess, and
Bular would approach for advice. Within days, the
two committees met and adopted four resolutions of support.
tradition tells us the African church first gathered
for worship in a tavern on E. King Street. At the
time, Burgess lived and worked at Slaymakers, a
public house on E. King St. It seems reasonable
to conclude the site may have been the first home
of the African church.
By 1821 the small community
had saved enough money to purchase land and build
its original house of worship in the Lancaster neighborhood
once called Adamstown and Mussertown (now know as
ChurchTowne). The Rev. Christian Endress, Trinity
Lutheran Church, preached a dedicatory sermon on
February 11, 1821.
For most of their first fifty years, the people of
Bethel, originally called St. James African Methodist
Church, took great personal risks to assist those
escaping slavery. Several African
Methodist Episcopal preachers and Bethel pastors--Rev.
Joshua P.B. Eddy, Rev. Thomas Henry and Rev. Robert
Boston--were connected to the Underground Railroad.
A church woman's organization known as the Tent Sisters
made new clothing, distributing it to those seeking
safe haven. The lumber merchants and Underground Railroad
conductors, Rev. Stephen Smith and William Whipper,
had close ties to the congregation. So did abolitionist
Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens, and his confidante
and friend, Lydia Hamilton Smith.
Although the years
before the Civil War were terrible times for many
Africans in America, the free community in Lancaster
managed to pass several important milestones. On
March 27, 1848, the trustees incorporated the church
as "The African Methodist Episcopal Church of the
City of Lancaster". A year later, George James, a
Bethel trustee, successfully petitioned the Board
of Lancaster Common Schools to pay $150 toward construction
of a Sunday school house. The Board agreed because
James proposed using the structure as an African public
school on weekdays.
Dedicated red brick American Vernacula
House of Worship.
Overlaid red brick exterior with form stone.
Purchased former Strawberry Street School,
C. Emlen Urban-now home of Bethel AME
years later as Fort Sumter was bombarded, men of the
Bethel community formed a regiment at the church.
They marched to the courthouse where they were rebuffed
by local authorities unwilling to provide guns to
Africans. Several years into the war, the Union Army
finally accepted African soldiers, and members of
Bethel fought and died with the Massachusetts 54th
and 55th Volunteers. The remains of African Civil
War veterans rest in Bethel's cemetery.
On April 26,
1870, members of Bethel organized a celebration
to commemorate the ratification of the 15th amendment
to the Constitution. Local dignitaries
and residents gathered at the church for a service
officiated by the Rev. Boston and featuring James
P Wickersham, principal of the State Normal School
at Millersville. A large parade, rejoicing the
African right to vote, was led by delegations
from Lancaster City, several nearby townships,
and the Stevens Drum Corps.
An April 1879 arson attack on the Bethel house of
worship was an unwelcome reminder of the price of
freedom for Lancaster's African community. Two men
were seen running form the scene. The Shiffler Fire
Company, once sponsored by Thaddeus Stevens and employing
the two sons of Lydia Hamilton Smith, responded immediately
and the building remained structurally intact. Church
members managed to salvage the Sunday school library,
a sofa, and the pulpit chairs.
Earliest Known Record:1817
Elizabeth and James Clendenin house
Current House of Worship:
American Vernacular, completed 1821, rebuilt after
1879 arson fire.
The trustees hired William Wohlsen, one of the progenitors
of Wohlsen Construction Company, to rebuild their
house of worship. Seven months later, they held a
dedication service for "a neat and substantial brick
building". This house of worship, now overlaid with
form stone, has served the people of Bethel for more
than a century.
from the early 1900's paint a multi-ethnic picture
of the neighborhood. In her reminiscences of the time,
church member, Maude Wilson Ball tells about the
congregation's strawberry festivals, children's projects,
and once-a-year treks to the West Chestnut St. cemetery
where Thaddeus Stevens was buried.
In September 1989 the congregation purchased an adjoining
property, transforming it into Bethel African Methodist
Episcopal Church Cultural Center. Today it helps to
define ChurchTowne, a vibrant southeast Lancaster
community of homes and businesses with several dozen
houses of worship.
in the steps of their forebears, the congregation
founded Bethel Harambee Historical Services. Reservations
are required for Living the Experience, an interactive
spiritual journey to the times of the Underground
Railroad. The company also operates the Leroy
Hopkins and Mary Taft Hopkins Study Center.
This center collects and maintains the history of
Africans who have lived in Lancaster County from the
1600's until today.