On Meeting Street in an area of New Providence known as Delancy Town sits a striking white edifice, its façade complete with stained glass imagery depicting the ascension of Christ and a steeple pointing towards the heavens. Arcades span the entranceway on either side of the church, drawing the eye upwards towards twin crosses ensconced in arches welcoming all who pass. This is Bethel Baptist Church, and for over two centuries it has anchored the spiritual life of part of New Providence’s “Over The Hill” community.
Founded in 1790 by Samuel Scriven and Prince Williams, both of them men who knew slavery’s chains, today’s Bethel Baptist Church first took shape as a wooden chapel named Bethel’s Meeting House. The name “Meeting House” was a careful choice, since prevailing law forbad black men from holding positions of leadership within a church. As a venture solely owned and operated by such men, Bethel’s Meeting House was exceptional. Meeting Street, on which the modern Bethel Baptist Church resides, draws its name from and preserves the legacy of this pioneering church.
Bethel, which still occupies the historic Meeting Street location, welcomed Reverend Dr. Harcourt W. Brown as its pastor in February of 1939. Its congregation would swell in size from one hundred to two thousand souls during four decades of Reverend Brown’s stewardship. From the start, Reverend Brown called for a more open and a more just community. In the struggle for social change that gained strength at mid-century, he would rise as the most outspoken and courageous of the Baptist clergy. Interweaving a message of human rights and religious faith that resonated in New Providence and throughout the islands, Reverend Brown spoke at the Southern Recreation Ground alongside political leaders like Lynden Pindling and Milo Butler; he took part in a delegation which presented to the United Nations in 1965 the grievances of the people; he lent counsel to the leadership of the insurgent Progressive Liberal Party; and he worked to rally support for that Party across the archipelago. In 1962, on the eve of a general election, at the request of the Party it was he who invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to serve as the guest speaker at a “mammoth service on the Sunday night before the election”. “[O]ur conversation,” he wrote, acknowledging the hazard of the times while encouraging further consultation by telephone, “can be conducted in such a veiled way that any listener might not catch on to what we mean.” At the dawn of the Majority Rule era, Reverend Brown was the first Chaplain of the House of Assembly. In that position he, together with Bethel, would continue to lead by example and to espouse a vision of an equitable and inclusive society.