The Reverend David M. Morton, a former slave, founded BETHLEHEM BAPTIST CHURCH in 1867 only two (2) years after the Civil War ended, freeing all people from the bondage of slavery. Freedom for our ancestors presented a time of struggle as well as a time of opportunity. It was difficult for blacks to provide for their families, as many of them were unskilled professionally, except for learned trades such as farming, blacksmithing, carpentry, picking cotton, etc. It was during this time that Bethlehem was founded under a brush harbor* by former slaves for the purpose of saving souls and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Following his release from slavery, Rev. Morton was given a small tract of land once owned by his master. The small tract, located near a spring, was known as "The Bowling Spring" and became the site for a log church - Bethlehem Baptist Church. Rev. Morton was a devout minister and worked diligently to preach the word of God. Through his ministry, several lost souls came to Christ. He would often say, "Woe am I if I preach not the Gospel of Jesus Christ." At 28 years old, in addition to leading a church, Rev. Morton was also a husband, a father, a farmer, and a blacksmith. He and his wife, Sylvia Morton, were parents of three children, Bowen Willis, John, and Moida. Rev. Morton was the pastor of Bethlehem until 1883, one year before his death.
In 1884, Rev. Tom Macrebeth was elected as pastor. During his tenure, the following men were ordained as deacons: Dea. Allen Durrah, Dea. Andy Goldsmith, Dea. Charlie Goldsmith, Dea. Joe Goldsmith, and Dea. Martin Lewis. Additionally, three (3) acres of land were purchased for six dollars per acre to expand the church. Under the leadership of Sis. Mattison Bowling and Dea. Charlie Goldsmith, who served as the Building Committee, a wooden frame church was built and a portion of the land became a burial site.
It was from this very humble and Christian beginning that our ancestors began to formulate plans for the children, who needed an organization to train their young minds and prepare them for life. The Reedy River Baptist Association was birthed from these plans and was founded at Bethlehem. On September 12, 1885, about twenty years after the emancipation of the Negro Slaves, the following Baptist churches joined the Association: Reedy River, Flat Rock, Union, Mt. Pleasant, Cedar Grove, St. Matthew, Reedy Fork, Poplar Spring, Shady Oak, Thessalonial, and Bethlehem.
In 1900, Rev. Macrebeth's pastorate ended, but not before he earned the reputation of being a good leader and one who served as a father figure to his parishioners.
After the eight-month tenure of Rev. Collier Durrah, Bethlehem was without a formal pastor but not spiritual leadership for two years. During the next two decades, several pastors served Bethlehem: Rev. J.E. Daniel (1903-1909), Rev. Goldson (1911-1919), and Rev. Dawson (1920-1924). As the community grew, many families joined Bethlehem including, the Mortons, Jacksons, Goldsmiths, Bowlings, Griffins, Smiths, Harrisons, Baileys, Pinsons, Bolts, Garys, Riggins, and Latimores. In 1924, the church continued to move forward under the capable leadership of Rev. J.W. Mathis from Laurens, SC. During his tenure, Dea. James "Jim" Morton was elected as Chairman of the Board of Deacons. The Board of Deacons included: Dea. Eddie Bennette, Dea. Redford Durrah, Dea. Tom Goldsmith, Dea. Johnny Griffin, Dea. Bluford Jackson and Dea. D.D. Goldsmith who was served as Church Clerk.
During the nine (9) year tenure of Rev. H.W.D. Stewart, who was the pastor from 1927-1937, a new building was constructed as well as the fulfillment of several other goals. Disaster struck on January 13, 1938 when the church was destroyed by fire. Moreover, during the same year, the one-year tenure of Rev. M.T. Coker ended. Even though the church was without a pastor, the Board of Deacons and other members selected a building committee to oversee the fundraising efforts for a new church building. Members of the Building Committee included Bros. Berry Harrison and Richard Morton and Sis. Hannah Harrison. During construction, members assembled in the home of Bro. Joe Leake to hold weekly church services. Dea. Redford Durrah, Superintendent of the Sunday School, would come every Sunday to see if anyone had arrived for Sunday School. Some Sunday mornings, only prayer and the offering were carried out on the steps of the house.
During the summer of 1938, Rev. C.C. Stewart conducted revival services in the new, yet incomplete, church. Later, he accepted the church's call to serve as interim pastor of Bethlehem.
In October 1939, Rev. C.E. Butler was elected to pastor Bethlehem. During his twenty-three (23) year tenure, several advancements were made. Originally one choir, the Shape-Note Choir, provided all the music at Bethlehem, but in 1944, a Junior Choir was organized with Sis. Mable Redmond as the appointed advisor. A Willing Workers Club was organized under the leadership of Bros. Joe E. Redmond, John L. Redmond, A.W. Sullivan, James Bailey, Raymond Griffin, and Edward Griffin. This club was responsible for the installation of electricity and in the late 1950's, running water was added. Additionally, the old tin roof was replaced with modern roofing shingles as well as restrooms, a heating system, and a baptismal pool. The Missionary Ladies provided for the installation of formal electric lights.
In 1954, Morton Elementary School in Simpsonville was built and named for Dea.James "Jim" Morton. He was honored as an "outstanding Negro citizen of the community." Prior to the end of Rev. Butler's tenure in 1962, the following men were ordained as deacons: Dea. James Bailey, Dea. Edward Griffin, Dea. Joe E. Redmond, and Dea. A.W. Sullivan.
The church continued to thrive both spiritually and physically under the leadership of Rev. J.C. Collier, who was elected to serve as pastor in October 1962. Being guided by the belief that "If you get a man's heart right, you don't have to worry about his pocketbook, he will automatically give to God," his main interest was to win lost souls for Christ. Rev. Collier preached on 2nd and 4th Sundays. First Sundays were designated as Senior Missionary Sunday and area ministers were invited as guest preachers. Guest preachers and their churches included: Rev. Paul Thompson (Poplar Spring), Rev. Henry Dawkins (Poplar Spring), Rev. Earl Lewers (Reedy River), Rev. Grant Redmond (Bethlehem), Rev. Charles Sayles (Antioch), Rev. Donald Hill (Reedy Fork) and Rev. David Terry (Shady Oak). After Sunday School on third (3) Sundays, services were dismissed. Two ministers were licensed during Rev. Collier's leadership, Rev. Grant Redmond and Rev. Cleo Smith. The following deacons were also ordained: Dea. Walter Lee Bailey, Dea. John Dupree, Dea. Luther Lee, Dea. Raymond Griffin, Dea. Willie Joe Redmond, and Dea. Walter Sweetenburg.
Physical improvements were also made as a foyer and front porch were built as well as the addition of bricks to the exterior of the building. On December 20, 1967, one-fifth acre was purchased for $150 from Mettie Boling and Sarah Sullivan from the Working Benevolent Society of No. 57 in Fountain Inn, SC.
Prior to the election of Rev. James Porter in 1971, the church held morning services only twice a month. Sunday School, however, was held every Sunday. Rev. Porter led the church to conduct morning worship services every Sunday. He also inaugurated the Golden Strip Fifth Sunday Fellowship services.
Rev. Calvin C. Stewart served Bethlehem from 1973 until 1992. During his first church conference, Rev. Stewart asked the church to “stand back and see the hands of the Lord at work.” And the hands of the Lord truly worked. An adjoining education building was erected, a very faithful Trustee Board was established, and several auxiliaries were formed. The following deacons were ordained: Dea. James Bailey Jr., Dea. Carlton Griffin Sr., Dea. Toy Lee Kilgore Jr., Dea. Harold Sullivan, and Dea. Hayward Smith, Sr. The following ministers were licensed: Rev. David Hill, Rev. Errick Redmond, and Rev. Virgil Sullivan. Under Pastor Stewart’s leadership, the Education Department, new pews, carpet, pavement of the churchyard, a church van, and light fixtures were added.
Today, our church is continuing to move forward under the awesome leadership of Pastor Phillip M. Baldwin, M. Div. Since his election in 1993, Pastor Baldwin has inspired and overseen the growth of 20 ministries, 6 choirs, and added 26 additional ministries. The following deacons have been ordained under his leadership: Dea. Bernard Barksdale, Dea. Kevin Branch, Dea. Dunnel Brooks, Dea. James Brown, Dea. Kenneth Carter, Dea. Jarvis Cooper, Dea. Curtis Douglas, Dea. Chris Dinkins, Dea. Robert Durham, Dea. Charles Hall, Dea. Jonathan McCullough, Dea. Clyde Moore, and Dea. Richard Robinson, Dea. Robert Durham became the first Deacon Emeritus in Bethlehem history. Deacon Horace Butler II and Deacon Donald McCullough came to Bethlehem as ordained deacons of other churches and were blessed to continue their ministry here at Bethlehem.
The following ministers have been licensed to preach the unfailing word of God: Rev. LaRita Brooks, Rev. Dexter Cason, Rev. Versalle Jones, Rev. Vincent Perry, Rev. Jacqueline Spurgeon, and Rev. Marco Yeargin. Also, Rev. Lawrence London, Rev. William Smith, and Rev. Charles Walker were all ordained under his leadership. Other associate ministers that serve Bethlehem are Rev. Dr. Barbara G. Franklin, Rev. Benita Harris, Rev. Renee Latimore, and Rev. Elbert Parks. The first Minister of Music at Bethlehem was Bro. Tony Griffin.
In 1996, in an effort to meet the demands of a steady increase in membership, Bethlehem embarked on one of the most challenging projects in her history, the erection of a new sanctuary. Under the leadership of Dea. Hayward Smith and Pastor Baldwin, who served as Co-Leaders on the Building Committee, a new sanctuary, with a seating capacity of over 700, was dedicated in October 1996.
In 1997, Pastor Baldwin delivered his landmark sermon, "My Vision for Bethlehem," to a congregation who didn't realize that they were poised to do great things for the Kingdom of God. This was indeed a watershed event as Pastor Baldwin laid out the vision that God had spoken into his spirit. The vision was for Bethlehem to become a Wholistic Ministry, ministering to the Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Communal, and Emotional needs of families in this community and beyond. In order for the vision to become a reality, several resources needed to be in place, namely, a Christian Life Center, a Christian Academy, a Church Administrator, a full-time staff, and expanded community involvement. At the time that the vision was shared, Bethlehem did not have the land to carry out the expansion. In 1995, Bethlehem offered to purchase 5 acres of a 26-acre tract of land next to the sanctuary only to be turned down. In 1997, the very same year that God gave the vision to Bethlehem, the church voted to purchase ALL 26 acres of the land!
In 1999, a Summer Day Camp opened its doors to youth at Bethlehem and youth in the surrounding community. During this ten-week program, children are provided an opportunity to learn and have fun in a safe, Christian environment. To continue the quest to minister Intellectually, an After-School Tutorial opened in the Fall of 1999. This program not only provides care for parents who work, but it also equips elementary and middle school students with educational support through assistance with homework, computer skills training, preparation for standardized testing as well as fundamental learning in Math, Reading, and Writing. With the growth of these two programs, Bethlehem added a full time Church Secretary, Director of Student Development, and two Educational Consultants. In addition, six part time employees including an Administrative Assistant, a custodian, maintenance person, two part time Education Assistants and the Minister of Music position was also added as a part time position.
In October 2000, Bethlehem burned the mortgage on the 26 acres of land and instituted an 8:15 am worship service in addition to the 10:45 am worship service. The 8:15 am worship service continues to have an overwhelming response.
In the Fall of 2001, Pastor Baldwin asked for 200 members to pay the annual $600 Building Fund Assessment by February 24, 2002. This would give those members only 4 months instead of the normal 12 months to contribute the annual amount. One hundred and forty two members stepped out on faith as well as several other members who also contributed varying amounts to retire the mortgage on the existing sanctuary. In April of 2002, Bethlehem burned the mortgage on the sanctuary enabling her to become debt-free. In addition, a website, www.bethlehembaptistchurch.com, was established to allow members to stay abreast of upcoming events in the church and in the community.
In that same year, a new mission statement was created to incorporate the new vision and the acronym S.P.I.C.E. which represented the areas of the church vision. Sis. Yvette Pressley, Sis. Letty Edwards, Sis. Leona Forrest-Dinkins, Sis. Kem Mattison, Dea. Hayward Smith, and Pastor Baldwin were instrumental in developing the new mission statement.
In the Fall of 2002, the Building Committee was voted on by the church body to begin plans to build a Christian Life Center and Academy. Under the leadership of the Project Manager, Karen L. Harper, the following members served on the Building Committee: Bro. Ken Atkins, Bro. Sam Bailey, Pastor Baldwin, Dea. Kevin Branch, Bro. Derrick Brown, Dea. James Brown, Sis. Leona Forrest-Dinkins, Sis. Annie Edge, Sis. Denice Harris, Sis. Kem Mattison, Dea. Richard Robinson, Sis. Sherry Seawright, Dea. Hayward Smith, Bro. Xeric Suggs, Bro. John Williams, Bro. Matthew Wroten, and Bro. Jeremy Wynder. Several sub-committees were formed to execute the areas of the building. Those sub-committees were Sound and Audio, Publicity and Promotions, Signage, Office and Furniture, Athletics and Worship, Kitchen, Academy, Telephone and Data Networking, and Security. On August 10, 2003, a Ground Breaking Ceremony was held and the name of new building, BETHLEHEM CHRISTIAN LIFE CENTER AND ACADEMY, was unveiled. The church celebrated by marching from the existing sanctuary to the land that God had promised through his manservant, Pastor Baldwin.
In June 2004, Bethlehem appointed Karen Harper as the first Church Administrator in Bethlehem’s history.
On December 5th, 2004, Bethlehem members held inaugural services in the new 2000-seat facility complete with a gymnasium, Green Room, Lord’s Supper Room, Choir Room, state of the art kitchen and dining area, Finance Room, Conference Room, general office area, Administrative wing with offices for the Pastor, the Pastor’s Secretary, Church Administrator, Event and Planning Coordinator, Minister of Music, and Church Receptionist, restrooms, water fountains, as well as an entire wing dedicated to Christian Education. Pastor Baldwin delivered a sermon that took us from the Promise to Possession.
During the month of January, every 2nd service was held in the Life Center. This week, Bethlehem will celebrate the mighty hand of God during Dedication Week Services. The week will consist of Wednesday Night Worship Services, a Step Show Competition, a concert featuring Donnie McClurkin, H.A.M.P, and the Bethlehem Young Adult Choir, and a Dedication Banquet.
Bethlehem is grateful for her humble beginnings and the abundance of God’s grace and mercy over the years as He continues to make provision—From Promises-stepping out on faith; to Possession-seizing opportunities to glorify His Kingdom!