‘Serving God by serving the People of God’ Second Baptist Church marks 100 years of service to the community
This year, the Second Baptist Church at 1016 Wood St. in Bethlehem is celebrating the centennial of its founding as the second African-American house of worship in Bethlehem. In September, it marked the occasion with a special worship service and catered luncheon.
The congregation also celebrated the life and contributions of long-time senior pastor Edward Arnold Thompson, who passed away in January. Thompson served as interim pastor from 1986-1988, and pastor from 1988 until his death.
Under his leadership, the church began ministries for new members and young adults, and choirs, as well as community outreach to Hogar Crea and prisons. In July, former boxing champion Larry Holmes honored Thompson with a sculpted memorial during the “Celebrating 40 Years Since the Unveiling of a Champion” ceremony in Easton.
The marker reads, “We appreciate all that Pastor has done for us. He was like a guardian angel and we thank him for that as he’s always watching over us.”
The fourth of six children, Thompson graduated from Washington HS in Washington, N.J., having excelled in athletics. He was a two-time New Jersey state high school, and a two-time Pennsylvania State College wrestling champion.
During the years after graduating from Bloomsburg University in 1971, the pastor served as a business teacher and football and wrestling coach. In 2007, he retired as the accounting and data processing supervisor for the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission in Morrisville, Pa.
As part of the anniversary celebration, Thompson’s widow, June Anne Thompson, whom he married in 1975, compiled a bound history of the church, its pastors and their contributions to the community since the Second Baptist Church’s founding in 1918. The history also provides a glimpse into the early African-American community in the Bethlehem area. Much of this article is based on that history.
The first African-American settlers were involved in the early Moravian community, primarily as slaves. After the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, there was an influx of former slaves from the South. They found employment in service jobs such as maids, cooks, waiters and carriage drivers, but they were also subjected to discrimination.
African-Americans did not have a significant presence in Bethlehem until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At first, they lived in areas around Broadway and lower Brodhead Avenue, but as their numbers grew, they settled on the Southside along Second and Third streets and into Hellertown around the Bethlehem Steel coke works.
In the early years, people of color held worship services in their homes, but in 1894, the first African-American church in Bethlehem was incorporated in Northampton County as St. John African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In 1918, a small group of worshipers from St. John’s moved to a storefront on Broadway, and a second church was founded to provide a place of worship within walking distance of their homes in the Northampton Heights section of South Bethlehem.
Over the years, the congregation of that Second Baptist Church continued to grow, and the storefront church was replaced by a rented church building, also on Broadway. When that building proved inadequate, a new church building was purchased in 1973 by then-pastor Dr. Jerry Hargrove (1960-1984), and the mortgage was paid off within four years.
Dr. Hargrove was a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel, and when the federal government ordered the company to hire more women and people of color in their mills and offices, the pastor was hired as Bethlehem Steel’s Affirmative Action Coordinator. He is credited with getting good-paying job for many blacks in the area.
As did other black residents of the city, Hargrove ran twice and almost won a seat on Bethlehem’s city council.