The Bethel Church, historically known as 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).
Such was the case in Jacksonville, where a dispute arose over the possession of church property, and a legal battle carried on for several years. Finally a court settlement in 1868 resolved the conflict, awarding the Church Street property to the white members of the Bethel Baptist congregation and granting the black members financial compensation and retention of the church name. There was some dispute over the exact amount of money awarded to the black members; some sources quote the figure as $800 and others as. $400. The whites took a new name, Tabernacle Baptist Church, which was later changed to First Baptist Church of Jacksonville. The black congregation moved to a newly purchased piece of property on Pine Street (now Main) at the intersection of Union Street in downtown Jacksonville. A small wood frame chapel was built here, and the Reverend Cataline Simmons was called as their first pastor. Reverend Simmons served as the pastor of the Bethel congregation from 1868 to 1880.
In 1880, the American Baptist Home Mission Society founded the Live Oak Institute in Live Oak, Florida, for the purpose of educating black youths in the vicinity. The new school received continuous harassment from local white citizens, and the American Baptist Home Mission Society withdrew its support from the Institute. A group of local black citizens attempted to keep the school in operation but eventually decided to form a new school in Jacksonville which was considered to be a more hospitable location. By October 5, 1892, the new school, known as the Florida Baptist Academy, was a reality. It was located temporarily at Bethel Baptist Church (Joiner p. 227-278). The Academy was eventually -moved to St. Augustine and renamed the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute.
In 1894, the State Legislature rechartered Bethel Baptist Church. Feeling the pressures of a growing congregation, the Bethel Baptist Church, under the leadership of Reverend Jerome Milton Waldron, erected a large red brick structure in 1895. Replacing the smaller wood frame building that had served the congregation since its separation in 1868, this new house of worship was constructed at a cost of $26,000. The church was destroyed by the great conflagration that engulfed almost the entire downtown section of Jacksonville on the afternoon of May 3, 1901. After the fire of 1901, all of the churches in the downtown area of Jacksonville were forced to rebuild and rechart their future development. Reverend Waldron and his congregation purchased the entire block on the northwest corner of the intersection of Hogan and Caroline Streets and made plans for the construction of a new church complex. After a fund raising campaign which took the pastor throughout the Northeast was successfully completed, M.H. Hubbard of Utica, New York, was commissioned to design a new church complex for the Bethel congregation. William Stenson, a local Jacksonville contractor, supervised the actual construction of what is today the present Bethel Baptist Institutional Church.
After construction was complete in 1904, a local newspaper gave the following description of the new church: “This church is a monument to Industry, Morality, and Religious Enterprise of Jacksonville’s Colored Citizens” (Florida Daily Sun, December 24, 1904). In 1901, at the suggestion of Reverend Waldron, the Afro-American Life Insurance Company was organized. It began as a small church society for the benefit of the Bethel congregation; but when the society continued to grow far beyond the original expectations, an independent corporation was formed. As a result, the company blossomed into one of the largest life insurance agencies in the city. On a related note, one of the founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company was Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the great grandfather of Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, past president of both Spelman College and Bennett College. The church congregation was again chartered by the State of Florida in 1921 when its name was changed to the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church. Since its separation from the white members of the old Bethel Baptist Church in 1868, Bethel Baptist Institutional Church has served as the “Mother Church” for the following Jacksonville congregations: Central Baptist Church, Greenland Baptist Church, Second Baptist Church, Day Springs Baptist Church, Saint Luke’s Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church (South Jacksonville) and Panama Park Baptist Church. In addition, a congregation that had its origins in the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church of Jacksonville was formed in Chaseville, Florida.
The history of the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church of Jacksonville, Florida, has been intimately connected with the development of one of Florida’s principle settlements and later metropolitan areas. After the separation of the congregation in 1868, the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church has continued to be the principal influence on the spiritual life of Jacksonville’s black community and the city of metropolitan Jacksonville and surrounding areas. The church saw tremendous growth under the dynamic leadership of Bishop Rudolph Waldo McKissick, Sr., who pastored the church for 47 years from 1966 to 2013. Bishop McKissick, Sr. is the longest serving pastor to date having many ministries to the church including B.E.S.T. Academy, Marriage Ministry, Youth Ministries, Counseling Ministry, Drug and Rehabilitation Ministry and a wide array of other outreach efforts that addressed the whole person and the whole community. Two major benchmarks included the inclusion of the church on the National Historic Register in 1978 and the addition of the McKissick Educational Building in 1988. The three-story addition serves as the primary administrative building, family life center an educational wing. In 2000, the campus was expanded further with a $7.5 million building that contains a new worship, sanctuary, conference center, space for youth and other support groups, multipurpose auditorium and bookstore.
In response to the community’s need for a summer academic enrichment program Bishop McKissick, Sr., started one of most unique ministries created during this in order to support elementary, middle and high school (3rd-12th grade) students in the surrounding community in 1993. Under the expert direction of First Lady, Mrs. Estelle McKissick, a noted educator, principal, district administrator, and later school board member, established Bethel Enhancing Students Totally Academy(BEST) to serve the students of the church and the broader community as the solution to the cancellation of the summer school program by the largest school district in Jacksonville. In 2018, BEST Academy celebrated its 25th year anniversary, and continues to serve students of the Jacksonville community to this day.
Subsequently, in 1999, Pastor Rudolph McKissick Jr., was installed as the eleventh Pastor of Bethel in partnership with his father Pastor Rudolph McKissick Sr. This calling gave Bethel its first dual pastorate, call the Dynamic Duo. Under Pastor McKissick, Jr.’s vision, the foundation was laid for numerous church ministries, which included Joshua’s Generation, karate for youth, praise singers, praise dancers, and a weekly Sunday morning television ministry during which time viewers can call the church’s prayer line for spiritual guidance and comfort. In 2014, Bishop McKissick, Sr. retired and was named Bishop Emerita. Subsequently, his only son Bishop McKissick, Jr.,became the Senior Pastor of Bethel. In 2019, his wife Rev. Kimberly McKissick was named Executive Pastor. They serve as husband and wife pastoral leads.
As Lead Pastor, Bishop McKissick, Jr.’s ministerial vision has resulted in the expansion of ordained and licensed pastors, elders, reverends and ministers, both male and female to further undergird the wide variety of ministries, which serve the local congregation of over 14,000 members and bolster community outreach efforts. Community outreach efforts include Annual Health Fairs, the Annual Thanksgiving Food Giveaway in partnership with Farm Share, the Annual Harvest Family Festival with Community agency partners (including Florida State College at Jacksonville, Kids Hope Alliance, Jacksonville Public Library, Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts of Northeast Florida), and many other community organizations. In addition, Black Wall Street is an initiative hosted by Bethel designed to strengthen community support for Black-owned businesses represented both within the church and within the broader Jacksonville community. Over the past several years, Bethel began offering multiple community outreach events every quarter such as the food giveaways, especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Bethel is also on tap potentially to serve as one of the downtown COVID vaccination locations in collaboration with local health organizations as a faith-based partnership.
Finally, Bishop McKissick Jr’s, ministry, musical talent and blessing of relevant preaching, have resulted in the production of five Word and Worship CDs, having received both local and national critical acclaim. In addition to his musical talents, Bishop McKissick, Jr. is a powerful messenger of God who hasfirmly established himself nationally as an outstanding evangelical speaker. Currently, under the pastorate of Bishop Rudolph Waldo McKissick, Jr., church membership spans not only Jacksonville’s five-county area but also involves aburgeoning national and international following with its ever-evolving internet and social media channels including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. In addition to ministering to the city’s African-American population, Bethel Baptist Institutional Church has played an important role in the twentieth century growth of Jacksonville. Recognized broadly, the inclusion of the Bethel in both the Jacksonville Historical Walking Trail and Florida African-American History Trail-Black Heritage Trail, serve as testament to its enduring history and evolving legacy. Today, Bethel Baptist Institutional Church remains an embedded landmark to the early settlement of Jacksonville and to its current continued growth, development, prominence and significance locally, nationally and internationally.
Narrative updated in 2021 by Minster Jametoria Burton, Ed.D. (Licensed Minister of Bethel)
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Davis, T. Frederick. A History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. Quadricentennial Edition of the Floridiana Facsimile & Reprint series, 1964. p. 401.
Duval County. Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court. County Records. Duval County Courthouse, Jacksonville, Florida.Florida Daily Sun, December 24, 1904.
Joiner, Edward Earl. A History of Florida Baptists–. Jacksonville: The Convention Press, 1972. pp. 50-51, 277-278.
“130th Anniversary: Pastors and People (1838-1968).” Bethel Baptist Institutional Church anniversary booklet. Jacksonville, Florida.
“135th Anniversary.” Bethel Baptist Institutional Church anniversary booklet. Jacksonville, Florida.
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Original Specifications, Bethel Baptist Institutional Church. On file in the Office of Building and Zoning Permits, City Hall, Jacksonville, Florida.
Visit Jacksonville African-American History Trail-Black Heritage Trail-Bethel Baptist Institutional Church https://www.visitjacksonville.com/things-to-do/culture/history/african-american-heritage-trail/black-heritage-trail/stop-9-bethel-baptist-institutional-church/ Retrieved March 4, 2021