The origins of Bethlehem Baptist Church date back to a time when ministers traveled throughout the community seeking locations to conduct services. These locations were often referred to as “meeting houses.” The traveling ministers of the Baptist faith would stop at private homes for the night and ask their hosts if a service could be held. If the host agreed, neighbors were notified and crowds came to hear the preached Word.
On December 6, 1772, one such meeting house was established on the Couche’s plantation which was located approximately 3 miles west of Christianville, Virginia, now known as Chase City, Virginia. This meeting house was commonly known as “The Bethel Meeting House,” and it uniquely consisted of both whites and blacks. By August 1840, “The Bethel Meeting House” consisted of 195 members.
Wanting to convert the “The Bethel Meeting House” into a church, several of its white members took the lead and were granted letters to form a church. As a result, the Bethlehem Baptist Church was formed in 1861 with Rev. John Leach as pastor. Some of the first members of the church were: Alex Smith, John F. Smith, Robert A. Smith, James Smith, John D. Brame, Conrad Garner, Nancy Smith, Jane Smith, Harriet Smith, Eliza D. Brame, and Elizabeth C. Smith.
For many years, Bethlehem was the only Baptist church within a radius of five miles of Chase City. It stood as a beacon light inviting all to come, the emphasis being on “ALL”. This open invitation to diversity resulted in blacks and whites who worshipped together at a time when segregation of living and worship was the norm. To better serve the black members of the congregation, five good black men were chosen and ordained as deacons. The training they received gave them knowledge of church discipline and prepared them to contribute to the future growth of the church.
At the conclusion of the Civil War and with the passing of time, many of the white members of Bethlehem Baptist Church left the plantation, moved to the town of Chase City, and established First Baptist Church, Chase City. As a result, the black membership soon outnumbered the white membership, and the church was given to the black members with the understanding that if they ever decided to move, the land on which the church was located would revert back to the estate of the Couche plantation.
In 1874, under the leadership of its second pastor, the Rev. Cephas Davis, the church on the plantation relocated to Chase City and was rebuilt on South Main Street (The Hill). In addition to the relocation, Bethlehem experienced exponential growth. On one occasion at a revival conducted by Jordan Moseley, one hundred persons were received as members.
Following the leadership of Rev. Cephas Davis, Rev. John Allman served Bethlehem as its third pastor. In 1886, the Rev. Dr. R. C. Yancey was elected to serve as the fourth pastor. Dr. Yancey focused on the youth and encouraged them to prepare themselves for service to the Lord and their community. Many young people in the community accepted this advice and challenge, and, in spite of racial and economic challenges, many became ministers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, and teachers. In 1912, to better serve the black community, the church on “The Hill” was sold to the Centenary United Methodist Church. Land was purchased, and Bethlehem moved to its current location at the corner of 5th and Endly Streets. Shortly after the new church was established, Bethlehem experienced a fire which destroyed most of its early records.
One of the historical highlights of Dr. Yancey’s pastorship was Bethlehem’s involvement as a charter member of the newly established Bluestone-Harmony Association. As the church grew, the Sunday School was also organized and prospered, becoming a significant fixture in Southside Virginia. The Rev. H. L. Brooks appeared before the Bluestone Harmony Association at Bethlehem and requested that the Sunday School be given a special day to do its work. Thus, we are safe in saying that Bethlehem is the Mother of the Sunday School Convention, which is currently observed during the Bluestone-Harmony Association Convention. Dr. Yancey served as pastor from 1886-1940.
In 1941, as a result of Dr. Yancey’s retirement, Rev. Dr. F. P. Lewis was elected as the fifth pastor. Under his leadership, Bethlehem began meeting for regular worship services four Sundays each month, a second service on Sunday night was added, stained glass windows were installed, and a new organ was purchased. Dr. Lewis served as pastor from 1941-1951.
In 1952, Rev. R. R. Banner was elected as the sixth pastor of Bethlehem. Rev. Banner lived in Philadelphia but traveled to Chase City on the weekends where he stayed in the white house located across the street from the church. Under his leadership, Bethlehem’s heating system was upgraded. Rev. Banner served as pastor from 1952-1954.
In 1955, Rev. K. L. Moore was elected as the seventh pastor of Bethlehem; he served from 1955-1963.
In 1964, Rev. Dr. J. F. Ragland was elected as the eighth pastor of Bethlehem. Under Dr. Ragland’s leadership, the interior of the church was completely remodeled with the purchase of new pews, carpet, ceiling lights and a piano. Dr. Ragland served as pastor from 1964-1981.
In 1982, Rev. Dr. John E. Jones was elected as the ninth pastor of Bethlehem. Dr. Jones was the catalyst behind the exterior building project which bricked in the church, installed central air, and added additional restrooms in the basement. Dr. Jones served as pastor from 1982-1987.
For several years, Bethlehem was without a pastor, and in 1990, Rev. Robert Winfree was elected as the tenth pastor. Under his leadership, new carpet, a public announcement system, and a new roof were installed. Rev. Winfree served as pastor from 1990-2003.
In 2004, Rev. Dr. Ricky A. Lee was unanimously elected as the eleventh pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church. Under his pastorship, Bethlehem has once again experienced physical, financial and spiritual growth. Since his arrival when 22 people were present, Dr. Lee, along with our First Lady, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lee, has encouraged authentic praise and worship. Dr. Lee is also one of the most energetic preachers/teachers to pastor Bethlehem. His unique, methodical style of presenting the Gospel has resulted in 226 new members and 88 baptisms to date. Bethlehem once again is considered one of the fastest growing churches in Mecklenburg County.
Under his leadership, two ministers have been ordained to the Gospel ministry, four deacons have been ordained to the Deacon Board, and eleven Deaconess have been consecrated.
Dr. Lee has also automated church records, established a web site, upgraded the sound system, installed a new heating and air conditioning system, spearheaded continuous renovation projects, re-established fellowship with other churches near and far, re-instituted Wednesday night Bible Study, established a biannual church trip, and by example as well as instruction, taught biblical tithing principles.
Recognizing the significance of engaging the youth in our community, Dr. Lee initiated a Community Flag Football Team, which traveled throughout Virginia and North Carolina. The youth participate in the worship experience each 3rd Sunday, Youth Sunday. They are also encouraged to express their gifts and talents through programs such as Youth Explosions and a Day in the Arts. These events feature praise dancers, step teams, spoken word artists, gospel comedians and various types of Gospel music artists. In an effort to keep the outreach ongoing, a weekly Youth Night meeting is held and is open to all teens.
For the young and the young at heart, Bethlehem sponsors Breakfast with Santa every 1st Saturday in December, where the community comes together for breakfast, arts and crafts, and everyone (adults included) gets to take a picture with Santa. This event has grown each year; Christmas 2018 saw more than 100 children in attendance.
Additionally, in response to increasing cancer diagnoses in our community, Dr. Lee founded the Cancer Survivors Support Group (CSSG), which provides an opportunity for cancer survivors and care givers to minister to and encourage one another. The highlight of this ministry is the annual Pink Sunday Celebration and the Cancer Survivor Banquet, where Bethlehem celebrates hundreds of survivors and caregivers each year.
Dr. Lee organized Bethlehem’s Benevolence Ministry through the Missionary Circle. This ministry offers financial support to members and people in the community who are in need. In the last 15 years, we have provided more than $62,700 in support.
Dr. Lee also re-organized and renamed the former scholarship fund, which is now known as the Education Fund. Through this fund, Bethlehem purchases books for any member attending college or trade-school. In support of this effort, each 4th Sunday a special collection is taken up in the form of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. To date we have provided more than $41,000 in financial assistance to our college students.
In addition to working with individuals to develop their leadership strengths and skills, Dr. Lee facilitates Annual Leadership Workshops with the trustees, deaconate, and auxiliary chairpersons. He also initiated Town Hall meetings, which are informal opportunities for the church body to openly ask questions and discuss current and future church plans.
To demonstrate his pride and love for the Stars of Bethlehem, Pastor Lee designed our church logo, which includes elements such as hands of diversity, an open Bible, a cross, the year of Bethlehem’s founding (1861), and of course, a Star. When he welcomes new members, Pastor Lee provides each one with keepsakes: the church administrative manual, a Bible on which their names are engraved, and the coveted church pin featuring our church logo! When he pins each person, Pastor Lee explains the components of the logo, and reminds new members that they represent the star which leads their friends and families to Bethlehem.
Always seeking ways to unite the church, Dr. Lee often organizes special events for different groups, such as amusement park trips for the youth and teenagers, Christmas shopping trips, dinner with the First Family, the Senior Citizens Back to School Breakfast and the Baccalaureate Dinner. He also instituted a Christmas Gift Exchange Dinner. The highlight of this event is the presentation of the thoughtful and precious First Family gift to all who attend. These gifts have included watches, souvenir church coins, polo shirts, umbrellas, and leather bags, all with our church logo.
In an effort to support the local community, Pastor Lee initiated the Mecklenburg County First Responders and Town Employees Appreciation Luncheon. All First Responders and Town employees were treated to an all-you-can-eat lunch at a local restaurant. Also, Dr. Lee along with the Men of Bethlehem (The MOB) sponsored a Walk-A-Mile in Her Shoes fundraiser. Lead by our Pastor wearing 3-inch red pumps, The MOB donned red shoes and boldly walked a mile around town to raise money and awareness for domestic violence and sexual abuse. All proceeds were donated to a local battered women’s shelter.
Dr. Lee also spearheaded the formation of the Deacon Family Ministry, Fun Church, The RAL Praise Dancers, and the Transportation Ministry. Various committees were formed to promote the advancement and administration of the church. For example, the Bylaws committee formulated bylaws that the church adopted through a formal vote. The Cemetery committee took on a renovation project that included the survey of the grave yard, excavation, and landscaping. Other projects that have been completed are the renovation of the church pews and the replacement of light fixtures in the sanctuary. In all, the church has self-financed more than $184,000 in repairs and upgrades.
The highlight of Dr. Lee's tenure as pastor is our self-financed stained-glass window project. Some said it couldn't be done and others thought it wouldn't be done, but with the support of church leadership, members, and families, coupled with a sound plan and clear vision, this project was flawlessly planned and executed. All windows were prepaid before installation, and a $3,000 surplus was turned over to the building fund after all bills were paid.
In 2015, Pastor Lee was sworn in as the Chaplain of the Chase City Police Department, making Chase City the only Police Department in Southside Virginia with its own chaplain. When the department encountered a manpower shortage, Pastor Lee stepped up, and in 2017, he attended the City of Hampton’s Auxiliary Police Division Academy. For 10 months every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 6 –10 p.m. and every Saturday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., he completed courses in constitutional, state and local law, defensive tactics, patrol tactics, investigations and range qualifications. In March 2018, he was sworn in as an Auxiliary Police Officer and Chaplain. With this accomplishment, Pastor Lee is the only law enforcement qualified Police Officer and Chaplain in the state of Virginia. Because of his dedication, Pastor Lee was recently moved from auxiliary to part-time status with the Chase City Police Department. These roles have allowed him to directly influence plans and programs designed to support the needs of our community.
God has blessed us mightily, and we are excited about all that He has done through our fellowship! Moreover, we believe that this is still just the beginning. We wait with great anticipation and great expectation as God continues to move! For we believe the words of the Prophet Isaiah who declared that since the beginning of time "no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him." (Isaiah 64:4) Amen.