Prior to the establishment of the New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, Mrs. Florida Thompson, a member of a prominent white family in Germantown, Tennessee, made available a tract of land for a church so that slaves could worship and learn to read and write. This land was located on or near the present church site. Service was rendered in the old-fashioned way in a structure known as a “bush harbor.” When these slaves became liberated people, they continued to worship on this site. However, it became necessary that they relocate and purchase land to build a permanent structure.Under the God-fearing, stern leadership of Reverend Issac Cotten, along with James Scott, James Cornelius, Godfrey Goode, and others, land was purchased from Mrs. Eliza Cornelius for the purpose of building a church and school. The land was purchased for the sum of two hundred dollars ($200.00). This transaction was recorded in the Register’s Office of Shelby County, located in Memphis, Tennessee on December 15, 1869 and is contained in book seventy-three, page three hundred seventy-four. Thus is the beginning of the history of the New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.
Reverend Issac Cotten became the first pastor of the church, and served for many years. While in office he saw a need to further advance the cause of education. His ideas were presented to the members of the church. By their direction, trustees Phillip Cornelius, Ed Finch, and Alfa Hall were authorized to deed an acre of land to the 11th School district, Board of Directors of Shelby County for the purpose of building a school. The establishment of this school provided public education to the African-American community for the first time. This transaction was recorded in the Register’s Office on May 15, 1886, and is contained in book nine hundred twenty-one, page seventy-seven. Professor Napoleon Bradley was the first principal of the school which was named Germantown School.
Reverend Issac Cotten died while in office and was succeeded by Reverend Jack Bradley. As the church membership grew under the pastorate of Reverend Bradley, additional land was purchased.
Alfa Hall and other trustees purchased 14 3/4 acres of land adjacent to the church property from Mrs. F. C. Thompson for a sum of three hundred fifty dollars ($350.00). This transaction, which was recorded in the Register’s Office on May 24, 1897, is contained in book one hundred ninety-eight, page two hundred twenty-eight.
Another school was built on a portion of this property. Professor R. H. Nevils succeeded Professor Bradley as principal of the school. Professor Nevils taught in the Germantown school, but left to teach in the Memphis City School System. The property where the old school stood was reverted to the church and is now being used as the church cemetery. It was then that the record in the Shelby County Register’s Office was transferred from book seventy-three on page two hundred seventy-four to book two hundred fifty-one, page six hundred twenty-four on May 24, 1897. Mrs. Gazella Watkins Brown, a member of a prominent family of Black educators, became principal and served in the Shelby County Schools for more than fifty years. Prior to her death, Mrs. Brown was the oldest living member of the church.
Reverend Ben Nabors was elected pastor of the church succeeding Reverend Bradley, who died in office. Reverend Nabors was an exemplary leader who was forthright and honest. He was well-known for his ability as a minister and he often admonished Black men to stand tall, be God-fearing and truthful.
Another member of the church, Miss Mary A. Bradford, who served as church clerk for many years, succeeded Mrs. Gazella Brown as principal of the school. She served as principal from 1911 until the end of World War I.
It was then that the church authorized trustees Champ Davis, Jeff Lane, Perry Jones, William Roberts, Cub Macklin, and William Thomas to deed the Shelby County Board of Education three acres of land to improve the educational facilities and to receive some aid from the Rosenwald Fund. This transaction was recorded on November 16, 1917 in the Register’s Office and is contained in Book four hundred fifty-four on page three hundred eight-nine. It was during this period that the name of the school was changed to the Neshoba School. Under Reverend Nabors, the church continued to progress and the school improved steadily. Reverend Nabors died while in office.
Reverend D. C Patterson succeeded Reverend Ben Nabors as pastor. Reverend Patterson was a formally educated man. He proved to be an excellent leader and minister who appealed to the intellect of the young and old. The school facility needed more land for necessary improvements. The church, along with the surrounding community, sponsored programs to purchase three acres of land adjacent to the church property. During the pastorate of Reverend Nabors and the administration of Miss Bradford, an American merchant and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, established a fund in 1916 that contributed to the building of rural Black schools. The land was purchased from Minor and Ada Callis. This transaction, was recorded in the Register’s Office on July 21, 1930, and is contained in book thirteen hundred fifty-eight on page sixty-two.
Prior to the pastorate of Reverend Patterson, Miss Bradford retired from the Shelby County School System and began teaching in the Memphis City School System. Her absence brought forth a young man who was also a member of the church and served as a deacon, Professor Nicholas Giles Watkins, Sr. He became principal of the school and continued to work closely with the church during his administration. He allowed those students who were seeking Christ to attend revival services during school hours. Professor Watkins is fondly remembered by many and known widely for his accomplishments as an educator and civic leader.
During the ministry of Reverend Patterson, Professor Watkins was instrumental in the promotion of the school from elementary to junior high. He was also responsible for the first school bus transportation for the children of the Neshoba School and surrounding areas. Prior to that, some students had walked as far as fifteen miles to school. Mr. Johnnie Lane was the first bus driver to serve in the Neshoba School area. Later, more buses were added. Professor Watkins also headed one of the best Black athletic programs in Shelby County.
In 1937, the church burned and service was held in the Neshoba School Auditorium.
Reverend Patterson was a faithful shepherd until he was permanently incapacitated by illness. For the first time, New Bethel was without a pastor.
Reverend Jackson assumed the banner of leadership for New Bethel. During his pastorate worship service was transferred from the school to the Masonic Lodge Hall. The Masonic Lodge was owned by the church and was located near the site of the church’s original structure, the southeast corner of the property. Reverend Jackson was advanced in age and was as wise and as prudent as his years. He retired and was succeeded by Reverend A. Edmondson.
Under the leadership of Reverend Edmondson, the burned church was rebuilt. The first worship service in that building was held in 1939. After a few years of service, Reverend Edmondson was not reelected and was replaced by Reverend Grafton. However, because of responsibilities and commitments elsewhere, Reverend Grafton resigned and recommended that Reverend L. J. Peppers succeed him. Reverend Peppers (1945-1960) was elected as pastor.
During Reverend Peppers’ ministerial association with New Bethel, great strides were made resulting in changes in the worship service and financial procedures. The church realized a greater sense of community involvement and began to institute social service programs. Many debts owed by the church were cleared, but others were incurred as the church progressed steadily and swiftly. Modern lighting, a new heating system, and indoor plumbing facilities were installed. A cafeteria and baptistery were also built. Reverend Peppers was afforded the opportunity to move to a larger congregation. Again without a pastor, the church began the ardent task of securing the leadership of another minister.
A young product of the Germantown community came forward to take up the reins of leadership at New Bethel. Reverend L. T. Boyce (1960-1963) was elected as pastor. He was an eloquent orator, who rendered informative, often poetic, sermons. He was quite charismatic. Under his pastorate, membership increased and the church became financially stable. Reverend Boyce served as pastor for three years before leaving to assume the leadership of another church in Buffalo, New York.
The void left by Reverend Boyce was filled by Reverend S. L. Wicks (1963-1981). Under his leadership, the church continued to progress. The church was extended and bricked, a modern heating and cooling system was installed, a foyer was added to provide additional restroom facilities, the parking lot was resurfaced, and the church library opened. During the remodeling stage, the church received permission from George Barnes, Superintendent of Shelby County Schools, to hold services in the Neshoba School Auditorium.
Professor Watkins retired as school principal and was succeeded by Professor J. Simmons. Professor Simmons worked closely with the Parent-Teacher Association. Many members of the church held executive positions on the P.T.A. Board. Deacon Alonzo Barber was the first president of the Neshoba P. T. A. Professor Simmons was succeeded by Professor Henry Grinner. Professor Grinner was a capable administrator who felt that the students should be exposed to the arts. He served as principal during the early stages of integration. He was succeeded by Mr. B. J. Calvard, who served as principal until the closing of Neshoba School.
When it was learned that the school would close, Reverend Wicks conceived the idea of purchasing the school building and using it as a religious education building. He appointed a committee to contact the Shelby County Board of Education and put on record the church’s interest in purchasing the school building. The committee included Marvell Webb, Alonzo Barber, William Tate, Charles K. Bennett, Edward Davis, and DeRell McLean. The committee met with the superintendent of Shelby County Schools. He informed the Committee that the deed to the school property contained a no reversion clause and the policy of the Board was to put the property up for bid. It was at this time that the committee recommended that the church obtain legal representation. Attorney A. L. Pressgrove was selected to represent the church. The opinion of the committee and Attorney Pressgrove was that the property should be returned to the New Bethel Church. It was, after all, the church’s forefathers who had seen a need for public education for their people. It was through their sacrifices that land was provided for the purpose of building a school. The committee, guided by the Holy Spirit, directed by the stern leadership of the pastor, and sustained by the prayers of church members and friends, reached the hearts of the members of the Shelby County Board of Education. The Board agreed to deed the property back to the trustees of the New Bethel Baptist Church, Alonzo Barber, DeRell McLean, and Marvell Webb and their successors in office. Through the efforts and sacrifices of members and friends, the church was able to purchase the school building, which was used by the community for religious and recreational activities. These transactions have been recorded in the Register’s Office of Shelby County, Tennessee, in Memphis. Reverend Wicks served as pastor for eighteen years, until 1981. During his pastorate, Reverend Wicks served as first Vice-President of the Zion District Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress and later served as President. Reverend Wicks was asked to resign in 1981.
In March of 1982, a stabilizing force came to rest at New Bethel in the person of Reverend Frank Itson (1982-1994). His sermons were revealing, frank, and dramatic. As evidenced by the shaking of his shoulders and legs and the tossing of his handkerchief, his presentation of the gospel was truly unique. Reverend Itson was known as the “cheerful giant” because of his friendly manner. Because of his wise and kind demeanor, many sought him for counsel. He proved to be a very capable leader, who had great aspirations for his church. Reverend Itson stated that he asked God for three things when he came to New Bethel–stained glass windows, a church van, and a clear mortgage. He initiated aggressive programs to accomplish his goals. One of these programs, Miracle Operation Complete, was organized to generate funds to clear the indebtedness of the church. Under his pastorate, the sanctuary was refurbished by adding stained glass windows, light fixtures and ceiling fans. A van was purchased to provide transportation for the church. A central heating and cooling system was provided for the cafeteria and windows and doors were installed in Education Building A.
Reverend Itson served as Vice-Chairman of the Zion District Association from 1986-1990. He was Second Vice-Moderator of the Zion District Association from 1990-1994.
During the latter years of his pastorate, Reverend Itson was plagued by illness but continued to preach the word. On July 3, 1994, he delivered his last sermon. At the close of the sermon he administrated communion for the last time. On July 6, 1994, God called His servant home.
Reverend Donald R. Ester, Sr. succeeded Reverend Itson, becoming the twelfth pastor of the historic New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Reverend Ester, a native Memphian, is a graduate of Geeter High School and received a B.A. degree from the Tennessee School of Religion. Prior to coming to New Bethel, he served as the associate pastor at Morning Grove. Reverend Ester was elected pastor Saturday, March 2, 1995, and preached his first sermon as pastor on Sunday, March 3, 1995.
Reverend Ester is a realistic, visionary leader with superb administrative skills, coupled with dynamic people skills. His personality and background blended with many traditions and values held by the church. Under his direction, some of these traditions and values have been restored, enhanced and reactivated. One tradition was outdoors baptism. At his urging and planning, the annual outdoors baptismal services were restored and held annually around the historic outdoors pond.
Under Reverend Ester’s directions, New Bethel’s leadership role in the community has been restored and redefined with expanded and new ministries designed to meet the needs of the total person, the family and the needs of the community. Added ministries includes a children’s church and nursery, children’s Bible Study, a computer lab designed to train youth and adults for competitive jobs and opportunities, male and female basketball teams, and a coed volleyball team. The recreation grounds and athletic fields have been refurbished and host the Annual Church/Community Picnic, established by Reverend Ester.
Using proven methods established by the forefathers of school, home and church working together, Reverend Ester organized the New Bethel Summer Camp for children ages 5-13. At the camp, children are nourished with a variety of hot meals, tutored in a number of secular subjects and nurtured with spiritual teaching from the Bible. The success of this camp is evidenced by increased enrollment and the number of return campers. Another ministry established under Reverend Ester’s administration is New Bethel Pride, a Christian girls ministry for ages 13-18.
The teaching ministry, which includes a graded Sunday school, weekly Bible study, Mission education, Nurture for Baptist churches, Boys II Men and singles ministry, has continued with annual Leadership classes and Christian Education Institutes to train leaders. The Youth Ministry uses mentoring programs, lectures, retreats and other activities to involve youths of all ages in Christian training and social development. Youth involvement is not restricted to the church family but extends to the community. Regularly scheduled activities are also conducted on-site. Under Reverend Ester’s spiritual guidance, the membership has increased significantly.
The Outreach Ministries include Sunday School Without Walls and the Seniors’ Ministry. Sunday School Without Walls meets weekly at the High Point Nursing Home to provide instructions on the previous week’s Sunday School Lesson and Communion Services. The Seniors’ Ministry, in conjunction with the Neshoba Alumni Association, erected a monument in front of the old school and presented it to the church during the 1994 Diamond Jubilee Plus 2 School Reunion. The church continues to serve the community by providing housing for ballet, arts and crafts, karate and other activities. Future plans include a Family Night Ministry which will focus on Christian teaching, tutoring sessions, ACT workshops, remedial reading classes and quilting classes.
During Reverend. Ester’s tenure as pastor, policies and procedures have been instituted that have provided for a revised financial reporting system. The use of technology has been employed to computerize the financial system, and to create a church web site.
Reverend Ester revealed to the officers of the church the vision given him from God to build a new sanctuary. He stated that he was directed to a site on the Southeast section of the property, and when he saw it, he said, “This is it!” This site would relocate the church closer to the main street, making it more visible to the community. For the first time since 1939, New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church would undertake building a new church. The church would seat 900 persons with offices and rooms to meet the needs of the membership. The Ground Breaking Ceremony, which would begin the first phase of the new sanctuary that would actualize the vision given Reverend Ester by God, was celebrated on October 25, 1998.
The church hired Bill Fuller as architect, and Rose Construction as the contractor. Once they were hired the next step was to obtain a permit to build. This procedure should have been easy, but it proved to be the most difficult component of the building process. A project that began on October 25, 1998, and should have been completed nine months later was completed on August 13, 2000, twenty-two months later. The delay was due to the forces of evil that came against the church. The first force was the zoning law of Germantown. Although the church had been on this property one hundred twenty-nine years, the church was told that zoning laws prohibited erecting a church on the selected site. Under the divine power of the Holy Spirit, that opposition was overturned. Next, the residents of the community adjacent to the property opposed the building of the church because of the noise and traffic. Through prayer and fellowship, we were able to overturn that opposition. The next opposition was the color of the church building. The church originally was designed to be framed with off-white bricks, but in order to comply with the rules of the Planning and Review Board of Germantown, the color of the church was changed to beige. The next task was to secure financing for the building project. Through prayer, the pastor, trustees and board of deacons were directed to Mrs. M. Lucille Perry, First Vice President of Business Development/Church Financing at the National Bank of Commerce, to obtain financing to build.
During all of these challenges, the pastor, trustees, deacons and the entire congregation was in constant prayer and pushed forward, meeting each obstacle with faith. Six hundreds and fifty-eight days later, on Sunday, August 13, 2000, the new sanctuary was open and the dedication services began.
On January 1, 2001 at about 4:30 p.m. a large cloud of dark smoke was noticed in the air near the church. This smoke was the burning of the church educational center, the old Neshoba School. As the news spread many former students, members of the church and members of the community gathered to watch. The school that had served as the educational institution for about seventy-seven years and had been the Christian education home for the church and the building that housed the Children’s Church was now burning to the ground, leaving only ashes. A passing motorist reported the fire to Police officer Bill Kennedy. According to Fire Chief, Dennis Wolf, this was the biggest fire he had seen in his 23 years as a firefighter.
The impact was devastating to everyone involved. A prayer vigil was held the following Thursday night instead of Prayer meeting and Bible class. Men, women, boys, girls and children made expressions of their feelings about the symbol the Neshoba building represented in their lives. Needless to say, our future looked bleak, but we trusted in God and He blessed this church to rebuild the center. After overcoming several legal challenges posed by the Germantown Planning and Review Board the church was given authorization to rebuild. The church hired Capstone Construction, Inc. and Architect Ron Scobey of Professional Design Resource to rebuild the facility. The construction equipment was moved on the grounds and construction began December 4, 2001. Although the construction was not completed, the membership was able to take an early tour of the building on April 7, 2002. The church received the keys to the building May 15, 2002 and voted to name the new building New Bethel-Neshoba Family Life Center. Saturday, April 6, 2002 in the quarterly business meeting. The Restoration Banquet, a semi-formal event, to celebrate the opening of the facility was held Saturday, August 3, 2002 at 7:00 p.m. Theme for the event was From Ashes We Rise, Rev. John L. Armstrong, former student of Neshoba, was the speaker. The building was dedicated Sunday, August 11, 2002 at 3:00 p.m. with the Reverend. James Smith, former student of Neshoba was the speaker.
This brief historical statement represents one hundred-twenty-nine years of Christian tradition begun by slaves and upheld by their progeny, with the help of God and the vision of His people. This ministry has endured the test of time. We have weathered storms of opposition, crossed seas of criticism and climbed mountains of doubt from past to present. Truly it has been an uphill journey all the way. From humble beginnings, we have grown in strength and spirit and “come this far by faith.” Our efforts are dedicated to those named and unnamed patriarchs who labored in the past that we might be able to share the future.
History data was previously researched by F. Odessa Tate, the late Mable McNary Tuggle, Charles K. Bennett, and Cheryl McNary––(by Katherine Bennett 2/24/03)