Wesley Church, Our History
Methodism in the Bethlehem area started in the spring of 1849 as an appointment of the Philadelphia Conference and part of the circuit known as Allentown and Bethlehem Mission. Services were first held monthly in the Odd Fellows Hall on New Street. By the spring of 1854, the first Sunday School opened with an enrollment of 23.
The church’s first property (a lot 64½’ by 180’) was purchased on Center and Wall Streets for $250 from a Church of the Brethren congregation. The men of the church dug the cellar and laid the foundation with stones brought from the South Side by boat across the Lehigh River. The cornerstone was laid in July 1854; the church was incorporated that November and the first building was dedicated on January 8, 1855.
By 1865, the need for larger facilities was apparent. On January 20 a decision was made to build a larger place to hold worship services so that no one would need to be turned away. For two years this decision was delayed in order to clear a debt of $700 and to raise additional funds for the anticipated new structure. During construction the congregation met in the YMCA building at the northeast corner of Main and Broad Streets.
The cornerstone for this new church was laid September 11, 1869 and dedicated on January 30, 1870. The District Superintendent in 1876 described this new church as the most beautiful and attractive church in the district with a monetary worth of over $25,000.
The fore-parents of Wesley Church at Center and Wall Streets can be credited with many missionary efforts including work in Friedensville resulting in the building of a small church; conducting open air services in the woods near Lehigh University as well as Five Points; starting a Sunday School in a South Side home with 25 children; and helping to start a church in Fountain Hill as well as Fritz Memorial Church on the South Side.
Through this period and into the 1900s both church and Sunday School grew with a Home Roll, Cradle Roll, Young Peoples Society, Weekly Prayer Meetings, Oxford League Reading Circle and Epworth League. The facilities were generally adequate through this period with the exception of the Sunday School area. Plans were made for an addition to the main structure, and on April 17, 1932 the educational wing of the church was dedicated. The original mortgage of $63,000 for the addition was cleared by 1946.
During the mid 1950s, extensive reconstruction took place on the 1870 church building. The sanctuary was given major renovations. In 1971 the Wesley Church congregation embarked upon an even greater growth challenge when the Laros Estate property, known as Sunset Acres, became available for purchase. Just a few miles north on Center Street lay some 12.8 acres of lovely country property. The property was purchased in 1969 for $120,000. After a series of study processes and votes, the congregation determined it was not prepared to undertake the tumultuous task of relocating the church’s ministry to a new place.
Then, in late 1990, a Church Conference voted affirmatively to consider the matter of constructing a new facility on the property at 2540 Center Street. On May 13, 1991 a Charge Conference also voted affirmatively to empower the Board of Trustees to appoint a Building Committee to do the necessary planning to construct a new church facility on the church-owned property.
On Palm Sunday, April 4, 1993, a Church Conference voted affirmatively to approve the architectural plans as presented by the Building Committee and the financial plan to begin the construction of the new facility. The “Beyond Bricks and Mortar” Capital Campaign was begun and realized $570,000 in commitments.
Construction of the $2.9 million facility began on April 25, 1994. By October the Cross and Steeple was raised and set in place. The last celebration service at 424 Center Street was held on May 28, 1995. The doors of the building were formally locked and we looked ahead to our new spiritual home. Then, just as our fore parents brought stones from the South Side for our first Wesley Church foundation, today’s membership carried on the tradition by bringing Bibles and our Hymnals out of the old sanctuary into our new place for celebration and service on June 4, 1995.
A Celebration Service of Consecration and Dedication was held on Sunday, June 25, 1995. Resident Bishop Susan M. Morrision presided and preached a stirring sermon on “Living on the Promise of Hope.” That is what we are doing here at Wesley Church.