Recognized as the first church in Lakeland, Bethel Baptist celebrates 150 years

Story by Christine Wilson

Described today as being “worn, but solid,” the log building in which Bethel Baptist’s first congregation met was adorned with benches crafted from 18-inch-wide logs from the piney woods dating back to the early 1800s. The cabin’s successor, a simple framed structure raised in 1908, lasted only an estimated twenty years. It was replaced in 1929 by the third and most renowned building. Named “Bethel” by William T. Rushing, the historic\ church still stands off of Socrum Loop Road in north Lakeland. Carol Veronica Reed writes in Holland’s: The Magazine of the South on the iconic journey of missionary settlement and gives tribute to Rev. J.M. Hayman, Bethel’s first regular pastor:

“During pioneer days in Florida, circuit riders and itinerant preachers braved swamps, alligators, snakes and panthers, fought hostile Indians and yellow fever, and lived on berries gathered along the way in order to reach their scattered congregations. The early pastors of Bethel Baptist Church, which had its beginnings in the 1840s, were men of that caliber. Dedicated to their calling, they endured many hardships to bring spiritual instructions to wild, remote places such as the settlement of Socrum was at that time.”

On October 6, 2013, the congregation will hold a 150th Homecoming Celebration to honor God and recognize former pastors, staff, and members. Bethel serves as a spiritual and
geographical heart of the community and is located on the same property as the historic brick church beside “Indian Pond” on Socrum Loop Road.

Dear Old Bethel
Written by Joseph Thomas Mallory

Dear old Bethel, the earthly home of my soul,
Where I have found Jesus, and my heart was made whole,
Long have I loved thee, thy panels so dear,
And ever I’ll love thee through my pilgrimage here.

Thou hast been my protector, my sun and my shield,
Thou hast helped me to live more like Jesus so dear,
Thou hast been such a beacon to lighten the way,
And will carry me on to that beautiful day.

Dear old Bethel, the home of those that I love,
When they leave here I will meet them above,
Long have I loved them, their faces so dear,
And ever I’ll love them through eternity’s year.