History of Bethel Hill Church
If Hans Supplee was cast as the sower in Jesus’ familiar parable, then Bethel Hill Church would represent the seed that fell on the good soil and grew to a vine of Christian fruit. The seed that Supplee sowed was a small tract of land which he dedicated for the erection of a place of Christian worship. The land was situated in Worcester Township on the southern brow of what is now called Bethel Hill; a cemetery now occupies the site of the original church. Hans Supplee never lived to see that first small, stone chapel completed. He died while it was being erected and was buried in the small plot of land set aside for a cemetery.
As with many colonial landmarks, Supplee’s chapel played its part in American history. At the start of the Revolution, Peter, son of Hans Supplee, and his two younger brothers enlisted in the Army of the American Revolution. They were under the command of Charles Wilson Peale, a close friend of General Washington. A month later, General Washington met with General Greene and his staff on the lawn of the Supplee house, located near the church, to plan the Battle of Germantown.
As fate would decree, unpredictable weather brought fog and rain, enabling the British General Howe to deliver a stunning defeat to the already ragged and demoralized American soldiers. In the hasty retreat made necessary by the defeat, Washington’s armies fled out of Germantown. The colonial army used Bethlehem and Skippack Pikes and carried their wounded and dying with them. It was this event which first brought historic prominence to the little church at Belfry (later called Bethel Hill).
At Supplee’s chapel, a temporary hospital was established to care for the wounded soldiers. Many of them died and, according to one witness, they were buried “by the cartload” in the west corner of the little graveyard, adjacent to the highway, “unwept, unhonored and unsung.” Some years later, a bush was planted by the congregation to mark the site and today a brief memorial service is held each Memorial Day Sunday to honor them.
The early congregation at Belfry was non-denominational. Yet, it apparently leaned towards Methodism, as witnessed by the visits of the newly arrived Methodist preachers sent from England by John Wesley. These preachers did not found “churches,” but rather established “societies.” Such a “society” was the small, devout congregation which met at Metchin, another early name for the Supplee church.
One of the early itinerant preachers sent to America was Joseph Pilmore, and it is in his journal that mention is made of the congregation at Metchin. Pilmore’s Journal includes an account of his dedication of the original chapel on October 13, 1770 in the following words: “Mr. Evans and I set out in the morning for Metchin, a place about twenty miles from the City, to open a New Chapel which has been built by a few persons who loved the Redeemer, and which to advance His kingdom in the world. About three o’clock, I preached on 1 Kings 8:17 [should be 8:27]. ‘Will God indeed dwell on the earth?’ &c.&c. Mr. Evans gave an excellent Exhortation, and I concluded with solemn prayer. In the evening, we had a love-feast, and the simple-hearted followers of Jesus spoke with much freedom and life. Thus the wilderness becomes as a fruitful field, and springs rise up in the desert.” While Pilmore plays a significant part in the early history of Bethel Hill, he was never a pastor of the chapel at Metchin. Pilmore returned to England briefly and broke with John Wesley. He then returned to America to serve the Protestant Episcopal Church.
The Reverend Henry Boehm mentions this event and its profound effect upon the small group of Christian worshipers at Metchin in his reminiscences. He wrote that near Morristown [he meant Norristown], a house of worship had been erected by the Reverend Mr. Derner, a Swedish Minister. After hearing the Reverend Joseph Pilmore, a Methodist missionary, speak, his church property and the society were transferred to the Methodists. This was Supplee’s chapel; it was an old stone chapel, and was afterward called “Bethel”.
In 1784, Bethel became part of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, which was formally organized at the Christmas Conference held in Baltimore, Maryland.
Like a growing vine, the seed of Bethel Chapel planted by Hans Supplee grew and required more “ground.” On January 2, 1782, David Wagener and his wife Rebeckah conveyed title to the plot of land located on the northeast side of Skippack Pike in Worcester Township. It extended for “10 perches [165 feet] along Skippack Pike and 8 perches [132 feet] to the northeast and contained 80 perches” [21,280 square feet]. Taking title to the land were John Tyson, Andrew Supplee, Samuel Castner, Charles Zimmerman, Abraham Supplee and Benjamin Tyson for the sum of 5 shillings.
The land was part of a tract of almost 150 acres subject to a yearly payment of 55 bushels of wheat forever to James Logan and others and their heirs. The property was to be used for a worship house, burying place and a schoolhouse. The latter building was to be used by the English and the Deutsch (Germans) with the English to have two parts of the time and the Germans one part. The schedule gave the English the first two years.
Wagener’s land had been acquired by Benjamin Weber and his wife, Anne, along with the requirement of the yearly rent of 55 bushels of wheat. Joseph Parker Norris and his wife, Elizabeth, had become entitled to the yearly rent of wheat. On June 15, 1803, they declined to receive the rent of wheat and instead received a sum of money from Weber as a final settlement. Accordingly, on April 14, 1822, an Indenture was entered into by Weber and his wife with Abraham Supplee and Samuel Castner, the sole surviving trustees, relieving them of the proportional yearly rent of wheat for the sum of $4.34.
As Supplee’s “vine” of Christianity grew, it extended beyond the original chapel at Metchin. Sometime in the early 1800’s, the “Perkiomen Circuit” was organized where preachers would speak at the individual churches in the circuit. The name was later changed from “Perkiomen” to “Bethel Circuit.” The circuit consisted of Bethel Hill, Evansburg, Kulpsville, and Union Methodist Episcopal Churches. Of these churches, Bethel Hill and Evansburg are still active Methodist communities of worship.
Bethel Hill’s present church building was constructed in 1845, across Bethel Road from the original chapel. The building is one story in height and constructed of brick and stone. In 1846, “Supplee Chapel” – as the original building continued to be called – was razed. The ground on which the present church stands was purchased from Samuel Supplee on May 9, 1845, at the cost of $10.00.
In 1859, a Sunday School was organized and a constitution adopted. Two years later, the circuit pastor, Richard Ridgway, led the congregation in building a six room parsonage. It was a stone structure located on Skippack Pike just down the slope to the southward from the church. It was often referred to, in a humorous manner, as “the house without closets.”
When the church building was remodeled in 1990, two openings were discovered under the pulpit leading to unsubstantiated speculation as to whether these slots were used as priest holes by the Underground Railroad. During the difficult years following the Civil War, the church grew slowly. In 1894, the congregation applied for and was granted a charter.
The advent of a new century seemed to herald a new life for the Bethel Hill Congregation. There was a series of improvements in church organization and physical plant. In 1904, a new front was added to the existing church building. In 1902, Edwin Supplee, the great-grandson of Peter Supplee, petitioned the trustees of the cemetery for permission to erect a monument in memory of Peter, a soldier in the Revolutionary War. The requested permission was granted and the monument was erected. On Saturday, September 3, 1904, the Supplee family held a family reunion at Bethel Hill Church with the objective of dedicating the monument.
During the pastorate of Reverend A.G. Graham, 1915-1919, memorial stained glass windows were installed in the church, and the schoolhouse adjoining the church property was purchased for use as a church school building.
In 1926, during the pastorate of Reverend C. Clyde Livergood, an electric lighting system and a pipe organ were installed in the church. It was not until many years later that the historical significance of this organ became known. After its removal in 1958, it was learned that this “Krauss” organ had been built in 1910 by John Krauss of Kraussdale, Pennsylvania. It had faithfully served two churches prior to its installation in Bethel Hill. After its removal from Bethel Hill, it was purchased by the Rahns Church in Montgomery County and continued to provide sacred music to the Christian community.
A new era commenced at Bethel Hill in March, 1928, when the retired Reverend Richard M. Howells was assigned to the Bethel Circuit as pastor and Reverend Howells and his wife took up residence in the “house without closets.” Although an economic depression had a strangle hold on the country during the 1930’s, there was no marked depression in the life of the church at Bethel Hill. During this period, the church building was painted and the interior beautified. New pews, pulpit, altar furniture, and hardwood floors were installed. The organ housing was refinished to match the finish of the new furniture.
Shortly after his arrival, the Reverend Howells and his wife presented a brass plaque to the church as a memorial to the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldiers who were buried in the cemetery. It was dedicated on Memorial Day, May 27, 1929, with appropriate ceremonies. The service in the church was followed by a ceremony in the cemetery. A firing squad from the William E. Hare Post of the American Legion of Lansdale participated at the graveside service. Judge George C. Corson was the principle speaker.
The eventful year of 1940 saw Bethel Hill Church strengthening its position in the Christian world. On October 8, a charter was issued to the Women’s Society of Christian Service. Fifty charter members were enrolled with Mrs. Miles Perry as President, Mrs. Jonathan Scott as Vice President, Miss Ada Hayes (now Mrs. Wilmer Smith) as Recording Secretary, and Mrs. Harry Miller as Treasurer. This society was the forerunner of the United Methodist Women which is still an active organization at Bethel Hill today.
During this period several memorials were presented to the church: a brass plaque and illuminated cross in memory of George Moyer who died in France in the service of his country during the First World War and a baptismal font in memory of James H. Cassell.
Disaster gave rise to church improvements in 1949-1950. One Sunday morning in the spring of 1949, the rear part of the Church School building burned. The damage was repaired on contract and the men of the church continued improvements by digging out a basement (by hand!). The result was a finished basement, including a kitchen, underneath the school building. Shortly thereafter, the church building was entirely renovated. Indirect lighting fixtures were donated by Reverend Herbert R. Howells, son of Richard M. Howells, and a new plastered ceiling was installed.
The church was fortunate enough to be able to secure two plots of ground adjoining its property. The first piece adjoined the cemetery and allowed an expansion of the burial area. The second piece adjoined the church with 100 foot frontage on Skippack Pike. The owner contributed an additional 50 foot frontage and this is the site of the current parsonage.
On July 26, 1953, Reverend Richard M. Howells preached his final sermon at Bethel Hill and an era had come to an end. Twenty-five years of devoted service which saw the church prosper and strengthen in service for Christ had concluded.
The years following, 1953-1959, saw continued improvement in buildings, grounds and church programs. The greatest property improvement during this period was the selling of the old parsonage and the building of a new four bedroom parsonage next to the church at the cost of almost $20,000. Reverend John L. Lundgren and his family were its first occupants. One of the major improvements of the new parsonage was closet space.
In 1959, Bethel Hill received its first full-time pastor, the Reverend Robert Sanders.
Early in the 1960’s, the motto of “A Proud Past – A Promising Future” was adopted. As the decade progressed, a dream became a reality and Supplee’s seed had become a well-established, fruitful vine. On June 12, 1966, under the leadership of Reverend George Alt, a new Christian Education building, adjacent to the original education building, was consecrated. On April 9, 1967, the fellowship hall of the same building was dedicated to the memory of Reverend Richard M. Howells in appreciation for his many years of service to Bethel.
The church officially became Bethel Hill United Methodist Church on April 21, 1969 when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, both churches sharing a common historical and spiritual heritage, united to become the United Methodist Church. The vine planted by Hans Supplee had now intertwined with others to become part of an 11 million member vineyard.
The seventies were years of gradual growth defining both a mission and place in the expanding community. A second Sunday morning worship service was added and the parking lot was enlarged while Reverend David R. Cramp was pastor from 1975-1983.
Continued growth in the youth and Sunday School programs during the 1980’s led to the building of a new fellowship hall and church kitchen. In January of 1990, the ground-breaking for this facility was officiated by Reverend David Shellenberger. Renovations were also made to the sanctuary at this time to make it wheelchair accessible while remaining sensitive to the historical integrity of the building. The problem was resolved by reversing the interior of the church to allow the addition of a narthex next to the parking lot. The completed renovations were dedicated on October 13, 1990 with Reverend David Shellenberger and Bishop Susan Morrison officiating. On November 15, 1992, the new fellowship hall was named Hayes Hall in memory of Alberta Hayes and in honor of Allen Hayes.
In 1990 Bethany UMC of Norristown dissolved and about 20 members were welcomed into Bethel Hill’s congregation. The legacy of Bethany lives on at Camp Innabah, Spring City, PA, in the form of Bethany Lodge.
In February, 1990, the Shellenberger family and the membership of Bethel Hill UMC were challenged by the pastor’s serious automobile accident. During the initial period of his recovery, the pastoral charge of the church was handled by two interim pastors, Reverend Richard Weand and William Snyder.
In June of 1991, Bethel Hill welcomed the Reverend Dr. Sandra Myers as pastor. As the church celebrated its 225th year in 1995, Bethel Hill had attained many goals in addition to its facility improvements and expansions. A third worship service was added in the summer of 1994 and a summer Sunday School program was added in 1995 as was a chartered United Methodist Men’s group. In its 225th anniversary year, the church membership had grown to over 400 members. In November, 1996, Reverend Myers announced to the congregation that she would be leaving January 1, 1997 for health reasons.
January 15, 1997 saw the beginning of another era: the Reverend Susan May was assigned to Bethel Hill with the expectation that the seeds Hans Supplee sowed would continue to grow and provide fruit. As a sign of that continuing growth, the congregation purchased the property adjacent to the church on Skippack Pike on May 25, 2000. In August, 2000, Rev. May was named District Superintendent of the Bethune (West Chester) District and began her new duties on September 1, 2000.
The Rev. George A Tigh was appointed, beginning October 1, 2000, continuing a steady increase in membership. During his tenure, many outreach programs were established at Bethel Hill. An emphasis on missions and outreatch led to a missions focused Roast Beef Dinner, donating all proceeds to local food kitchens, a Mission on Wheels program to provide meals for members and friends in times of need, a revitalization of Youth Fellowship and a Strategis Palnning Campaign to inspire our ministry and vision for the future.
A new beginning for “little country church” at Bethel, as the Rev. John Bhajjan is appointed to serve in July 2008. Fostering our community outreach, a Service of Prayer, Praise and Healing and special studies on Islam and Christianity and World Religions were held. Monthly Bible Studies and technology services were added to enhance our worship experience. The Membership Care and Nurture Team was developed to meet the many needs of our congregation through member participation in the Bethel Buddies program, Care Cards and visitation.
The Rev. Susan J. Ketterer, joined the Bethel Hill family in July 2015, serving as the third female pastor of Bethel Hill. The shortened version of Pastor Sue’s mission statement is to be SOLD OUT to and for Jesus. You may often hear her say: “Every day is a gift for God!” Bethel Hill looks forward to the next chapter of our spiritual journey. The future appears to hold great promise for Bethel Hill and continues to be the “good soil” prepared for growth.
(Compiled by the 225th Anniversary Committee, 1995; amended by Mary Wald, 1997/2000; amended by History Committee in 2015)