Standing firm on two centuries of faithApr 21, 2022 02:57PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
The spire of the Bethesda United Methodist Church is the highest point in Middletown. But as pastor John Hornberger leads the way through several doors underneath the landmark brick church, it’s clear that Bethesda also has the deepest foundation.
Shining his camera flashlight, Hornberger lit up the brick walls and bare earth dug by hand in the 1800s. There has been a church in this same location since 1822. In February, Bethesda marked its 200th year. That’s a line of more than 70 pastors who have led the congregation.
“It inspires me,” Hornberger said. “I’m very proud to be the pastor here. I’m very humbled by it. I think back about a group of people walking down this street, which of course was dirt at the time, and they came upon this lot and were inspired to build a church.”
A written history of the church, assembled over five decades by various church members, lists all the pastors who have served at Bethesda from its earliest days as a simple wooden structure, now replaced by the elegant brick building.
In 1822, Middletown was a tiny hamlet in the midst of huge farms and peach orchards, and served as a bustling center of trade. Bethesda began as the Methodist Episcopal Church of Middletown. In 1939, the church was part of the reconfigured Methodist Church, which in turn became the United Methodist Church in 1968.
In the fledgling years of the church, Middletown was home to only a few hundred people. When the current sanctuary was constructed in 1849, the congregation was one of the largest in the region, at about 300 members. Among them were influential men such as B.T. Biggs, then-Governor of Delaware.
The sanctuary is actually on the third floor of the building, accessed originally only by stairs, but now reached by elevator. The interior is much the same as the way it appeared in the 1800s – elaborately painted ceiling and imposing pillars, with a huge mural of Christ’s ascension painted in 1910 by Adolph Frei of Philadelphia, an artist whose work is reflected in more than 500 churches in Europe and America.
There’s a balcony, burnished wooden pews, and what looks like the original flooring, scuffed by more than a century of use. Stained glass windows were installed in 1879, and they remain in immaculate condition, carefully maintained.
There’s a sense of history in every inch of the building, something which Hornberger said he’s acutely aware of. This is the oldest church building he has pastored. “To be honest, it feels too elegant sometimes,” he said, laughing. Hornberger came to Bethesda after pastoring in Snow Hill, Md., as well as Lancaster, Pa., and Claymont, Del.
While the church stood strong through the Civil War, Hornberger said he’s not aware of a record of abolitionists speaking there, although there were certainly plenty of people on both sides of the slavery issue in lower Delaware and nearby Maryland.
“Even Methodist founder John Wesley, back in the 1700s, was definitely anti-slavery,” Hornberger said. “We have a balcony which is very difficult to get up to. When they had balconies in churches back in those days, they were possibly for African Americans to sit. I think about all the people who might have had trouble walking, and they still had to get up there.”
The cemetery adjoining the church is packed with stones bearing the names of families that still live in the area, and the earliest legible stone dates to 1825. The parking lot for the church is where an 1850 parsonage used to stand. It was demolished in 1972.
The beautiful preservation of the church led to its being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. But achieving 200 years as a still-active congregation is a milestone that all of the members – presently about 174 – take great pride in.
Hornberger, in his comments to mark the anniversary, wrote, “This is an exciting time to be a member of Bethesda United Methodist Church. As we look back, it is evident that God has been alive in our church for many years. As we celebrate our 200th anniversary, may the fond memories of the past draw us closer to the realization that we are not through serving Him as we move forward.”
At 77, he has come through a health crisis recently and is now dedicating time to beginning voice and piano lessons, as well as an exercise program. He lives in Newark with his wife. They have grandchildren ranging from age 3 to 33.
Hornberger is particularly proud of the church’s outreach to the community. Currently, the congregation supports Neighborhood House with food donations and snacks and books for children; Friendship House, with meal kits and hygiene kits for those experiencing homelessness; and Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen that feeds low-income families. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, volunteers from Bethesda purchase, prepare and serve dinner there. In February, the community need had grown to serving 131 people. Church members also make sleeping bags for the homeless and distribute them through the Sunday Breakfast Mission in Wilmington. And they support a sewing center through the Congo Restoration Project, which allows women in the Congo to achieve financial self-sufficiency.
Hornberger often speaks at funerals, many arranged through Daniels and Hutchison in Middletown. In a letter commemorating the church’s milestone, Robert C. Hutchinson, Jr., wrote, “Much has changed outside the walls of Bethesda, but inside, much has stayed the same. The words spoken today are, for the most part, the same stated 200 years ago. The mission of faith, hope and charity continues on. In my 35 years in funeral service, I have had the honor and privilege to get to know some of the pastors who have had the charge at Bethesda ... I have been blessed to have such a unique and spiritual relationship with these great individuals. Bethesda and its clergy have been a guiding light to so many residents in our community during the loss of a loved one, and I know that as the congregation celebrates this bicentennial milestone, that guiding light will continue for many years to come.”
For more information about Bethesda United Methodist Church, visit www.MiddletownHope.com.