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Sometime in the year of 1870, a small group of African-Americans gathered in Newark, NJ to worship. At that time, there was only one church in the City led by people of color---Clinton Memorial AME Zion, a Methodist church. Preferring to be identified as Baptists, this aforementioned small group met for several months in the parlor of Deacon Jackson Watson’s home at 187 Commerce Street in Newark.
In the spring of 1871, the Reverend Ebenezer Bird came from Petersburg, Virginia to lead the fledgling congregation of the faithful. Shortly after Rev. Bird assumed the pastorate, the small band accepted an invitation from Peddie Memorial Baptist Church on Broad Street to worship in its vestry. The Reverend Bird resigned after a short while in order to pursue further education, but by then, the congregation had moved to Soap Fat Hall.
It was obvious by late spring in 1871 that the small group would grow into a church, so a Dr. Fish, representing the Council of Baptist Churches, convened a meeting to consider their future. Bethany was officially sanctioned as a church in June, 1871. At that time, there were 26 members.
Initially, there were two deacons and two trustees. The new congregation installed its first minister, the Reverend Owen L. Simmons, who had served a church in Paterson, NJ for more than a quarter century. Thus began the ministry of Bethany, the first Baptist congregation founded by people of African descent in Newark New Jersey.
Most early pastors had short tenures, and the church was often racked with dissension. In 1878, a split occurred when the pastor resigned, taking with him a group of members who formed Mt. Zion Baptist Church. During its first thirty years, Bethany was served by eight pastors.
In 1901, Bethany called the Reverend Dr. R. D. Wynn, a seasoned pastor who, at the time of his call, was pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. Dr. Wynn’s tenure began a glorious and expansive era of the church’s history. He began raising money to seek larger quarters, and in 1905 purchased the building that had served as home of the Fairmount Baptist Church for $16,000. After sixteen faithful years of service, Dr. Wynn’s health began to fail and he was forced to resign. Until his death in 1918, he was supported by a pension from the church. Without a pastor for fourteen months, Bethany was fortunate to have the services of the Reverend H. H. Mitchell of Columbus, Ohio as an interim pastor.
At the urging of Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, the church considered and called Dr. E. Edgar Ricks. Dr. Ricks accepted the call July 16, 1918 and assumed the position on October 20, 1918. His initial sermon was entitled “The Potter and the Clay”.
Under vigorous and visionary leadership, Bethany grew as never before. Dr Ricks was an excellent motivator and organizer. He instituted many programs heretofore not known to the church – such as the envelope system of giving, new evangelism outreach, youth programs, and a general reorganization of the church. A master at raising money, Dr. Ricks rallied the church to pay off all indebtedness, including mortgages. Bethany’s 50th Anniversary celebration on October 23, 1921 was a momentous one, which included a mortgage burning ceremony.
Dr. Ricks was succeeded by Dr. L. C. Hurdle, a man fluent in biblical languages. Dr. Hurdle had been Dean of the Northern Baptist School of Religion in Rahway. Through his solid, biblical preaching, Bethany became even stronger. Dr. Hurdle served with distinction from 1924 until 1930.
The Great Depression impacted Newark and Bethany. For almost two years, the church was without a pastor. Dr. William Preston Hayes, who was pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Harlem, accepted the invitation to serve Bethany as pastor and assumed office on June 5, 1932. Reverend Hayes was a “manuscript preacher” of great skill and depth. He was active in Baptist circles and served for many years as president of the New England Baptist Convention. He was recognized as a “prince among preachers”. He served Bethany 29 years and much was accomplished. One of the best indicators of his influence in the community at-large was his service as a Commissioner on the Newark Housing Authority. Due to his service in that capacity, a large public housing development was named in his honor.
During Dr. Hayes’ long and distinguished tenure, three ministers were ordained: the Reverends Norman Olphin, Charles C. Walker and Henry C. Gregory III. Dr. Hayes retired as pastor on June 30, 1961, and died in 1963 at the age of 82.
On November 19, 1962, the congregation voted to call the Reverend James Arthur Scott. Reverend Scott was, at thirty-two years of age, one of the youngest pastors in the history of Bethany. The new pastor had previously served as Director of Urban Church Programs and Field Representative for American Baptist Churches, based in New York, NY. His experience and training were to be severely tested, because Bethany was being forced to relocate due to urban renewal.
Quiet, but fast moving and unwilling to accept defeat or to acknowledge disappointment, Reverend Scott targeted programs toward the church community. The congregation had eroded during the period when there was no pastor. New programs such as art shows and youth activities were started. A new choir of young adults was formed. The congregation accepted many new ideas, installing Mrs. Thelma B. Robinson in 1965 as its first female trustee. The church, on the initiative of the Woman’s League, sponsored debutantes’ balls in 1969 and 1970. A new parsonage was purchased in 1969.
The need for a new church facility was evident. Accepting this, the congregation and pastor girded for the challenge. The Building Fund budget grew, and the first million dollars had been banked by 1974. On July 7, 1974, groundbreaking services were held for a new church at 275 West Market Street.
Total cost of the construction was $2.1 million. The construction team was led by a small group of determined and disciplined men, including Reverend Scott, Deacons Franklin Banks, George McCoy, and John Johnson; Trustees Cecil Crump, Richard Marshall, Humphrey Smith and William Lee.
The final worship service at Old Bethany, located at 117 West Market Street, was held at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, November 30, 1975. Led by the pastor, deacons, trustees, ushers, choirs, and the Sunday School, the congregation marched from the Old to the New Bethany, singing “We’re Marching to Zion”.
Dedication services were held on May 2, 1976, followed by a weeklong celebration. Bethany continued to grow. In fact, its growth was so rapid that it soon found its facilities inadequate in size. Its membership peaked at about 2,000 or about 700 families, and an excellent stewardship program insured that the mortgage was paid ahead of schedule.
Bethany engaged seminarians from area schools to assist the pastor. The church expanded its mission outreach and consciously undertook to give one-tenth of all it received to others.
Older members were recognized and heralded. In 1980, there was a Golden Membership Awards Dinner where 79 members were honored for 50 or more years of discipleship. Bethany also increased its focus upon the needs and concerns of the church in different parts of the world, and boasted that people from nineteen different countries were among its members.
Four persons were ordained to the Christian ministry under Rev. Scott: the Reverends Keith Cook, Miles Austin, Edward Harper, and Joan Parrott. Reverend Parrott was the first woman ordained to the ministry during Bethany’s long history. Bethany employed three full-time ministers on its staff, the Reverends Edward Harper and Yvonne Best serving as assistants to the Minister. The church also has commissioned three persons for specialized ministries: Ministers Berris Hill and Margaret Holiman, and Ms. Deborah Sanks.
Church Clerks during the Scott era included Mrs. Gertrude Jackson, Mrs. Olivia Smith, Mrs. Muriel Simpson, Mrs. Emily Morgan and Mrs. Gerry Ballard.
Dr. Scott, having earned a Ph.D. degree at Rutgers in Urban Planning, served as president of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention and the American Baptist Convention. He was active internationally through the Baptist World Alliance, and was Chairperson of the Baptist World Alliance’s Congress in Australia in the year 2000.
Dr. Beverly Dunston Scott, the pastor’s spouse, started an outreach ministry in a public housing community. Minister Berris Hill started a satellite ministry in another public housing. Both of these ministries offered GED preparation and activities for youth.
The Food Pantry and Clothing Closet, under the guidance of the Woman’s League, served thousands of persons annually.
There were ministries to singles, to people affected by the HIV virus, outreach to incarcerated persons, and outreach to residents of nursing homes.
More than $225,000 was contributed to Black colleges during the last two decades of Dr. Scott’s service, and a similar amount was allocated for scholarships. A Rites of Passage program for boys was developed. And, Bethany was a leader among Protestant churches in America in the number of members enrolled in Kerygma Bible Studies.
Approaching its 125th Anniversary in the late 1990’s, Bethany prepared for another major building program. The church decided to build a chapel, a school, additional office facilities, a lounge and choir rehearsal rooms. These additions were completed in 1999.
Bethany was by now a strong, Christ-centered church, with a stellar track record of service to its community and to the world. It was a well-administered church, with a strong foundation for service well into the next century. After 37 years of distinguished service, Dr. James Arthur Scott preached his final sermon as pastor on May 7, 2000.
According to a divinely-inspired plan, overseen by Dr. Scott in the latter days of his tenure, The Reverend M. William Howard, Jr. assumed leadership as 12th pastor of Bethany the following Sunday, and later that same afternoon presided over his final commencement as president of New York Theological Seminary, a graduate school for theological education, which specialized in training leaders for service in post-industrial cities, especially those in the metropolitan area in which Newark is located.
The new pastor brought a range of experiences that would lend themselves to a smooth transition of leadership, having served as an executive in the nation’s oldest protestant denomination, as the youngest president of the National Council of Churches, and as a leader in the World Council of Churches. His tenure began with addressing concrete challenges facing the congregation and the community. He ushered in a new era of community engagement by the church. Bethany extended its community outreach to include a successful elementary school---University Heights Charter School, and a community development corporation---Bethany Cares, Inc., which supported the operation of a Children’s Defense Fund affiliated “Freedom School”, and a program that assisted soon-to-be-released, incarcerated young men preparing to return to productive roles in society. In addition, a program to enhance adult literacy in the broader community and an afterschool tutoring program for elementary school children were launched. Through his efforts, Dr. Howard fostered an enhanced commitment by Bethany to advancing social justice ministries.
He guided the congregation through a series of facilitated discussions in developing the Church’s Mission Statement that commits the church and its members to “recruit, equip and deploy followers of Jesus Christ for discipleship and transforming service to others…”
Among the initiatives Dr. Howard undertook by the culmination of his first decade as pastor in 2010 were a Jazz Vespers worship service that recognized Jazz for it sacred dimensions, as well as an Institute for Sacred Music; he led in building a memorial plaza at the entry way of the church; professionalized the financial and information technology systems of the church; inaugurated the Fellowship Circles, designed to keep in close touch with all church members; launched a golf outing that helps in underwriting costs for community ministries; participated in the transformation of the traffic intersection directly in front of the church, facilitated two persons to the ordained ministry, and spearheaded the congregation’s historic decision to accept the baptisms of all Trinitarian believers. It was also during this first leg of Dr. Howard’s tenure that Bethany hosted Fugitive Safe Surrender, a national program that paved the way for some 4,200 people to have criminal and civil warrants adjudicated with the least adverse impact on their lives.
By its 140th year of service in 2011, Bethany was poised for even greater witness, with an even stronger connection to the daily challenges confronting the people of Newark. The congregation is enthusiastic about the divine opportunity for service it has been afforded by God’s plan for the world.
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