A Short History — Prepared for Our 125th Anniversary
Although members of the church of the Brethren had settled in Rockingham County at least as early as 1780, congregations were not as well defined throughout much of the nineteenth century. Pastors traveled around and brethren met in homes, walking to church and love feast, with many times no other form of transportation available.
Linville Creek COB began around 1788, meeting in houses and barns. Linville Creek was assigned a very large territory extending from the Massanutten Mountain westward to the West Virginia line. John Kline donated land in 1825, and in 1828 they built their first meeting house of logs. At that site, they have built three more buildings, 1869, 1817 (destroyed by fire in 1954 and rebuilt in 1956), and 1962.
Greenmount, Linville Creek, and Flat Rock were the established churches during those days. A godly postmaster, John Mayland, had started a Sunday school in the Newtown School house, and people would gather there when they could not travel to Linville Creek. These settlers of “Newtown,” later to be called “Mayland” in honor of this postmaster, were anxious for their own meeting house to worship God near home. They petitioned Linville Creek, and Bethel was organized as a “preaching point,” of the Linville Creek COB, and given permission to build their own meeting house in 1896.
On June 12, 1896, it was approved that Bethel would be built on a small lot, donated by Benjamin Whitmer. This lot was previously owned by Elder John Kline, who had sold the parcel known as the Toppin lot to Mary Toppin in October 1859, who had sold it to Benjamin Whitmer. The cost of Bethel’s new building was $508.00. The eager, hardworking members completed the structure in record time and the first service was held on the last Sunday of August of that same year.
Bethel would continue as a mission of Linville Creek until January 1, 1913. At a council meeting at Linville Creek on December 28, 1912, it was decided to divide up the territory of the old Linville Creek congregation. A strip of land along the river north to Timberville, and the land on the east side would be organized into a new congregation. The Unity Congregation was born, made up of four preaching points which included Bethel, Fairview, New Dale and Union Chapel. New Dale closed in 1935 and Union Chapel closed in 1947, leaving Fairview and Bethel to work together until they were independently organized in 1976.
Remembering a Great Pastor’s Writing
From the 50th Anniversary, 1946 — Elder C. E. Nair
The church is a public house. It is friendly, open and free to attend, to come see and hear the great Proclamation of Christ.
Those who believe in Christ and live by his word compose his church body here on earth. When Christian believers build a special house and dedicate it to God and set it apart as a sacred meeting place for divine worship, that house is also called a church, because it is a symbol of all that the spiritual church stands for. This makes the church house a striking token of God’s presence in the community and a powerful witness to all who behold it in its holy setting by the wayside.
Our Church of the Brethren
Our church was founded in 1896 as a house of worship. The original Bethel church was a plain, weather boarded structure. It had separate entrances to the men’s and women’s side of the church, with a high bench partition separating them. The Sunday school rooms were open to the simple sanctuary. In 1919 the side rooms and galleries with main side entrances were built, and the two old front doors were removed and replaced by windows.
In 1931, when most of the church members were not employed because of the Great Depression, a large basement was built under the main auditorium, with volunteer labor. In 1937 the interior auditorium was remodeled. In 1941 new pews were donated by individuals, families and Sunday school classes. A new hardwood floor, instead of the pine one, and a gothic arch was built in the rear of the pulpit. By 1941, some 23 evangelists have held as many revivals in the church. Missionaries had come from as far away as Africa, China and India.
In 1946 it was stated by C. E. Nair that, “The deeper and more permanent things of the church life must be read between the lines. They are known only to those who lived in the times and witnessed them and felt them and felt their impression on the heart for good or for sometimes otherwise. There have been errors and tears, but there have been prayers and faith and hope and joy. There have been refreshing times for the Lord.“
Pastors traveled around in the early days, caring for the flock with very little compensation from the churches, besides their expenses. These pastors were supported by their other vocations. They preached at Linville Creek, Timberville, and the Unity Congregations.
An unpaid lifetime elder (1914-1964) by the name of J. S. Roller served as moderator of the Unity Congregation from 1914-1947. Other lifetime elders overseeing the church included: Charles Nair (1912-1955), John Huffman (1913-1949), Samuel Zigler (1913-1954), Samuel D. Lindsay (1935-1947), and Robert Hoover (1945-1946).
In the Spring of 1947, the pastoral committee was authorized to buy the lot across the road from the Bethel church to build a parsonage for the purpose of housing a fulltime pastor for the Unity Congregation. By July of 1949 Jesse Robertson and his family accepted the call to come to Bethel and Fairview. By now his annual salary was offered at $1,800, paid in monthly payments. He would be granted thirty days off annually to pursue other income. The congregation would begin a pension plan and allow for two weeks of vacation. Jesse Robertson was our first full-time pastor and also our first called pastor from outside the church. He was a graduate of Bridgewater College and Bethany Seminary. He completed his studies while at Bethel and served until 1952 when he left Bethel to pursue a calling to study medicine and become a medical doctor. His wife Wilma, is still living and resides at Bridgewater home.
In 1948, the Whitmer Farm became available to purchase for $9,000. Some lots were sold and the Zigler property was purchased. Justin Dove and Leo Wampler were appointed, and they agreed to handle all of the transactions. The congregation was able to buy a car for the new pastor.
By September 1952, George Tinsman was a full-time pastor. He would continue with Bethel and Fairview in this capacity until April 1953, when he was granted a leave of absence due to a back injury and operation. He was unable to continue his ministry and in April 1955, he was granted an extended leave.
In 1954 David and Eva Huffman were elected as life-time elders and ordained by Dr. Paul Bowman. In June 1955 Brother Joe Miller consented to be the on-call pastor during Pastor Tinsman’s time away. By June of 1956, pastor Tinsman began carrying the full load as pastor again, but resigned in May of 1957, due to his health.
In August of 1957 the Reverend Earl Rowland became the new pastor of the Unity Congregation. The Hillyard property was purchased for $7,000, adjacent to the parsonage.
By 1960, the Bethel building committee reported that the education building was completed. Many hours of free labor and machine use contributed, allowed the total cost of construction to come in at $7,225. Additional funds would be needed for the interior painting and lawn grading.
On July 7, 1963 the Bethel-Fairview Congregations had a day of preaching, singing and a fellowship meal.
Pastor Earl Rowland resigned that same year. Brother M. Myers served the congregation as part-time pastor from February-August of 1966 when Pastor Clarence Bowman began leading the Unity Congregations full time. Pastor Bowman would serve until the end of August, 1972 when he retired.
More improvements to the parsonage, a new well and other things were completed. The church budget for 1967 was $15,300. A new church organ was purchased in 1968 for $2,500.
In May of 1972 the church board voted to approve Brother Donald Wiest to be the newest pastor at Bethel, beginning on September 1, 1972 full time, where he served for nearly two years.
Pastor Jerry Ruff was hired to lead as pastor for the Unity Congregations starting in August 1974. During that time there were a good number of young people and truly several generations that would need the care of a strong leader and pastor at Bethel. We were fortunate to find a pastor with a lot of energy and heart for the work ahead. Jerry and Bernice would go on to raise their children Ginny and Matthew in the Mayland area, serving until 1993.
In 1976 Bethel was organized independently of the Unity Congregation, and for the first time became a congregation on its own. Jerry became the first full-time pastor for the Bethel congregation.
Pastors Sent Forth from Bethel
Lloyd and Nina Whetzel moved their family from Criders, Virginia in December of 1949 and joined Bethel Church soon afterwards, transferring their membership from Damascus Church. Their son, Larry, born in 1947, received Christ as a result of a revival meeting held at Bethel, and was baptized in September 1959. With a heart of love for the Lord, Larry surrendered to the ministry and was licensed at Bethel on July 25, 1965, under the guidance of Pastor Earl Rowland. Larry pastored for awhile and has continued to serve the Lord and stay very active in his church in Franklin, West Virginia.
Timothy Harvey, a life-long member became a licensed minister in 1991. His parents, Barbara and Hobert Harvey, are still active members at Bethel. Tim and his sister Sarah grew up at Bethel and were part of the church youth group. Tim traveled to National Youth conference with Pastor Jerry Ruff and others. Tim credits his decision to minister to: “The church being the church.” He was encouraged in the church by many elders and he fondly remembers Martha and Raymond Lanham and Reba Spitzer. Tim was ordained to the ministry in 1999. He received degrees from Virginia Tech (1992) and Eastern Mennonite Seminary (1999). Tim is married to Lynette and they have three grown children. In 2011-2012, Tim served as Moderator of the COB and presided over the 2012 Annual Conference in St. Louise, MO. He has also served the wider church of the Brethren in several other capacities, including a five-year term on the COB general board (2003-2008) and on the review evaluation committee (2015-2017). Tim has written extensively for “Messenger” and other publications.
The New & Current Bethel Church
Bethel continued to grow. In 1977 the project to build a new church began; it was completed and dedicated on March 18, 1978. The cost—$197,000. By 1984, the church continued to grow and decided to add an addition on the south side. Ironically, payment on the debt for the new church house itself was not completed at that time. Even so, by 1987 the addition was finished and the debt for the entire project was paid off!
God Has Blessed Us.
Members of this Building Committee: Hobart Harvey, Chairman (still very active at Bethel), Eugene Biller, Justin Dove, Beverly Holsinger, David Huffman, Iva Kenney, Robert Roadcap, Monroe Secrist, Robert Sharpes, Leroy Switzer (still very active and church treasurer), Carolyn Wampler (still very active at Bethel), & Kathryn Wampler.
After Pastor Jerry left in 1993, Pastor Jimmy Ross came for a short time as an interim pastor, followed by Fred M. Bowman who served from 1993-1994.
Bethel then called Pastor John Foster to serve as full-time pastor from 1994-2006. John graduated from Bridgewater College in 1965 with a degree in Religion and Philosophy. He also attended Bethany Seminary. He and Lula were married on June 30, 1967. Folks in the community still remember John and Lu taking their afternoon walks down Phillips Store Road, across 259, and all the way down the road to Timberville. John provided steady leadership for Bethel and also served on the District Board during his tenure. One fond memory of John’s was Bethel cooperating with many other churches in the area to build a Habitat House in Timberville. Good days!
After John left, Bethel asked Pastor Shelvie Mantz to serve as interim pastor from 2006-2008. She was followed by Pastor Jim Eberly, who also served as interim pastor from January-November of 2009.
Pastor Don Williams was called to serve Bethel in January of 2010. He served until personal issues kept him from being able to continue his ministry in July of 2012. He has reached out to several of our members to apologize and try to make amends for a painful time in our history. In the words of one of our faithful members, “Don has been forgiven.”
God once again sent Jim and Margo Eberly in January of 2013 to help the church to heal. They came out of retirement at 80 years of age, and served part-time for five years, providing stability and space for God to work grace in our midst.
Toward the end of Jim’s ministry, the church formed a transition team to study revitalization and provide vision for the future. Among many recommendations this team brought to Bethel was the strong belief that we needed to go out on faith and bring in a full-time pastor of energy and vision to lead Bethel into a new era. This transition team also led the way in making changes that have improved our ministry and made us more relevant to the needs of our community.
Larry Aikens, Jr. was called to Bethel in July of 2017 to help continue the work of Jesus. Larry entered the ministry in 1992, and has served as a youth minister, music director, and pastor in the Baptist, Methodist, and now Brethren traditions. He holds dual ordination in the Baptist Church (1992) and Church of the Brethren (2019). He received degrees from Covington Theological Seminary (B.A., 1994; Th.M., 2000; Th.D., 2001) and Eastern Mennonite University (M.Div., 2016), also completing Clinical Pastoral Education in 2015. Larry is married to Diane (2013) and has two grown children from a previous marriage, Nathaniel (1994) and Jessica (1998).
Larry was called in the nick of time to get to know and befriend some of our long-time members and friends with deep ties to the previous generation. Nineteen of these dear ones have been called to their eternal home in Heaven, since Larry began his work in our midst. They are greatly missed, and these relationships enriched Larry with the story of Bethel, and an awareness of the sacrifices made to shape this ministry. With one voice, these dear ones and their families have encouraged Larry and the present congregation to continue the work of Jesus at Bethel with similar fervency and faithfulness.
In response to their encouragement, the work has continued and blossomed. Many souls have been baptized at Bethel, and at the river. Membership and attendance is growing and we give the glory to God. Programs are expanding and our transition team has clarified a long-range vision that includes renovation and expansion of our current facilities. We want to stay relevant and vibrant in the coming days.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)