Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bethlehem Baptist Chuch

This past year Bethlehem Baptist Church celebrated its 132nd anniversary. The church stands as an on-going titan from which the community and the metropolitan area draws for guidance and spiritual comfort. I wish to give a little insight into Bethlehem's history for the many new members that have come to be a part of this historical community.

It was 1863, the Civil War was raging and the United States legislature was engaged in physical fights over the topic of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was physically and mentally exhausted from the burdens of the Civil War. Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass were lobbying Lincoln to free the slaves. It was also in 1863 that Samuel K. Taylor, refugee slave from Caroline County, Virginia, came to Gum Springs and formed, from the depths of his soul, a star called Bethlehem.

He was born a slave in Caroline County in 1836, the son of John and Agnes Taylor. The Taylor family lived and worked on the plantation of William P. Taylor. Samuel Taylor was converted at the age of 17 and became a member of the church to which the enslavers belonged. His love of God was great and all consuming; for not long after his conversion, he had a spiritual experience whereby he felt God had chosen him to go out to the masses and spread the Word. He was permitted to preach to his fellow slaves on Saturday nights and Sundays on the plantation where he lived. Taylor would eventually escape from his bondage and travel to Gum Springs. After securing lodging, his ministry continued, meeting in various homes to conduct services as he had done previously. It was not until the end of the war that a building was raised to hold religious services for the Gum Springs community. The lumber to build the new church was provided by the federal government. This lumber was originally from stables used to house the horses of the Union Army. One can only surmise what may have been the thoughts of the church members at using lumber that was once a stable. Were their thoughts of shame because their church was built from lumber that was once a dirty stable; or thoughts of honor and glory, for it is said that "the horse is a noble beast that will not tread upon one whom has fallen".

The first building was used for both a church and a schoolhouse. Many of the first members were originally members of the First Colored Baptist Church of Alexandria, known today as the Alfred Street Baptist Church. These members asked for and received their church papers. Along with Samuel Taylor, they formed the First Black Baptist Church of Gum Springs. The Rev. Samuel Madden, then pastor of Alfred Street Baptist, looked upon Gum Springs with fatherly love and care. Madden performed holy communion and baptismal until Samuel Taylor's ordination in 1882. The relationship between the two was always that of a close-knit family.

On April 27, 1884, Bethlehem placed a second cornerstone for the new church. The size of the new church structure was 26' by 36'. The people were very excited about their new church and conducted prayer services once and sometimes twice a week. One night the men would lead the service followed the next night by the women. During a prayer meeting conducted by the women, a fund from the offering was established to purchase a pulpit set. In 1889, a pulpit set was purchased and presented to the church. Portions of that set are still being used in the church today.


By 1912, Rev. Taylor was 76 years old and had served for 47 years. Although his strength was not what it once was, he was still baptizing. During this time, baptisms were conducted at Little Hunting Creek, located at the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Old Mount Vernon Road. On one such occasion, Rev. Taylor did not change his clothes immediately after a ceremony. He became ill and on Monday following the fourth Sunday in October, 1912, Rev. Samuel Taylor passed from labor to reward.


Article Written by Ronald L. Chase for History In Motion the Gum Springs Historical Society Magazine



Pictures from top to bottom: Bethlehem Baptist Church, 1993; The First Church, 1864; The Second Church, 1913; The Third Church, 1930; Rev. Sam K. Taylor, Bethlehem's Founder.

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