Clarkesville’s Bethlehem Church celebrates bicentennial and 200 years of Kingdom building

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In 1971, under the ministry of then-Pastor Furman Lewis, the congregation moved across Highway 197 to property it owned to construct the current sanctuary. Four other expansion projects followed through 2017. BBC/Special

CLARKSVILLE — The year was 1818 and in early January, Andrew Jackson left Nashville, Tennessee to take command of the Georgia troops engaged in the First Seminole War as well as the War against the Creek Indians. Much of the fighting occurred on the Flint River near the Georgia-Florida border, and Jackson even invaded Spanish Florida in retaliation for the Seminole incursions.

On May 10, American silversmith and patriot Paul Revere died in Boston. On October 28, Abigail Adams, wife of the nation’s second President John Adams, was born in Massachusetts. And just six week later on Dec 13, Mary Todd Lincoln – future wife of Abraham Lincoln was born in Lexington, Kentucky.

Craig Ward, right, senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist in Clarkesville, accepts a plaque from Bobby Boswell commemorating the congregation’s bicentennial. Boswell, assistant executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, presented the plaque on Sunday, September 16.

In many ways it was an historic year in both the nation and the state. Among many developments in the largest state east of the Mississippi River was the founding of Habersham County, which was carved out of the northeast corner of what would become the Peach State.

But among those who would eventually become the dominant faith group in Georgia was a small band of believers who met in a one-room school house and founded Bethlehem Baptist Church. Clarkesville was designated the county seat of the new geographic designation, and that is where the 18 founding members also planted their faith community in 1818.

The congregation was begun just four years prior to the birth of the Georgia Baptist Convention. If it was barely a toddler when the state convention was founded, it was pretty much a grown adult at 27 years of age when the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in Augusta in 1845.

On Sept. 16 of this year, the congregation observed its bicentennial with a 200-year celebration marking its contributions to the community and the Kingdom.

As it grew, Bethlehem members relocated the church closer to town and eventually moved to the south side of Clarksville. About a century ago it moved a mile north of town to property on Highway 197. Today it occupies about 26 acres which straddle the highway.

In 1971, under then-Pastor Furman Lewis, the congregation moved across the street and built its current sanctuary which seats slightly more than 500 worshippers. Four expansions followed through 2017 which culminated in construction of the congregation’s only two-story building. That structure houses the youth and young adult education ministries.

Current staff members at Bethlehem include, left to right, Matthew Butler, minister of worship; Chip Cranford, minister to families and senior adults; Kelly Woodall, interim student minister; Senior Pastor Craig Ward; Dan Allen, connections minister for new members; Jessie Smith, director of children’s ministries; and Clay Turner. BBC/Special

Today those original 18 members have grown into a congregation with two worship services – a traditional at 8:30 a.m. and a contemporary at 10:45. Average Sunday attendance is about 475, noted Minister of Administration/Education Clay Turner.

Craig Ward, a native of Maryville, Tennessee, celebrated his fifth anniversary at the church in August. He is a graduate of Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, and has a master’s and doctorate degrees from New Orleans Seminary.

Ward and his wife, Anne, are parents of two sons and two daughters. He has served as pastor of churches for nearly 25 years. Audio of Ward’s sermons can be accessed here.

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