Records from 1880 indicate that there were more than 3,000 people in Polk County and, of those, 123 were recorded as black or mulatto. By 1885, those numbers had increased greatly. The arrival of the railroad, the success of the phosphate and citrus industries, and new opportunity for prosperity boosted migration to Polk.
Prominent black leaders who traveled throughout the country urged blacks to relocate to Polk County. For instance, in speeches to crowds in Salisbury, N.C., and Philadelphia, the Rev. W.C. Vesta, an African Methodist Episcopalian Zion bishop, asked black families to consider relocating here. In his sermons, Bishop Vesta cited reasons such as Polk's favorable climate, homes at cheap prices and the fact that the white population was in dire need of good workers.
During that period, Jim Crow laws separated black and white communities, as well as religious, educational, social and civic activities. In the early 1880s, railroad laborers and others developed an African-American community called Moorehead in the southwest quadrant of Lakeland, and provided its residents with the above-mentioned opportunities. There were a few more black homesteads scattered about, however, no other area in Lakeland developed into a complete African-American community until Teaspoon Hill.
Many years ago, the late Sidney Houston, a local African American-history authority, explained the folklore behind "Teaspoon Hill's" unusual name. He said travelers came through Moorehead and sometimes asked if there was another black neighborhood in the city. He said, "The old folks told them, there's a teaspoonful of colored folks living across town on the hill."
In 1892, there was a need for residents of the Teaspoon Hill area to attend a neighborhood church. Heretofore, church goers had to walk to Mount Pleasant African Methodist Episcopal Church in Moorehead where the area was more densely populated with people of color.
Reportedly, whites were ill at ease with those (blacks) who lived on lakefront property. The anxiety and harassment black people experienced eventually forced these individuals to uproot and move to the north area of Lakeland. After the arrival of a minister on Teaspoon Hill, it became more apparent for the need of a place of worship. With no official building or place for worship available, services were held in the home of Dan Tillis Threets.
November 24, 1916, trustees John Jacobs, W.J. Simmons, Welsy Carlton, Fred Hill and D.T. Threets purchased the seventy-two foot by ninety-foot lot in north Lakeland for two hundred dollars from J.E. and Martha J. Bussard for the purpose of erecting a church.
According to church records, certain individuals made an effort to help raise monies for the church through many creative means. William Lucas often made personal payments on the mortgage during the pastoral ship of Reverend J.C. Graham in 1916; Followed by Reverend Charles A. Ransom in 1916; Reverend Buggs in 1925; and Reverend R.J. Jones in 1926.
On the afternoon of June 2, 1927, at two o’clock, with Reverend Robert J. Jones officiating, the ceremony of groundbreaking for New Bethel commenced. It is assumed that the site for this church was the 1030 N. Dakota Avenue since no other address was mentioned.
Reverend Albert Cooper was the pastor of Bethel during 1931. Reverend F.D. Hall, 1932; Reverend Braboy, 1932; Reverend Kevin Johnson 1934; Reverend W.J. Williams, 1935; Reverend J.A. Brown, 1940; Reverend W.M. Williams, 1940; Reverend Glenn C. Bledsoe, 1941; Reverend James Murray, 1941-1942; and Reverend W. M. Williams, 1942.
During the four year pastoral ship of Reverend R. H Mobley, 1944-1945. The church basement was completed, and the main auditorium was renovated. The total construction of New Bethel Church at the old site was completed in 1944. After seventeen years of debt, a fund drive was implemented assessing each man at forty dollars and each woman at thirty dollars. The last mortgage payment was made and New Bethel purchased its first organ.
Reverend E. A. Harley, 1946 -1947 was the next pastor of Bethel. Reverend M.D. Chappell pastored from 1947 – 1955. He was followed by Reverend J.A. Robinson, 1955 -1958.
Rev. Chandler stayed here for six years, 1958 -1964. His stay resulted in the purchasing of new pews and the installation of new windows.
Reverend R. J. Blaine, 1964 -1975 was the next minister assigned to New Bethel. He gave stellar leadership to the New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for eleven exciting years. His fatherly demeanor was appreciated and admired by the parishioners. He encouraged the congregation not to grow weary in well doing.
Under Reverend Blaine’s leadership, a trustee took an active role in helping to acquire the 20 acres of property on which the present church sits. Through his perseverance, tons of fill dirt was dumped on the swamp-like property (for free) to bring it up to building standards, and turning it into useable property. Reverend Blaine was not able to lead the congregation in building the new church complex, but he was able to oversee the construction of a quality permanent home (parsonage) for ministers of New Bethel at the site of the new church.
Reverend O. H. Houston 1975-1981. Pastor Houston possessed remarkable “people skills”. He motivated the people to give consistently toward the building fund and working toward breaking ground on the new Sanctuary site in 1981. Under his administration, new members were being added to the church weekly and the tithes and offerings doubled. Pastor Houston was promoted to the position of Presiding Elder for the Daytona Beach District, but the vision stayed alive!!!
Reverend Willie D. Young 1981 – 1983, was appointed to serve as pastor of New Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1981. His high quality teaching skills encouraged the membership to better understand the purpose, workability and discipline of the A.M.E. Church, and to accept nothing short of excellence as we plan and set goals for the future. Under the leadership of Rev. Young, on May 21, 1982 construction of the current sanctuary began.
In August of 1983, Reverend J.L. Denmark was assigned as pastor, and the new sanctuary was completed under his leadership. After the final service at the old landmark, 1030 Dakota Avenue, on October 14, 1984, a grand parade proceeded to the new edifice. Featured in this grand parade were the King and Queen of New Bethel, Brother J.P. Moore and Sister Rosabelle Blake. Reverend and Mrs. Demark lead the processional into the new Church for the first service. Reverend Denmark pastored from 1983–1987.
Reverend George Lovelace Champion was appointed as New Bethel’s next spiritual leader by Bishop Phillip R. Cousin in 1987. Dr. Champion was nationally recognized as a prolific preacher, bible expositor, builder, author and educator. There was phenomenal growth in the attendance at bible study. His unique preaching style endeared the worshippers to him, as they jubilantly magnified God together.
February 2, 1988, Reverend Jimmy J. Thompson was appointed by Bishop Philip R. Cousin as Bethel’s next pastor. He was instrumental in rallying the members to liquidate the outstanding indebtedness of the church’s building program. Revival fire broke out in the church and the membership grew by leaps and bounds. Pastor Thompson lovingly admonished the congregation not to magnify our financial woes, but instead, magnify the Lord. Pastor Thompson impressed upon the church that you must pay your way out of debt and not borrow. On November 17, 2002, the financial burden over 1.5 million dollars was officially liquidated! To the beautification of God’s edifice Rev. Thompson added chandeliers and stain glass windows. He later organized a project called “The Walk of Faith” as a lucrative fund raiser. Reverend Thompson was elevated to the position of Presiding Elder in the South Conference in December 2005. Rev. Thompson served as pastor from 1988-2005.
Reverend Pearce Ewing, Sr., was appointed December 4, 2005, by Bishop McKinley Young as the new pastor for New Bethel A.M.E. Church, Lakeland. He came to Lakeland via Martin Memorial Church, Miami, Florida. Rev. Ewing had a passion for church expansion which resulted in major capital improvements to the church sanctuary as well as the purchase and renovation of the Administrative Office. This Pastor also introduced video media to the congregation to enhance praise and worship in the church.
From October 15, 2010 - December, 2010, the Bishop appointed Elder F. Bernard Lemon to serve the church as the spiritual leader.
Reverend Jessie Harvin, Sr., was appointed by Bishop McKinley Young December 26, 2010, from St Paul AME Church, Coconut Grove, Florida. Under his leadership New Bethel underwent various church enhancements (i.e. new roof, microphones purchase, air conditioning units, new chairs for the Fellowship Hall). His slogan is "The best is not behind you; the best is in front of you. In Jesus' name, the best is yet to come!"
Reverend Eddie Lake was appointed to serve as pastor of New Bethel A.M.E. on October 18, 2013 by Bishop Adam J. Richardson. He came to Lakeland from Greater Bethel A.M.E. church in Miami, FL. Rev. Lake is an anointed man of God, called to lead God’s people into a deeper and more profound relationship with God. He is a prolific preacher, bible expositor, and a skilled administrator. His desire is to walk in God’s perfect will and inspire God people to do the same with enthusiasm and excitement."
Former Pastors of New Bethel A.M.E. Church
Reverend J.C. Graham (1916)
Reverend Samuel J. Johnson (1917)
Reverend Charles A. Ransom (1920)
Reverend Buggs (1925)
Reverend Robert J. Jones (1926 - 1928)
Reverend Albert B. Cooper (1931)
Reverend F.D. Hall (1932)
Reverend Braboy (1932)
Reverend Calvin Johnson (1934)
Reverend W.J. Williams (1935)
Reverend J.A. Brown (1940)
Reverend W. M. Williams (1940)
Reverend Glen C. Bledsoe (1941)
Reverend James Murry (1941 - 1942)
Reverend W.M. Williams (1942)
Reverend Robert. H. Mobley (1944 - 1945)
Reverend E. A. Harley (1946 - 1947)
Reverend M.D. Chappell (1947 - 1955)
Reverend John A. Robinson (1955 - 1958)
Reverend A.C. Chandler (1958 - 1964)
Reverend R. J. Blaine (1964 - 1975)
Reverend O.H. Houston (1975 - 1981)
Reverend Dr. Willie D. Young (1981 - 1983)
Reverend Jerome L. Denmark (1983 - 1987)
Reverend George Lovelace Champion (1987 - 1988)
Reverend Jimmy James Thompson (1988 - 2005)
Reverend Pearce Ewing, Sr (2005 - 2010)
Reverend Jessie Harvin, Jr. (2010 - 2013)
Reverend Eddie Lake (2013 - Present)