The Bethel congregation began meeting in 1854 at the old colonial church at Mangohick, King William County. Neighborhood workmen built the present sanctuary a few miles west, in Caroline County, on the Washington Burgess Route, or present Virginia State Route 30. To quote Bessie Peatross, Bethel "was built as an expression of love and devotion to God, and was fostered and directed mainly through the efforts of two men, life-long friends and neighbors,Thomas Price Jackson and Robert Sale Peatross. These two good men caught a vision from God and said as they set the stones, 'this is none other than the House of God and the Gate to Heaven,' and so they named it Bethel (meaning House of God). Many aided in this work of love and gave their material substance and daily labor."
Once begun, the work on Bethel advanced steadily. So interested were the neighborhood families when construction began that the Jackson and Peatross ladies would come daily to sit and watch the work on the building go forward. The architecture of the church was very simple, with a gallery in the rear for African American slaves and free blacks, as was the custom in those days. Many African Americans had their membership at Bethel, including Sam Anderson and his bride, who joined on the Sunday following the dedication. Dr. L. L. Lee preached the dedicating sermon and Reverend J. B. Laurens was Bethel's first pastor. He was typical of many of the more than sixty pastors to follow, a young man on his first assignment, who, after being given a "good start at Bethel" went on to a prominent position in the Conference.
After the freeing of the African American slaves following the Civil War, the ex-slaves and free blacks decided to withdraw their membership from Bethel and purchase the church building at Mangohick.
In 1877, money made at several church fairs was enough to purchase the first organ used at Bethel. This project was carried through successfully by Alva H. Richardson, a newcomer in the neighborhood, and one most interested in music. His wife taught music and was the first organist at Bethel. Mr. Richardson organized the young people of the church into a choir, trained them, and led in the singing both in Sunday School and in church services. Prior to this, the tunes were "raised" by anyone brave enough to venture. Often the preacher himself had to start them off, and it frequently happened that when a new preacher was coming to a charge, the first question asked anxiously was "Can he sing, too?"
The direct descendants of the founders of Bethel erected two beautiful memorial windows in the front of the church, unveiling them with appropriate ceremonies in the fall of 1908. Little Virginia Jackson, great-granddaughter of Thomas Price Jackson, and Coleman Wortham, great-grandson of Robert Sale Peatross, drew the curtains.
In 1921, the portico was built. It was a gift from T. C. Williams and his sister, Mary Williams, as a memorial to their mother, Ella Peatross Williams, youngest daughter of Robert S. Peatross, and a former member of Bethel.
Through the years there have not been many changes to the basic structure of the sanctuary. In 1931, the interior was redecorated; the green walls were repainted a buff shade, and the previously-light oak woodwork was changed to a walnut color. Shortly thereafter, the Virginia Manual Labor School in Hanover made and presented book racks to the church. In 1937, electricity came to the church. The Reverend Edgebert Deggs made and installed the bulletin board on the outside of the church and the hymm and Psalm bulletin to the right of the window inside. In 1949, a new tin rood replaced the original wood shakes and in the following year, the church was again redecorated, the benches refinished, and the floors sanded and finished. In 1951, Venetian blinds were installed and heat added in 1956.
In 1959 and 1960, the congregation began to formulate plans for a much-needed educational building in order to carry on efficient church school work. The committee made an extensive study of the urgent need for Sunday School rooms and after much consideration, drew up rough plans and presented them to the church in the fall of 1959. Work began on January 19, 1961 with the cornerstone ceremony occurring the first Sunday in December. The Sunday School purchased the furnishings while the Woman's Society of Christian Service raised money to equip an up-to-date kitchen. By fall of 1963, the educational building was ready to be used, and Pastor Charles B. King, assisted by Dr. J. Callaway Roberson, performed the dedication ceremony on October 6, 1963.
A parsonage was built on land given by Sue and Park Dodd and the extended family of Jayne and George Edmond Massie, III in 1989. A gift from Virginia Jackson Tracy in 1966 allowed the congregation to build a pavilion that has been in constant use since. Three years later, Evelyn Mitchell Street Carter left a second generous gift to be used for the music program and the sanctuary.
For several years in the early 2000s, Bethel had a food program that supplied United States Department of Agriculture food once monthly to more than 100 families in the community. In a snow storm in March 2003, ground was broken for a Fellowship Hall using funds left to Bethel by George Edmond Massie, III. The hall seats 175 people comfortably and hosts a "state of the art" kitchen as well as a second floor meeting room. The original Sunday School building was refurbished to include a minister's study, an office, Sunday School space, and a small library. A memorial garden was planted in front of the church in 2008 and a playground built 2010.
Many faithful families have spent countless hours working for Bethel. Some are new to the church; others grew up at Bethel. All have served on committees, sung in the choir, taught church school, served food, swept floors, cut grass, repaired doors, and so much more. Bethel Church, standing sedating in her stately oaks, is beloved by many. Within her walls have rung inspiring sermons, and at her altar countless souls have met Christ. From day to day, she carries her testimony to passersby, and on Sabbath the ever-faithful laborers gather, as was the custom of their Master.
Authors: Bessie Peatross, Evelyn Street Carter (1963), Dorothy F. Atkinson (1979), Jayne Massie (2004), and Beth Massie (2015)