With a dauntless spirit possessed by our forefathers, the courageous seed of Bethlehem was planted in the year of our Lord, 1893. Rev. Branch Jackson and a group of devout Christians joined together to enhance moral growth, intellectual status and above all sound religious principles in the community. A place called SWEET HOME ALLEY now a part of Marshall Street between 17th and 18th Street was chosen as Bethlehem’s FIRST HOME SITE!
The membership was not large in number, but a haven for great spiritual revivals entwined with deep soul stirring prayer meetings. Some of the first officers of our church were Deacon John Pegram and Deacon Frank Walker. The trustees were James Gatewood, William Coates, Hilton Brown and Samuel Lewis. The first clerk was John L. Walker, who served faithfully in this capacity until 1952.
In 1893, the old home site, SWEET HOME ALLEY was purchased from Mr. and Mrs. John H. Smith for $350.00. The first transaction and noted progress was handled by our first trustees, James Gatewood and William Coates. In 1907, the church moved to its second site, 1000 Buchanan Street still under the leadership of Rev. Jackson. The deed for this property was acquired for $500.00 handled by trustees Hilton Brown and Samuel Lewis. Rev. Griffin was called as pastor after the death of Rev. Jackson the following year (1908). Bethlehem attained many accomplishments under Rev. Griffin. The church body was saddened by his death and did not call a pastor immediately, but used many supply ministers including Rev. Lewis to enlighten the pulpit.
In 1914, the Rev. Henry Randolph, who was the pastor at Antioch Baptist Church in Varina, Virginia was selected as the next pastor of Bethlehem. This quest was carried out under the strong leadership of Deacon John Pegram, Chairman of the Board of Deacons. Rev. Randolph joined the Bethlehem Family along with his faithful wife and three children. Under his dynamic leadership, many church auxiliaries were formed. The organizations included: an Usher Board, Ladies Auxiliary Usher Board #1, a Church Choir, A Baptist Young People’s Union, Busy Bee Club, Willing Workers, Boy Scout Troop and a Bethlehem Baptist Chorus that performed many times at the old City Auditorium under Rev. Andrew Allen, Choir Director, Sister Ethel Stevens, Pianist and Deacon John Daise, Program Director.
A Sunday school Department was developed with Rev. George Davis, a son of the church serving as the first Superintendent of record. At the end of his tenure, another son, Rev. Andrews J. Allen took over. The Sunday School’s growth and development continued under the leadership of several strong, energetic superintendents that followed: Robert Mankins, Deacon Paul E. Martin, Louise Johnson, Janine Jennings, Otis Brown, Georgie Dowden, Pearl McVey, Wilnet Jones, Deacon Horace Anderson, Lunnette Jones, Florence Taylor, Rev. Glinda Ford, Deacon Ollie Hendrick, Geraldine Gillus, Audrey Davis and Carlton Stevens.
Much was done to beautify the church building on Buchanan Street. The church was enlarged, stucco was added to the outside, a new baptismal pool and a central heating system were installed. In 1930, the church was damaged by fire, after repairs, Bethlehem became a place of worship again. At a time when our church experienced financial difficulties, Brother John L. Walker assisted with financial aid. This godly deed will always be remembered for the valuable service rendered. Rev. Randolph and the members moved forward with determination to rid the church of debt. In a few years, this was accomplished with the BURNING o the mortgage.
Rev. Blanch Brown was ordained and elected as Assistant Pastor in 1948. Due to the declining health of Rev. Randolph, Rev. Brown was called as Pastor in March, 1950. Under his leadership many organizations and programs were started. The first Building Fund Program was developed with James E. Stevens, Jr. serving as Chairman, Sister Frances Inez Johnson and Sister Louise Johnson as secretaries. A Sunday School Choir under the directorship of Sister Ethel Stevens was formed, the Pastor’s Aid Club with Sister Irene Richmond serving as the first President, a Senior Missionary Circle was organized with Sister Mahailia Brown, wife of Rev. Brown serving as leader and the Randolph Memorial Choir was formed in honor of Rev. Henry Randolph under the direction of Sister Elaine and Lois Vaughan in 1950. The Randolph Memorial Choir will always be remembered as the cornerstone of our Music Ministry. Our other Music Directors included Sister Ethel Stevens, Brother Harold Lilly, Dr. Willis Barnett, Sister Francine Jackson, Brother Donald Fonville, Tony Winslow and currently serving in that position is Dr. Ronald Witherspoon. In 1958, Rev. Brown resigned as pastor.
With the efforts of a Pulpit Committee, which included the Board of Deacons with Deacons John Allen and John Daise, the Chairpersons, the Rev. John Bishop Gordon was called as the next pastor. Rev. Gordon assumed the pastorate on Sunday, January 25, 1959. He was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina to the late Joseph H. and Ellen Devolia Gordon. He received his early education in Camden and Rich Square, North Carolina. He was licensed and ordained at his home church where his uncle was pastor and a great inspiration to him. Rev. Gordon received inspiration from Rev. Randolph who he fellowshipped with at his home and at Bethlehem. He held a B.A. Degree in History from Virginia Union University and a Master of Divinity from the School of Theology. He was married to the late Thelma M. Busbee and had four children, Ethel, John Jr. (deceased) Thurman, Vernon and ten grandchildren.
Under his leadership, a new Building Fund System was organized. In 1961, we were able to begin the purchase of our present church site, the former Fairmount Avenue Methodist Church, 1920 Fairmount Avenue. A Centralized Treasury was formed, the Boy Scout Troop was revived along with a Cub Scout Troop, Brownie Troop, Girl Scout Troop and a Cadet Troop. Other newly established organizations included a Youth Department, A praying Band, Progressive Missionary Circle #2 (branch of the Senior Missionary Circle), Junior Missionary Circle, Men’s Fellowship Organization, Royal Usher Board and a Junior Male Usher Board. A Sunday School Choir and an Inspirational Chorus was formed under the direction of Sister Georgie Dowden, the Youth Choir was renamed the J. B. Gordon Youth Choir under the direction of Sister Bertha Lancaster and the Bethlehem Baptist Male Chorus was formed under the direction on Sister Ethel Stevens.
Exterior and interior enhancements of our church site continued with the installation of an air conditioning system in the sanctuary and educational building in 1967. After six years in October, 1969, the church was able to burn the MORTGAGE. In 1972, new glass doors were placed around the church, new lights were installed in 1974. In 1976, a bus was purchased to advance our bus ministry. Carpeting and seat cushions were added to the sanctuary and the educational building was renovated adding accordion doors in 1978. With the guidance of Rev. Gordon, the church sponsored an Outreach Program that offered an educational curriculum, The Bethlehem Baptist Church Day Nursery.
This program had a strong beginning under his leadership and several dedicated members of Bethlehem. These members with a vision were Mary B. Seabron, Geraldine Alexander, Estelle F. Johnson and Doris A. Stokes, who worked with the Pastor to bring this program forward. This ministry is still intact. Under Rev. Gordon influence, Bethlehem serves as a member of Shiloh Baptist Association, General Baptist Convention, General Baptist Association, Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, Richmond Baptist Association (Southern Baptist Convention) and in August 1969, became a lifetime member of the NAACP.
In January 1989, Rev. John Bishop Gordon retired as Pastor, but graciously continued to serve God and Bethlehem as Pastor Emeritus. Each Sunday you would find him in his favorite pew listening to the Word of God until his death.
Dr. Victor L. Davis, the sixth pastor was installed on June 25, 1989. He is a native of Virginia Beach, VA. He is married to the former Rosa Bates and they have two children, Victor, Jr. and Kristin. He is a graduate of Norfolk State University, Southwestern University and Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Many ministries and associational involvements were revised and established under his leadership. Another sanctuary choir was established and named the V. L. Davis Ensemble. A Young Adult Fellowship was established along with the revitalization of the Youth Program which includes the Royal Ambassadors and Girls in Action. Our mission program has expanded locally and globally. Mission teams from Bethlehem have traveled to Jamaica, South America and Australia.
“Where there is no vision, the People will Perish” is a vision for Bethlehem Baptist Church in which two Building Fund Programs were started with the themes: “Together We Build” and “Find Us Faithful”, with the goal of expanding the current facility to better serve and the surrounding community. Several properties were purchased expanding the current space. In 1998, a fully equipped playground area was constructed. In 1999, a new addition was built including an Elevator, updated bathroom facilities and additional parking spaces. It is Dr. Davis’ dream that Bethlehem will eventually be able to offer educational aid and opportunities to both children and adults.
With God’s help, We….Pastor and People…Will work together Prayerfully, Faithfully, and Sacrificially to make these realities in the years to come!
Bethlehem Baptist Church
215 Wilkinson Rd,
Richmond, VA 23227