Since 1723, the congregation of Bethesda Presbyterian Church has grown from a few dozen farmers and plantation owners to a few hundred people during the Civil War, peaked at about 1,000 in World War II and ebbed to 40 today, according to local history lore.
For three centuries, it has provided a place of sanctuary amid the Revolutionary and Civil wars, the two world wars, 9/11 and the global coronavirus pandemic.
The church, named after a healing pool in Jerusalem, even gave the surrounding community its name.
On Saturday, the congregation and community members will celebrate the church’s 300th anniversary. The free, public event is expected to feature artifacts, a film screening and attendees such as County Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1) and Bruce Adams, co-founder of Bethesda Big Train Baseball. Bethesda Historical Society is a co-sponsor, and society secretary Hank Levine will speak on the church’s history in the community. The event runs from 1 to 3 p.m. at the sanctuary and fellowship hall, 7611 Clarendon Road, at Wilson Lane.
“The history of Bethesda Presbyterian Church and its Meeting House is the history of Bethesda; its rise, growth, weaknesses, and redemption,” Levine says.
In 1723, like-minded believers started meeting at homes led by a layperson. The original congregation of 20 to 50 people was constituted of farmers and plantation owners who harvested tobacco and wheat corn, according to Levine.
Over time, the group solidified, becoming more organized and formal. At some point, it acquired the three things Levine considers key to creating a congregation: a stable and significant membership, a dedicated building and regular access to professional clergy.
Although the number of individuals that constitute it has varied, one element has remained the same, and that is that the church has always been embedded in the community, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Chuck Booker.
Evidence from manuscripts and journals shows that the church had been a meeting point for gathering, forming friendships, and worshipping together. “It has been a place of longevity, of continuing spirit that tries to keep the community together,” said Ronald Grim, a church member who holds the title of Clerk of Session.
The church has existed in three different buildings. In 1820, the Presbytery of Baltimore directed that a church be organized for the Presbyterians in the eastern reaches of the Cabin John congregation. When the original building was destroyed by fire in 1849, a new one was constructed on its foundation using stones from the original church.
“From 1820 until 1926, the Bethesda Presbyterian Church occupied the Meeting House on Rockville Pike from a hilltop on which it observed,” said Levine.
Since 1926, Wilson Lane has been the home of Bethesda Presbyterian Church. The building was enlarged twice and took on its present form.
Today, the church welcomes the opportunities the current urbanization presents and relishes the evolution from a rural to a metropolitan area.
“As the church enters its fourth century, it has re-oriented to focus on urban concerns even as Bethesda itself becomes more urban,” Levine said.
There’s still a high appreciation for Sunday worshipping according to Booker, who stated that it’s part of the activities of the community involved to attend services on this day.
Among the main priorities of the church and the people around it is to sustain and strengthen the community involvement that has existed and flourished for hundreds of years, he said.