Historic marker dedicated at Bethesda Baptist last Sunday
By Fred Woods
In recognition of its 149 years of service to Opelika, members and friends of Bethesda Baptist Church gathered last weekend to dedicate a marker proclaiming the church a historical artifact and an important part of Opelika’s history. The marker, dedicated in an impressive ceremony at the church last Sunday, was made possible, in large part by special project funds donated by former city councilman Larry Gray from his discretionary funds while still a city council member. Gray, a life-long member of the Bethesda congregation and a member of the church’s trustee board, takes an active role in reminding all Opelikans of the contributions of its black community.
The Bethesda Baptist Church, located at the corner of Avenue A and South Fourth Street was organized as a Missionary Baptist Church in 1868, just five years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. It is the oldest black Baptist Church in Opelika.
Prior to the end of the War Between the States, black Americans, both slave and freedmen, for the most part, worshipped with their white masters or employers. They filled the galleries of the larger churches or sat in the back benches of the smaller ones.
Often white preachers held services for groups of slaves and free black people, sometimes in the sanctuaries of the white churches and sometimes in the open air in a grove of trees.
However many black people wanted their own separate churches where they could sing their own hymns, offer their own prayers and give expression to their feelings of joy or sorrow uninhibited by the overshadowing presence of their former white masters.
These were the circumstances that gave rise to the establishment, under the leadership of Rev. Father Glenn, of the Bethesda Baptist Church. The church did not have a permanent home in those early years but, finally, in 1879, a 200- feet by 200-feet lot was purchased at the corner of Fourth Street and Lee Street (now Avenue A) for $100. By this time, Rev. Fisher was pastor and a small frame church building was erected on the northeast portion of the lot. The present brick structure was erected under the leadership of Rev. I.T. Simpson in 1903.
Through the years Bethesda Baptist has grown to its present leadership role in the Opelika community due to strong leadership and vision of a number of pastors and lay leaders. In addition to the men already named, other strong leaders have been C.W. Kelly, Raymond F. Harvey, Larry H. Williams, P.a. Boykin, Raymond C. Longino, Herbert J. Slaughter, David L. Stallion, Sr. and, of course, the present pastor, Rev. Anthony Pogue.