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Church History



This is the history of New Bethel Baptist Church, formerly First Baptist Church, Pinners Point. Our Church history has been passed on to us in oral and written tradition with the help of members such as Mrs. Nancy Brown, Mrs. Roberta Lightfoot and Mrs. Myrtle Farmer (our former Church Clerk). Mrs. Frances Bates, who served as our Church Clerk until her recent illness and passing, had been instrumental in maintaining and updating our history.


We hope that the description of our Church's outstanding growth and development and the highlighted accomplishments of each Pastor's administration will inspire you to acclaim and keep alive the great spiritual heritage of New Bethel Baptist Church.


Early Beginnings:  From Slavery to Freedom


New Bethel had a small beginning. In the year 1887, a small band of former slaves migrated to Portsmouth from areas in Virginia, North Carolina and West Point. They came to Portsmouth to find work and secure a better way of life for themselves and their children.


Upon their arrival, these new residents of Portsmouth soon realized that they were without a place to worship. They began to worship under the "bush arbor" assisted by Quaker missionaries. The church meetings under the "bush arbor" proved to be a hardship during periods of cold and rainy weather. Soon, through prayer, faith, and great determination, a small church was erected on Lee Avenue. This mission began to prosper and grow and soon this growing congregation realized the need for a larger place of worship. The members chose a site on Jackson Avenue (in the Pinners Point section of Portsmouth) for the erection of a larger building. Deacon Joseph Lawson drove the first stake for this building.


The first members of this new structure were very earnest and zealous in their Church work, always striving hard to do God's will. Both young and old participated fully in the activities of the Church. They stood by their religious beliefs, and this dedication was exemplified in their level of discipline and devotion.


The Early Years of Ministry Building

The first minister who served this congregation was Reverend Harris. He was a very devout and upright man, who helped organize many offices in the Church. The first officers of the Church were Mr. Joseph Lawson, Mr. W. Wren, Mr. Wormely, Mr. Sam Branch, Mr. Bill Davis, Mr. Sam Coston, and Mr. Arnold. The first Church Clerk was Mrs. Sue B. Wright. The first organist was Mrs. Bessie Holley and the second organist was Mrs. Sue B. Wright. The first choir was organized between 1896 and 1897. Mrs. Hattie Roots was a member of that choir. The Male Usher Board was organized in 1902.


Between the years 1902 and 1926, five ministers served the Church. Each stayed only a short time. In 1926, The Reverend A. S. Hoard was called to New Bethel. He was a great church builder. He introduced the six-point record keeping system. In addition, under his leadership, the Missionary Society was organized in 1931. Rev. Hoard stayed with us for thirteen years. Reverend Ward, who was also a great organizer, followed him. In 1940, Dr. H.L. James was called. Under Dr. James' leadership, a pipe organ was purchased, a baptismal pool was installed in the Church, and a sixty-seven voice children's choir was organized as well as the Nurses Unit and the Drama Club. Succeeding Dr. James were Dr. S.L. Scott Jr., Reverend J. W. Beckett, Reverend Luther Hicks and Reverend I. Buie. It was during Reverend Buie's Pastorate that the Elizabeth River Tunnel Commission requested the land on which our Church sat. We held our last Church Anniversary in the Old First Baptist Church Pinners Point (34 Jackson Avenue) in 1960.


The Early Years of New Bethel


After relinquishing our land to the Tunnel Commission, we were granted land in the Cavalier Manor section of Portsmouth by George T. McLean. Reverend H. Johnson played an instrumental role in helping us acquire this land. It was during this time the name of the Church was changed from First Baptist to New Bethel Baptist Church.


Officers who served during this period of transition were Deacons George W. Griffin, Isaiah Moore, Wendell Newkirk, Pearlie Dixon, John T. Webb, Wallace Lawson, and Elmer Ruff. Trustees serving during this period were Mrs. Annie S. Jones Royster, (the first female to serve as trustee) Mr. Ernest Bell, Mr. Grady Spruill Sr., Mr. Frank Harris and Mr. James Platt. Mrs. Myrtle Farmer was the Clerk of the Church.


The History of New Bethel under Bishop Whitaker’s Pastorate


In March of 1964, Bishop James M. Whitaker was extended the call to pastor New Bethel. He accepted the call and took office on June 7, 1964. The church continued to thrive under the leadership of Bishop Whitaker. He has been an outstanding leader. Bishop Whitaker, a spiritually and academically prepared man of God, has led the Church in the fulfillment of many major goals.


Over the past forty-eight years, Bishop Whitaker organized numerous new ministries in our Church. The Board of Christian Education (now the Christian Education Ministry) was organized by Bishop Whitaker as an umbrella ministry which oversees and organizes the activities all other ministries in the Church. The first chairperson of this ministry was Mr. Mordecai Hines. Jane Hargraves succeeded Mr. Hines as chairperson, and Deacon Lois Dawson faithfully served as chairperson of the ministry for thirty years.  The present chairpersons are Stewards Jacquelyn Wiggins and Dr. Ingrid P. Whitaker. 


Other ministries started under Bishop Whitaker's direction include: The Young Adult Choir, Female Usher Board Number Two, The New Bethel Baptist Church Credit Union, The Gideon Ministry, The Scholarship Ministry, The New Members Ministry, The African American Heritage Celebration Ministry, The Youth and Young Adult Ministry, the Couples’ Ministry, the Divine Branches Ministry, the Security Ministry, the Dance Ministry, the Wedding and Anniversary Ministry, and the Virtuous Vessels Ministry. In 2002 the Christian Development Institute (CDI) was implemented to foster the continued Christian Education of the members of New Bethel.  Bishop Whitaker's enthusiasm for the growth and viability of our Church is not only reflected in his zeal and support of the Ministries of our Church, but also in his vision and efforts to improve the edifice.


Under the leadership of Bishop Whitaker, a beautiful sanctuary was completed in 1981. Our Fellowship Hall (which was our old church) was joined with the new sanctuary. Major renovations were made to the Fellowship Hall in the process, resulting in a beautiful conference, banquet, and office complex. We now have a Crystal Room that is used as a banquet facility by many organizations and groups throughout the year. New choir rooms, bathrooms, and an expanded and modern kitchen facility were also completed under the leadership of Bishop Whitaker. In addition, our new parking lot was added. This new parking facility includes modern lighting, curbing, and a drainage system.  In addition to these improvements, in recent years New Bethel has expanded its holdings of properties adjacent to the Church. Some of these properties have been used to provide affordable housing to residents of the community.  In April of 2003, the Virginia Department of Education awarded New Bethel Baptist Church a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant for $165,000 renewable for three years.  This award represented the first time a church has ever received a 21st Century Learning Center Grant from the Virginia Department of Education.  In 2006, New Bethel Baptist Church was awarded another 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant for $184,600.  These grants have allowed New Bethel to provide learning enrichment programs for students from two local schools: Lakeview Elementary and W.E. Waters Middle School.   Moreover, through this grant, New Bethel has transported elementary and middle school students to a five-week summer program at Hampton University.  Students have been enjoying the benefit of this summer program since 2003.  The children received academic enrichment, recreational activities, meals, and transportation all paid for through the grant.


To further expand its community involvement, on February 4, 2005, New Bethel purchased the 15-acre 100 unit apartment complex known as “Bona Villa” valued at over $2 million.  New Bethel has developed plans to build The Evergreens on this site.  The Evergreens will be an upscale multifamily housing complex.  The future development of this property will surely add to the beauty of the community.  Under the able leadership of Bishop Whitaker, the Lord has truly blessed New Bethel to expand its territory and afford an opportunity to uplift the community and church. 


We thank God for the dedicated leadership of Bishop Whitaker whose ministry at New Bethel spans over one-third of the one hundred twenty-five year history of New Bethel Baptist Church.  We pray that the Spirit of the Lord will continue to manifest and permeate through the life of the church individually and collectively as we continue to make God’s kingdom a reality on Earth.  We shall continue striving toward “Making Every Person a New Person in Christ.”