During the most productive period of operations at Hopewell Furnace, Bethesda Church served as a meeting place for religious services of many of its residents. The church nestles in the southeast corner of Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, a little more than a mile east of the furnace.
The early history of Bethesda Church is somewhat vague and has been obscured by time and lack of written documentation. However, from 18th century records, which date other events and persons associated with Bethesda Church, we can outline a brief history of the building.
Its founder, Thomas Lloyd III, was born in 1742, the oldest of three children of Thomas Lloyd II and Elizabeth Rees. The religion of the elder Lloyd is not known, but we do know that his wife, Elizabeth, was a Welsh Quaker. In 1771 the younger Thomas was received into the congregation of Vincent Baptist Church in what is now known as Chester Springs, PA. On November 29, 1773 he married Margaret Hudson at St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.
The lives of Thomas and Margaret Lloyd were briefly interrupted in 1776 by the Revolutionary War, as were the lives of most American Colonists. It wasn't until 1780, however, that Thomas saw military service, when he served a a private in the Chester County Militia under Captain Abraham Beatty's command.
The need for a structure where religious services could be held in the Hopewell Furnace area was filled by the construction of the Bethesda Church building by Thomas Lloyd III in 1781-82. The date of construction is confirmed by an inscription in charcoal on an attic timber, which reads, "Built 1782 by T. Lloyd."
It is apparent from the wording of Lloyd's will that he did not intend that the use of the "Lloyd Meeting House," as it was originally known, be limited to any specific religious group: "...convey all that certain lot of three quarters of an acre whereon the meeting house and graveyard stands on my land for the use it was intended and agreement made between other societies and myself."
The use of the building as a house of worship prior to its formal organization as a Baptist Church is confirmed by the cemetery, which still surrounds the building. On December 8, 1827 the "Lloyd Meeting House" name was changed to Bethesda Baptist Church. The Philadelphia Baptist Association received the church and its 31 members into its society at an annual meeting on October 7, 1828.
Support for the Bethesda Church was made by pledges from its membership rather than by pew rental, a practice of the more sophisticated and aristocratic churches. The 1830 list of pledges included 32 names, all Hopewell employees.
In 1848, a wall was built around the church and its cemetery through subscriptions. Thirteen donations from Hopewell included five dollars from Hopewell Furnace, even though its ironmaster, Clement Brooke, was an Episcopalian. The total subscription of twenty dollars was enough to build the wall. In 1982 the wall was restored to its 19th century appearance. Wooden copings such as the one on top of the wall were commonly used to prevent deterioration of the lime-based mortar.
The reading of tombstones in the Bethesda Church Cemetery is like opening the records of people who worked at Hopewell Furnace. The earliest remaining tombstone is that of Thomas Kirby, dated May 10, 1807. Kirby sold wood to the furnace in 1804 and 1805. There are several other headstones, crude and undated, that could date from even earlier burials. Depressions at the rear of the church are probably unmarked graves.
A surviving church minute book contains insights into the problems and practices of the times such as a March 18, 1866 notation that three members had "a charge against them of profanity and unless they do appear at church and give account of themselves, they will be excluded." Another entry states that Brother George Shaner would be given "a letter of dismissal to the Baptist Church at Birdsboro on condition that he pay up his dues at this church."
Although never the center of a large congregation, Bethesda Church was an integral part of the lives of the people of the Hopewell area.
Did You Know?
Early iron works depended on large stands of forests to produce their fuel. The Hopewell Furnace consumed approximately one acre of woodland (converted into charcoal) per day of iron production.