Early Church History
In the heart of Jacksonville, Bethel Baptist Institutional Church is recognized as one of the historic monuments among churches in the State ofFlorida. In July 1838, Reverend James McDonald assisted by Reverend Ryan Frier, organized the first Baptist church inJacksonvilleunder the titleBethelBaptistChurch. There were six charter members: Reverend James McDonald, the first pastor, and his wife; Mr. Elias C. Jaudan, who became the first deacon, and his wife; and two slaves known as Bacchus and Peggy. The first racially mixed meetings were held in the Government Block House, which stood near theCountyCourthouse. In 1840, the church purchased a lot on the northeast corner of Duval and Newnan Streets and built their first house of worship. The Legislative Council of theTerritoryofFloridaincorporated theBethelChurchonFebruary 10, 1841. William B. Kass, Charles Merrick, Soloman Warren, Elias Jaudan, H. H. Phillips, and A. Ossian Hart, the first trustees, were a part of the incorporation. The church later moved to the LaVilla Area between Duval andAdams Street.
Deacon Jaudan purchased a lot onChurch Street, between Hogan and Julia Streets, and gave it to the church. A new church was built and the congregation entered the new building in the spring of 1861. Soon after the congregation started worship services in the new building, the Federal Army took possession of theBethelChurchand used it as a military hospital for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. The church was left in deplorable condition when vacated by the army troops. At the close of the Civil War, an effort was made to separate the Colored and White members but an agreement could not be reached over possession of the property. The opposing fractions went to court and the decision was in favor of the Colored members since they were the majority. They retained the name of theBethelBaptistChurchand were the rightful owners of theChurch Streetproperty. A short while after the court’s decision, the Colored members sold the property onChurch Streetto their White brethren and purchased a lot on the northwest corner ofUnionand Pine Streets (nowMain). In 1868, they erected a one-room frame building where theBethelBaptistChurchcongregation worshipped for twenty-seven years and grew from a few souls to several hundred. Also from the separation, the White members established theTabernacleBaptistChurch, located onChurch Street, which was later namedFirstBaptistChurch(Downtown).
The congregation grew rapidly, over the years, so much so that more space was needed for worship and for training. The building could not be repaired or enlarged because of the extended fire code of the city ofJacksonville. Reverend J. Milton Waldron,Bethel’s fifth pastor, led the congregation in replacing the one-room frame building with a larger more attractive brick house of worship. In 1895,Bethelconstructed the firstInstitutionalChurchbuilding ever erected in the South by a Colored congregation. It was built of red pressed brick, trimmed with Georgia Marble. The building contained a main auditorium with a seating capacity of 1150 and nine classrooms at a cost of $26,000. It was erected by Colored mechanics under the direction of Colored contractors. This beautiful edifice was in use only a short time before the devastating fire ofJacksonvilledestroyed it onMay 3, 1901. After the fire, the membership bought theRiver Squarebound by Hogan (nowMcKissick Street), Eagle (nowFirst Street), Julia and Caroline (nowBethel Baptist Street) and began preparations for rebuilding. During this period, the Church established temporary quarters for church services and the Bible Institute in a building that they labeled the “Shack”. Regular services continued in the “Shack” until the completion of the Historic Sanctuary in 1904. The new edifice was not only a church of worship, but it also served as a training center to help Christians prepare for service to mankind.