Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, Jacksonville, Florida, holds a position of distinction in the history of Jacksonville. It has served as a focal point for the religious and community fulfillment of Jacksonville’s black population. Throughout its lengthy history, Bethel has been intimately connected with the spiritual and cultural life of the entire Jacksonville community.
In July, 1838, the Reverend James McDonald of Georgia came to Jacksonville, then a young but growing settlement in northeast Florida on the St. Johns River, and established the first Baptist congregation in the city (Davis p. 401). The congregation was officially incorporated by the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida in February, 1841, under the name of Bethel Baptist Church. At the time of the church’s incorporation, Reverend McDonald served a mixed congregation of blacks and whites, slaves and slave owners. The mixed congregation continued to grow and changed location several times prior to the Civil War. They finally settled on a site on the north side of Church Street between Julia and Hogan Streets in 1861 and erected a new house of worship that year.
During the course of the Civil War, the city of Jacksonville was occupied four separate times by Federal troops. Various churches in town were used as hospitals and schools by the Union Forces. The day of the Battle of Olustee (February 20, 1864) Federal troops took possession of Bethel Baptist Church and converted it into a hospital for their wounded. By the time of the removal of the occupying army that spring, the church was badly damaged and in need of extensive repairs. The congregation was not to reach settlement with the United States government for reparation of damages until 1912. At the close of the Civil War, an attempt was made to separate the white and black members of the Bethel Baptist congregation. Reflecting on this general trend in the postwar South, Edward Joiner wrote, “After the Civil War, a desire for separate churches grew among the Florida Negro Baptists until it came to be expressed in the formation of their own separate churches.” Thus, as the first opportunity, many Negro Baptists moved to establish their separate churches (Joiner p. 50-51).
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THE BETHEL CHURCH
THE BETHEL CHURCH
215 Bethel Baptist Street, Jacksonville, FL 32202 | Phone: 904-354-1464 | Fax: 904-359-0015