Historic churches of the Lewes United Methodist Charge remembered

February 14, 2021

Four congregations of African American people in the Lewes, Belltown and Rehoboth communities historically comprised the churches in the Lewes United Methodist Charge. They were Israel United Methodist Church, Mt. Pleasant UMC, John Wesley UMC and St. Paul’s UMC. The current Lewes Charge came about in 1966, when Israel united with the former John Wesley, St. Paul, and Mt. Pleasant units.

Israel UMC near Lewes was founded in 1840 and rebuilt in 1890, with the present building constructed in 1916. Israel was first affiliated with Harmony United Methodist Church, then became a part of the Rehoboth Charge in 1894, and in 1928, Israel became part of the charge with St. Paul in Lewes. The 50th anniversary of the rebuilt church was observed April 21, 1940. A new addition was built in fall 1948, and the Methodist Men were organized in 1949. Further improvements included installation of a Hammond organ in 1959, new pews and pulpit in 1960, front annex and restrooms finished in 1974, a stone cemetery wall and pavement, and outdoor lighting. The church school was reorganized in 1989.

Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church was founded in 1884, but its history through the early 1900s was not well recorded. The idea of a church building for the black community of Rehoboth Beach was conceived well over 100 years ago. Elijah Burton with trustees Henry Little and Thomas Harmon of Burton’s Chapel Methodist-Episcopal Church sought to improve and enlarge the church. A deed dated Aug. 22, 1884, shows that Elijah Burton deeded a plot of land in trust for that purpose, and the former Burton’s Chapel building from the old Rehoboth-Lewes road was moved to that site on Church Street in Rehoboth. In 1899, the Mt. Pleasant name was adopted. Renovations and additions were done over the years, and worship services and church school were combined with another church, John Wesley Church near Five Points in Lewes.

John Wesley United Methodist Church was founded in 1873 as John Wesley Episcopal Church. Prior to that time, members met to praise the Lord in individual homes or wherever possible. The first church was located on the Marvel farm about a mile and a half down the road toward Lewes from the present building in Belltown. To attend church, members had to walk or go by horse and buggy. As recently as 1974, a part of that building was still visible. Land was donated in Belltown by John Henry Bell and a second church was built in 1908, with a parsonage on the opposite side of Church Lane. That year, the church became part of the Delaware Conference, 108 years after the General Conference authorized ordaining colored men as deacons, and 40 years after the first Negro was officially represented in the General Church.

St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, formerly a Methodist Episcopal congregation, was located on Fourth Street in Lewes. The church site was purchased Nov. 28, 1882, from Louisa R. Maull, and the church was erected that year using local logs which are still part of the present structure. Led by Charles Dunning Sr. and Charles Stewart Sr., the idea of establishing a Methodist Church for a black congregation in Lewes inspired others to join the effort. Additional land was purchased from Chauncey P. Holcomb in October 1896, and the church was remodeled in 1930 and again in 1955. The property has since been sold and is now a private residence.

In April 1966, the congregations of St. Paul’s, Israel, John Wesley, and Mt. Pleasant Methodist Churches met to approve the merging of all four churches into the Lewes Nassau Circuit.

A traditional part of the religious program and fellowship at John Wesley was Belltown Camp, an old-fashioned camp meeting with worship services held all day. All the Negro churches around the Delmarva Peninsula and beyond knew Belltown Camp, and singing bands came from far and wide to participate in evening sings on the last two Sundays in September. The last Belltown Camp Meeting was held in 1957, but the new church celebrated Band Day until 1973.

Although several churches existed in the general area of Belltown, Lewes and Rehoboth, many of the individual members worked together in various activities. One of the best-known was the Lewes-Nassau Male Chorus, with male members of various churches in the area who left beautiful memories of them harmonizing in glorious song.

The final session of the Delmarva Conference was held in May 1965 at Tindley Temple in Philadelphia, and the churches merged with the Peninsula Conference. While church membership has decreased dramatically over the years, the existing members still actively pursue the goals of the church organizations.

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