Dorchester’s Country Churches: Bethlehem M.E. is nationally recognized

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan
Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church, on Hoopers Neck Road on Taylors Island, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

TAYLORS ISLAND — Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church is a historic Methodist church located at Bethlehem, Taylor’s Island.

The Gothic Revival Victorian church has an octagonal belfry above which is an octagonal dome with a spire superimposed and covered in copper, making it look like an inverted ice cream cone. It is the best example of a mid-19th century Methodist chapel in Dorchester County, information on Wikipedia says, and retains its original interior, according to documents from the National Historical Register and the Maryland Historical Trust.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The church stands out as one of the most sophisticated and best preserved of the mid-nineteenth century Greek Revival influenced buildings in Dorchester County, information from the Maryland Historical Trust says. Erected in 1857-58 and designed by Baltimore architect-builders Harman & North, the rectangular temple front church boasts a finely executed pressed brick main (west) elevation laid in narrow butter joints.

The structure is unusual for the county’s small, country churches. Nearly all, especially ones built in the 1800s, are made of wood.

The three-bay facade is strictly balanced with wide brick pilasters on each comer that rise to an enclosed Greek Revival pediment, which has an inset marble datestone inscribed Bethlehem M. E. Church, 1857.

Rising atop the gable roof is an intricately built octagonal belfry and spire that rest on a square platform, which was added during a sizable renovation around 1873. The belfry is enclosed in a domed octagonal drum featuring a classical rounded arch recess on each face. The dome of the belfry is topped by an octagonal spire that is accented with a fivepoint copper star at its tip.

A formation of a Methodist congregation on Taylor’s Island is believed to have been established as early as 1781, and the early members financed the construction of a sizable chapel in 1787 on land donated by Moses and Elizabeth LeCompte. The church trustees, Benjamin Keene, Jr., William Geoghegan, Thomas Hooper, John Ashcom Travers, Peter Harrington, John Aaron, John Geoghegan, John Robson, and Isaac Creighton, were charged with the “care and management of the Chapel lately built on Taylor’s for the use of the Ministers belonging to the Methodist Episcopal Church.” The 1787 chapel lasted the congregation seventy years.

In November 1856, several trustees, including Samuel Travers, Travers Staplefort, John H. McGuire, James Thompson, James Palmer, Solomon F. Kirwan, and Levi D. Travers, met to assess the condition of the chapel and to discuss the practicality of repairing the old building verses building a new structure. While it was thought that the old chapel could be repaired and made “very comfortable, but it would require considerable work to make it so … & then it would not be a handsome house.”

The committee opted for the preference to building a new church on a piece of ground across the road that was offered by Samuel Travers. A building committee was then formed which included Samuel Travers, chairman; Samuel M. Travers, treasurer and solicitor of subscriptions; Travers Staplefort, Solomon F. Kirwan, William M. Cator, William D. Travers, and Levi D. Travers, secretary.

With the death of William D. Travers shortly afterwards, Dr. Washington A. Smith was substituted in his
stead. Rather than looking to local resources and talent for the design and construction of their new church, the committee turned to Baltimore and retains the services of architect-builders, Harman & North.

The old church was sold to Levi D. Travers, who moved the old chapel off its site and converted it into a barn. By contract with Harman & North, the construction of the 35×50-foot brick church cost $2,598.18, while additional expenses such as interior frescoing, furniture, shipping, etc. raised the total to $3,245.12. Most of the funds were raised from those living on Taylor’s Island or mainland Dorchester County, but not an insignificant amount was sent down from Baltimore City.

Secretary Levi D. Travers stated in a summary of the project, printed in the Cambridge Herald in November 1858, “Much gratitude is felt, and many thanks are due Capt. Samuel M Travers (a member of the building committee) for the most noble and generous part he took in this laudable enterprise. We deem it proper to state that it was mainly through his untiring zeal and influence, with his large circle of acquaintances, that we were able to erect so handsome and commodious a house of worship; also, much thanks are due to other members of the building committee, (as Capt. Wm W Cator and Dr. Washington A. Smith) not only for their liberal contributions, but for their efficient services on the discharge of the trust committed to them by the church as members of the building committee.”

Located across Hooper’s Neck Road is an eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century cemetery that contains many monuments and markers as well decorative iron fence surrounding family burial plots. The site of the original eighteenth-century chapel is located there.

Within three years of the completion of their sophisticated new church, the Bethlehem congregation addressed the volatile issues surrounding the Civil War, the most explosive of them was slavery. Methodists had been divided sharply on issues surrounding slave ownership during the antebellum decades, so much so that a Methodist Episcopal Church South, which sanctioned slave holding by its membership, was established in 1844.

As the years passed and a national conflict loomed with the dawn of the 1860s, more and more congregations took sides, and the Bethlehem congregation aligned itself with the Methodist Episcopal Church South.