§8 The Bethel Union Church
With the demise of the Round Top Church, the area was for a short time without a center for worship services. Apparently the loss was seriously felt, for in 1838 an effort was made to correct the situation. In April of that year three subscription papers dated April 25, 1838 were circulated asking for donations to erect a church "near the burying ground south of the Friends meeting house to be called Pine Plains Union church free for every Christian denomination. Seats free." The land on which the church was to be built, originally part of the old Round Top Church property was donated by Samuel Deuel. There were sixty-five subscribers, and the total amount raised was $1,069. Many of the subscribers were interested in the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches in the Pine Plains hamlet as well, and so their support for the new union church seems especially praiseworthy
Carmen Cornellius, a carpenter, built the church for the amount subscribed. Begun during the summer of 1839, it was completed the following winter. Huntting describes the structure as being twenty-six by thirty-six feet with a square tower. A desk was opposite the entrance and a gallery at the other end. An additional $60 was raised to purchase stoves and lamps, and the new church was ready for the dedication ceremony.
Although intended to be nondenominational, Huntting states that "it was by general consent deemed appropriate that, in commemoration of the old church, the new one should be dedicated by a Lutheran minister," a decision which was to create problems in later years. The Reverend Jacob Berger of Mellenville was invited to officiate. He was a distinguished Lutheran minister, the first native-born pastor to minister in the Lutheran churches of Columbia County and the first Lutheran pastor who preached here in English. The dedication service was set for April 9,1840. Huntting reports that it was a beautiful spring day and the building was more than crowded. Mr. Berger used as the text of his sermon a passage from the 28th chapter of Genesis, particularly the 19th verse "And he called the name of that place Bethel." Bethel is from the Hebrew, meaning "house of God." Although the subscription papers had stated that the new church was to be called the Pine Plains Union Church, following the dedicatory sermon it came to be referred to as the Bethel Union Church, or "the bethel," and in this way the hamlet received its name.
The church flourished for several years with services held almost every Sunday conducted by ministers of the Pine Plains churches. In 1857, an effort was made to raise funds for the purpose of repairing the church building, resulting in contributions of about $12. At about this time, disagreements developed, referred to by Huntting as "the war of Bethel church sectarian rebellion." Huntting states, "then was manifest, as has been, not only there but the wide world over the evils of a union church."
Our local historian goes no further but leaves us mystified with "the less said about it the better." However, Harry F. Resseguie, writing in 1964 on the history of the Church of the Regeneration, sheds more light on this unfortunate situation. Although Episcopalians were among the earliest settlers of our town, no Episcopal services were held here until 1817, when the Reverend Henry Anthon began holding services in the Pine Plains Union Meeting House, built in the Pine Plains hamlet in 1815 and shared also by Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and German Lutheran groups. By 1838, the Pine Plains Union Meeting House had become the Pine Plains Presbyterian Church. The Methodist and Baptist churches had also been erected. Episcopalian families had died out or moved away and few if any Episcopal services were held for a period of almost thirty years.
A revival of Episcopal interest began around 1850, when Theron Wilber retired from business in New York City and returned to his family home on Buttermilk Pond, later called Halcyon Lake. Although his parents and other members of his family were active members of the Methodist Church, Theron had become a member of Trinity Church in New York City and he devoted most of the remaining thirty years of his life to reestablishing Episcopalianism in Pine Plains. In this effort he was followed by two of his younger brothers, Dr. Henry Clay Wilber and Charles Seymour Wilber.
Episcopal services were resumed, first in the former Pine Plains Union Meeting House, by then the Presbyterian Church, but later they were moved to the Bethel Union Church and while at first sporadic, were established there on a regular basis after "the Bethel was repaired and put in complete order for church services" (Church of the Regeneration minute book, August, 1857). By 1859, action was under way to form a parish, and in November of that year an organizational meeting was held at Bethel at which wardens and vestrymen were elected. A certificate of incorporation was filed in the County Clerk's office the following month. In the next two years regular services were held by Episcopal missionary clergymen and over twenty adults and children were baptized.
There were, however, indications that to have a new and growing denomination occupying a building that, although built as a union meeting house, had been dedicated as a Lutheran church, was unsettling to some of the area residents. The troubles to which Huntting refers began with the first annual meeting in 1860. "Although notice as required by law and custom had been given that a parish meeting would be held at Bethel on Monday April 9, when the parishioners began to assemble it was found that the doors of the church were locked against them, and the meeting adjourned to the home of Theron Wilber" (Resseguie). The parish minute book gives no indication that any subsequent meetings were held at Bethel. Motivated by the necessity of having their own building, a building committee was appointed in August, property having been acquired on Pine Street in the hamlet of Pine Plains. Construction of the nave was begun almost immediately, and the building was ready for occupancy the following April, 1861.
One bright spot in the history of the Bethel church occurred during this period of acrimonious dissension, when in October, 1859, a delegation of representatives of the Moravian Church and Moravian Historical Society of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, accompanied by Dutchess County dignitaries, arrived in Bethel to dedicate the monument that marks the site of the Moravian Mission. On the evening of October 4, a worship service was held in the Bethel Union Church, conducted by a bishop and other Moravian clergymen and following the Moravian liturgy. W.C. Reichel, in his book published later in 1859, gives a colorful description of the beauties of the autumn evening and the countryside as the group approached the little white church where "the roadside was lined with vehicles." The church was full, the addresses lengthy, and stirring music was provided by a Moravian choir and several trombonists. This was followed by a dedication ceremony at the site of Gottlob Buettner's grave the following morning.
Huntting adds only brief comments concerning the fortunes of the Bethel church after 1860. "The church was kept fairly comfortable," he says, "and services were held there from time to time for the next twenty years.. .when repairs were again needed to preserve the building." The files of the Pine Plains Register are more informative. In 1886, Henry C. Wilber, John Rowe, and Isaac Huntting were elected trustees, the windows were painted and puttied, and later tight shutters were installed. Also serving as a trustee was Phoenix N. Deuel, son of Samuel Deuel.
The Reverend H. Newman Lawrence, who became rector of the Church of the Regeneration in 1901, established a regular program of Sunday afternoon services at the Bethel chapel, and Mrs. Phoenix Deuel organized and taught a Sunday school class there. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Deuel was elected a trustee of the church to serve in his place, and Charles E. Brown succeeded Isaac Huntting. Mr. Lawrence was instrumental in organizing at the Church of the Regeneration a three-day observance of the commencement of regular Episcopal services in 1857. The celebration began on August 3, 1902, and featured choral services, well-known speakers, and special music. In recognition of the fact that those first services were held at the Bethel Union Church, the concluding part of the observance was held in that building. The report of this event in the August 8, 1902 issue of the Pine Plains Register is accompanied by a photograph of the building. Although regular worship services were no longer held at the Bethel church, sporadic efforts were made to raise funds for the repair of the building, the Sunday school continued to meet, and the Pine Plains Register carried notices of mid-week prayer meetings held at church members' homes by lay persons.
In 1907, Briarcliff Farms bought and consolidated most of the individual farms in Bethel, including the property of Mrs. Phoenix Deuel. Following an auction at her house, she moved to her home on Church Street in the Pine Plains hamlet, and Sunday school classes were discontinued at the Bethel church.
Among the Briarcliff employees were a large number of skilled dairymen from Holland, most of whom did not speak English. Repairs were made to the church building to make it a social center for the use of the farm workers. Night classes in English were provided, and the Pine Plains Register of December 8, 1911 reports that the first annual Thanksgiving entertainment for Briarcliff employees was held in the church on Thanksgiving night of that year, with about one hundred employees present. A feature of the program was the singing of Dutch home songs. Even allowing for some possible editorial hyperbole in the matter of attendance, this must have been a very special event in the life of the old church.
For the next two or three years, Sunday afternoon services were again held with some degree of regularity but then the church seems to have faded from existence. No records have been found as to when the building was torn down but apparently, having out-lived its usefulness, it went the way of many old landmarks.
Thus comes to a close a remarkable story of the tenacious hold the human
need for worship had on a small rural community for over a century and a