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Happy to Be Here: “Steadfast laborers” over 215 years


Back in the 1970s, Langhorne Borough had five churches — and it still does — Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist and Bethlehem AME, which was founded in 1809 by the Colored Methodist Society of Attleboro, the town’s name at the time.

The influential Middletown Friends Meetinghouse was, and is still, just outside the borough. The borough has retained its village flavor despite the intersection of two highways, PA 213 and PA 413 near its center.

In the ‘70s, the borough had a couple of banks and law offices, three physicians’ offices, two pharmacies, a firehouse, a public library, a bar in the 270-year-old Langhorne Hotel, two barber shops, a community center in a stone house that had been a hospital during the Revolutionary War, an elementary school, a hardware store and Nangle’s Department Store.

And Langhorne had a newspaper that had recently adopted a new name, the Advance of Bucks County. For more than a hundred years before, it was called the Delaware Valley Advance (the DVA). It’s the place where I started my newspaper days.

The office on East Richardson Avenue was a former dance hall — the bookkeeper and receptionist worked in what was once the ticket booth. Rows of layout tables and a small press were on the first floor; the editorial and sales offices were upstairs next to the publisher’s paneled office.

The Rev. Arthur Caesar, pastor of Bethlehem AME Church, lived across the street, about 1,000 feet from the church on the other side of Pine Street (busy Route 413 running from Bristol to Upper Bucks).

Walter Jacobs, a church trustee, was a frequent visitor to the newspaper office, carrying news of the church’s activities. He was compiling a history of the Black communities in Langhorne (there were two, east and west) and especially the AME church. His carefully recorded research is preserved among deeds and church records in glass cases in today’s lecture hall.

The church’s youth group had Jacobs’ work to draw on when it presented a slideshow history recently. In the beginning, they explained, circuit preachers traveling on horseback served the society. Among them was Richard Allen, who would later leave St. George Methodist Church in Philadelphia to become a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen had bought his way out of slavery.

The youth group reported, “In 1816, representatives of the Colored Methodist Society of Attleboro — Rev. Jacob Marsh, Rev. William Anderson and Rev. Edward Jackson — joined with 13 other representatives from Black Methodist societies from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Salem, N.J., and Wilmington, Del., and held a convention in Philadelphia, at the home of Richard Allen.” That was the beginning of the AME Church.

A year later, 12 men from Attleboro, Bensalem, Fallsington, Newtown, New Hope and Buckingham built a log cabin as as a place of worship and named it Bethlehem AME.

“Over the years,” the youth group said, “Bethlehem became the circuit center for African Methodism in Bucks County. Churches springing from Bethlehem included Mount Gilead in Buckingham, Mount Moriah in New Hope and Bethel in Yardley.”

Bethlehem was a member of the American Anti Slavery Society until it was dissolved at the end of the Civil War. In the middle of the 19th century, it was a member of the Black-on-Black Underground Railroad, part of the New Jersey branch that aided people escaping slavery to pass through New Jersey to New York. The church continued as a political center after a Bucks County judge’s ruling disenfranchised Black men.

A stone church replaced the log building in 1851 and in 1922, a larger structure was added. When the congregation paid off the mortgage in the 1950s, the church purchased a new organ and installed new lights.

“The men and women of the church stained the floors and woodwork, painted the lecture hall, tiled the floors... ,” the young people said. And that’s the way it’s been since the church’s beginning.

I met the Rev. Jacqueline Pinkney, pastor, and Thomas Ross, steward pro-tem at Bethlehem, at the thriving Langhorne Coffee Shop (formerly Nangle’s Department Store) to talk about the church’s history.

“The church has 22 members Everyone has five or six parts to play,” the pastor said, and the youth group is small. Pinkney is an itinerant pastor, pursuing her doctoral degree at Drew Theological School in Madison, N.J.

“People absolutely love the church,” Ross added — just a look at it shows just how much. Ross was born in Langhorne, worked at Strawbridge’s department store.

The church leaders are proud of the young generation of members, including Brianna Herder, a Penn State graduate, Avery Herder, a Shippensburg graduate, Dante Herder, a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, David Clark, a Bucks County Community College graduate, and Tony Clark, who has degrees from Temple and Monmouth universities and recently received a fellowship for poetry at Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.

Walter Jacobs wrote, “Surely through the years, God has blessed Bethlehem with a few but steadfast laborers, and has given us great heritage: and we of the present and future generations love and cherish it with thankful hearts. Let us pause and pay our respect to those who have left their footprints, both pastors and members ...”

The 215th anniversary celebration for Bethlehem AME Church, 215 S. Pine St., is set for 3 p.m. Sunday, March 24.

It will take place in the well-appointed sanctuary and the lecture hall that have been meticulously maintained by members of the church.

All are invited.

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