It’s not just any church nor any anniversary. Mount Bethel Baptist Institutional Church has the distinction of being the oldest church for African Americans in Daytona Beach and the oldest Baptist church in general.
All are welcome to gather at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, June 27, as the church, which is listed as a “historic landmark” in the National Register of Historic Places, celebrates 136 years.
Church member Gwen Brown, who is chairwoman of the upcoming anniversary, quoted some history from its website, stating, “In 1885, a group of Christians, under the leadership of Rev. Joseph Brook Hankerson, recognized the need for Black people to have a place to worship in this small community, and on June 22, 1885, Mount Bethel was constructed on the corner of Fremont Avenue and Church Street (now Marion Street) in Silver Hill (the south section of the Black community).
“Rev. Hankerson was the first pastor of this great historical church and was the shepherd of the flock for 18 years, from 1885 to 1903,” she stated.
Ms. Brown added one member of Mount Bethel Baptist Institutional Church was Yvonne Scarlett Golden, the first Black mayor of Daytona Beach. Mount Bethel is currently under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Eugene Hudson.
Rev. Dr. Hudson has served as pastor for five years and as as interim pastor three years previously.
“It’s a historical site because of the church’s age. We have had a lot of prominent people that have been members there, like the first Black (Daytona Beach) mayor, the first Black (Daytona Beach) commissioner, and the great theologian Howard Thurman (when he was a little boy) attended there,” he said.
“With the building being so large we didn’t have to close the church down because of the pandemic,” he said. “We still had services because we were still able to socially distance those that attended. We never closed down.”
However, some programs that have been on hold are resuming, such as the Men of Bethel as of May 18, a group of men that gather to discuss spiritual concepts as well as what they can do to help the community. A breakfast ministry happens between 8 and 9 a.m. every Saturday. The breakfast, which has been available throughout the pandemic, is for anyone in need.
Looking back at the church’s long history, as the Black population increased in Daytona Beach and the north side of town began to flourish, a need for another church became evident. Rev. Hankerson was asked to organize the new church that had already begun to be formed by members who lived in Midway (the north section of the Black community). He and those members of Mt. Bethel who transferred their membership named the church New Mount Zion Baptist Church, making Mount Bethel Baptist Institutional Church the mother church to New Mount Zion, which is at the corner of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard and Walnut Street.
After a few years of growth, the need for a larger church prompted members to once again construct another building. Rev. A.L. James, the second pastor of Mt. Bethel, is credited with erecting the first permanent structure on the corner of South and Church streets (now Marion Street) in Waycross (the east section of the Black community); thus, the location of the second site for Mt. Bethel Baptist Institutional Church.
After outgrowing the second site, Rev. E.J. Jackson, the fifth pastor of Mt. Bethel chose the current site in New Town (the west section of the Black community). This sanctuary, on the corner of South Street and Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Boulevard, was erected in 1921 and Rev. Hankerson returned as the sixth pastor of Mt. Bethel.
Jennifer Hancock, a proud church member, said “I am a native of Daytona Beach. Although I left Mt. Bethel Baptist in June 1981, I returned to my original church January 2021. My maternal grandfather, Booker T. Harris Sr., was the chairman of the Deacon Board at Mount Bethel for more than 27 years until the day he expired June 8, 1981. I just think it’s an honor and also a blessing for that church to be the oldest Black church in Daytona Beach, the World’s Most Famous Beach.”
Mount Bethel has functioned under the leadership of 18 pastors.
The oldest church in Daytona Beach is St. Mary's Episcopal Church, est. 1877, then Mt. Bethel and then what is now the Basilica of St. Paul, est. 1886.
For more information, visit betheldaytona.com.