1830 - 2023
Bethlehem African Methodist Episcopal Church
Burlington, New Jersey
The Early Years
Sometime in the year 1830 (a lack of detailed records prevent us from being more precise), James Still convinced a small group of his black neighbors to discontinue their membership in local churches in which racial discrimination had relegated them to a position of second class Christians. They agreed to leave those congregations rather than suffer further abuse and indignity and to form their own church wherein they could enjoy all of the privileges of free worship. By September 5, 1830, the church had a formal organization as a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, although meetings were held during the first year in the homes of various members.
On the 4th of July, Independence Day, of the year, 1831, Caleb Gaskill and his wife, Elizabeth, of the city of Burlington sold a narrow parcel of land to the first Board of Trustees of the established branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Burlington. The five trustees who accepted the deed for the purchase price of $80.00 were: James Still, Asher Conn, George Woodlin, Emanuel Congo, and Gilbert Conn, all residents of Burlington. The tract of land they purchased was only 25 feet in width, from front to back, and extended from Pearl Street to the low water mark of the Delaware River.
The deed of trust placed upon the named trustees and their successors certain obligations spelled out in the document itself. The first of which was “that they shall erect and build or cause to be erected and built thereon a house or place of worship for the use of the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” The second obligation was to permit ministers and preachers of the church to “preach and espouse God's holy word therein.” For a time thereafter, this parcel of ground was described in deeds to adjoining properties as the “colored people's meeting house lot.” When a small brick building was finally erected on the land in 1836, it was referred to as the “colored people's meeting house,” the “Emanuel Church” or the “African Church.”
The infant church was generously aided by two non-members without whose assistance the congregation may have never become firmly established. They were Benjamin Jackson, a Black Roman Catholic born in Africa: who was seventy years old in 1831, when he contributed the $80.00 necessary to purchase the lot. He had previously rented this small piece of ground for a garden plot and magnanimously agreed to surrender his lease so that the Gaskills could sell the property to the church. His son, Benjamin Jackson, Jr., later became the pastor of the church.
Until a meeting house could be constructed on the property purchased from the Gaskills, John Gummere, a teacher and member of the Society of Friends, permitted the fledgling congregation to hold worship services in a small frame building he owned on East Union Street near Stacy Street close to the location of McCusher's Soap Manufacturing on East Union Street. They continued to meet there for four years (1832 through 1836), under the pastoral care of Rev. Noah Cannon, Rev. John Cornish, and Rev. William Moore. During this five year period, sufficient money was raised in the black community to erect a small brick structure on the Pearl Street lot.
Inasmuch as very little provision was made by the City Council for the education of the black populous, leaders of the church thought it wise to begin to educate their own people and to collect books for this purpose. A public meeting was held at the church on February 5, 1845 to discuss this subject. A record of this meeting appeared in the Burlington Gazette as follows:
“At a Public Meeting of the Colored Citizens of Burlington, New Jersey, held in the basement of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, February 5, 1845, Alexander Brown was appointed Chairman for the evening and Joshua Woodlin, Secretary. The Chairman stated the object of the meeting to be for the purpose of forming a library company. The Secretary presented a form of a constitution which was read and adopted.
On a motion, Joshua Woodlin and Thomas Worton were appointed a committee to receive and collect donations, either in books or money. And all those who feel an interest in the object of the association, are earnestly desired to leave contributions with either of the above named persons.” The church appears to have been the center for nourishing the social and political consciousness of the black citizens of Burlington in the days prior to emancipation. In the Burlington Gazette of November 12, 1847, the following article appeared:
“At a public meeting of the colored citizens of the City of Burlington, New Jersey, held in the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Pearl Street on Saturday evening, October 30, 1847, the following Preamble and resolutions were adopted.
Whereas, we have learned the painful intelligence of the arrest and confinement in Mount Holy Jail of three of our fellow creatures, claimed as fugitive slaves from the State of Maryland, and are to have their trial on Wednesday morning, and ,
Whereas, the Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created free
and equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Therefore, we freely assert that we are not indebted to either principles of that instrument, or to the Bible, for slavery, but to the spirit of the church, and the unjust action of the government under which we live.
Therefore, resolved, that we beseech all the friends of freedom to assist us in employing imminent counsel in order that they may have a fair and impartial trial, as liberty has been smitten in her highest citadel, philanthropy mourns and humanity weeps, when justice is mocked and benevolence and mercy are under arrest.
…......Resolved., that there is no difference in principle between the African slave trade and American slavery. And that every American citizen who retains a human being in involuntary bondage as his property is according to scripture a man stealer.
Resolved, that is the duty of ministers of the gospel to give the sin of slavery a prominent place in the catalog of crimes which they are laboring to destroy.
…......Resolved, that a copy of the minutes of this meeting be sent to the pastors of the different churches in this city, requesting them to lay the claims of suffering humanity before their respective congregations, as we believe it to be a part of their holy calling....”
An account of the trial of the three fugitives appeared in a later edition of the newspaper. Reference therein was made to the peaceful assembly of the congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Bethlehem Church who attended the trial at the Mount Holly Court House as a show of support for their fellow men. Unfortunately, the fugitives were convicted and returned in chains to their masters in Maryland.
This small brick church built in 1836, soon proved to be inadequate to meet the needs of a larger congregation. Therefore in 1855, a two story frame structure with a brick exterior was constructed in its place. The Rev. G. W. Johnson was pastor of the church at this time. Though substantially remodeled, this edifice forms the oldest part of the church as it stands today.
On August 3, 1865, nearly 4 months after Lee's surrender ending the Civil War, members of the church met to elect new trustees and to vote on the formation of a religious corporation. The five trustees elected were William Thomas, Asher Conn, George Graham, Robert Taylor and Joseph Washington. The congregation voted to incorporate under the name of the African Methodist Episcopal Bethlehem Church. The next day, August 4, 1865, the new trustees filed a Certificate of Incorporation with the Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas of the County of Burlington, officially establishing the the church as a corporate society. The certificate mentions that the congregation was regularly meeting “Their brick church on the North side of Pearl Street between York and Dillwyn Streets.” It was also interesting to note that that of the five trustees, only Robert Taylor and Asher Conn could sign their names; the other three made their marks.
Only 4 days after incorporating, the church expanded its real estate by purchasing a parcel of ground on the North of the church from John H. Romeo. This lot which connect the church property was irregularity shaped, but had a frontage along Pearl Street of 27 feet 5 inches and extended 83 in depth toward the Delaware River on the side of the lot which adjoined the church. The purchase price of the property, which had a two frame dwelling houses situated on it, was $555.00.
On November 25, 1870, the church sold approximately half of the original lot of the land it had purchased 29 years earlier from Caleb and Elizabeth Gaskill. The trustees who signed the deed were Asher Conn, George Graham, Charles Goings, Jesse Loveman and Joseph Washington. The records give no indication as to the reasons for the decision of the trustees to sell this land.
Sometime in the 1950's the church was remodeled under the pastorate of the late Reverend Belove Hall.
In 1964-65 the “Templars” were organized under the leadership of John Bass. He had the supported service of Howard Todd and William “Billy” Hutton to sponsor activities outside the Church in order to begin a Building Fund for Bethlehem. Initially, every Sunday, each member would donate $2.00 to John Bass to help sponsor the Templars” functions.
During 1968-69 it was discovered that the church did not satisfy the Building Code Regulations of the City of Burlington. Rev. Harold Clark, Pastor at that time, decided that the building should be sold and the congregation should purchase a property suitable for a Church elsewhere in Burlington. A new site was considered on Jacksonville Road that could be purchased for $22,00.00. It was determined that the building and property could be sold for $55,000.00, however , the Church would have the responsibility of moving the graves before the property could be sold.
The Director of Flippen Funeral Home made a survey on the movement of of the 30 graves and indicated the cost would be approximately $1,600.00 and this could be done only after an easement was obtained from the court. An attorney advised the congregation against the move because of the possible libel situations which could develop if relatives of those buried could not be contacted for approval of moving the graves.
When Rev. Jesse L. Irvin assumed the pastorate in 1972, after the death of Rev. Harold D. Clark, It was decided to remain at the acquired riverfront location and remodel. The church was then required to present a building plan to the city of Burlington to be included in the New Riverfront Urban Renewal Plan. Burlington City Council was then required to resubmit plans to the Federal Government to include the Church in the revised Riverfront plan.
In 1971, Brother Howard Hutton initiated a Building Fund Board that hung in the hall listing the contributions to the Building Fund. In order to raise money for the Building Fund, many bus trips were conducted, many chicken and fish dinners sponsored, and many hours of work contributed by church auxiliaries. The seed of expansion and growth had been planted and was beginning to bear fruit.
Despite a general mood (considered to be most prominent among certain City (officials) of objection and opposition to the inclusion of Bethlehem A.M.E. Church in the newly proposed Riverfront Plan, final approval of the Plan included our beloved Church. Burlington City Council - having already approved additional property for parking, yet being reluctant to approve any space for additional structures – notified the the church of their need to produce architectural sketches to the City Council for final approval of our projected building plans.
E. Harvey Myers and Associate , Princeton, New Jersey, were then retained to make Surveys and studies to prove the need for an addition to the old structure. It was under the guidance and work of this company – who represented the church at numerous meetings of the Burlington City Council and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – that our present building became a reality. E. Harvey Myers and Associates are to be congratulated for their aid and assistance as they went far above and beyond their normal responsibilities in behalf of Bethlehem A.M.E. Church.
Despite adversity, the dedication service for the Bethlehem A.M.E. Church was observed, under the pastorate of Reverend Jesse L. Irvin, On September 16, 1978, with the Right Reverend Richard Allen Hildebrand, Presiding Bishop of The First Episcopal District, officiating.
Preparation to celebrate Bethlehem's 150th Anniversary began in 1979 when the Rev. P.L. Hailey, Jr. joined our church family as its pastor. He was the shepherd of the flock for five years incorporating essential pillars who would see the projects to the end. The mortgage seeds were planted and nurturing was needed. Rev. Ladell Mayers, Sr. , arrived in 1984 to become the new shepherd and continue nurturing the seeds. He planted additional seeds and incorporated additional members with a person who stepped forth to be the commander of the ship. Brother Cecil E. Ellis, Sr., became chairman of the Mortgage Fund Committee in January 1985. Fund raising activities were developed along with numerous personal commitments of members of our church , surrounding communities and personal friends to reach the ultimate goal of $55,000.00 and the “burning of the Mortgage”
During the next two years the ship was tossed and turned but remained afloat with the continued spiritual guidance of our pastor, Rev. Mayers and ministerial associates who supported the mortgage committee with prayers, words of encouragement and physical help. Thanks to God and the support of our church family and friends, we were able to pay the mortgage off January 2, 1987.