"Remember the days of old. Consider the years of all generations; ask your father
and he will inform you; your elders and they will tell you." Deuteronomy 32:7
The Precursors of Bethany
Bethany grew out of the merger of the Fourth and Fifth (Holland) Reformed Churches of Albany and, about a decade later, the Sixth Reformed Church. The following are brief histories of Bethany's predecessor churches; may they enable us to better understand the vision of the people who built Bethany.
Fourth Church, located at Pearl and Schuyler Streets in Albany, was formed in 1855 by people of German ancestry. The original fifteen men and nineteen women first met at the Mission House at 51 Rensseleaer Street; the official name was the German Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Albany, NY. The first pastor was Rev. Herman Schnellendruessler. In 1858 the congregation bought the German Methodist Episcopal Church building at 84 Schuyler Street, with the help of First & Second Dutch Reformed Churches. The Civil War was a difficult time for the small church; even the pastor enlisted with the Union Army as a chaplain. Rev. Jacob F. Neef became pastor in 1865 and proceeded to build the congregation. In 1867 the word "Dutch" was officially dropped and the name became the Fourth Reformed Church of the City of Albany, NY. In the 1870s with the return of prosperity and a new influx of German immigrants, the church grew, even outgrew its deteriorating building. After Rev. Neef's sudden death in 1888, the congregation began to collect funds to build a new church building; this was accomplished in 1893 under the guidance of Rev. Henry Miller. The church's longest-serving pastor, Rev. Frederick Mueller, accepted his call to Albany in May of 1899. The Church's Golden Jubilee was celebrated in 1905; and the congregation was able to "burn the mortgage" of the new church building in 1907, only fourteen years after its construction. At Rev. Mueller's retirement in 1942, Rev. Paul Ammerman assumed the pastorate. By that time most of the congregation had already moved away from the neighborhood and the desire to relocate was beginning to be expressed.
Fifth (Holland) Reformed Church was organized formally in 1859 by people of Dutch ancestry, part of the second great wave of Dutch migration in 1847. The charter congregation of sixty members initially held services in the Lecture Room of the First Reformed Church; various ministers passing through Albany conducted the services. The first minister of the church was Rev. W.A. Houbolt beginning in February 1861. By 1873 the congregation had grown too large to continue meeting in the Lecture Room of First Church and a site was chosen in the middle of the area where most members lived. The cornerstone was laid in October 1873 and the building located at 153 Jay Street was dedicated on March 26, 1874. During the term of Rev. Henry K. Boer (1879-1885), the church debt was reduced and membership increased, the Sunday School was enlarged and a parsonage was built. About the same time, the church began to hold English preaching services twice a month. The 50th anniversary of the church was celebrated in 1909 during Rev. J. Ossewaarde's ministry; at this time the church contained almost 200 members and was able to hold a mortgage burning ceremony. Beginning in 1930 the church finally switched to English for all services. The Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in 1934 under the ministry of Rev. Louis H. Benes, Jr. At this time the church was at the height of its membership and service. The great changes in American society brought about by the Depression and World War II had their effects at Fifth Reformed. Membership began its steady decline as young people moved further from the old neighborhood. It became difficult to fill ministerial vacancies and meet operating budgets.
In March 1897 members of Madison Avenue Reformed Church, who wanted to form a church in West Albany, began meeting in Ellis Hall at 232 North Allen. By the fall attendance was so large Classis had no choice but to organize the Sixth Reformed Church of Albany. The first pastor was Rev. George W. Furbeck and services continued to be held at Ellis Hall until a building at the corner of Allen and Lincoln could be completed, which was done by Thanksgiving of 1900. From 1915 to 1923, under the guidance of its fourth pastor, Rev. Frank Fenton Blessing, Sixth Church prospered. Yet its mortgage burning ceremony was held only in 1946, under its longest-serving pastor Rev. Leonard Appleduorn. Membership began to decline after World War II and the character of the church neighborhood changed. By the mid-1960s the churh was barely self-supporting. Its diminishing size and growing financial necessity prompted the eventual merger with Bethany in 1968.
"And they said, let us rise and build. So they strengthened
their hands for this good work." Nehemiah 2:18
The Birth of Bethany
When Rev. Percy Kinkema resigned as pastor of Fifth Church in March of 1945, a suggestion was made that the congregation explore the possibility of a merger with Fourth Church, another struggling congregation. A committee from each church met to study the plan of union. At that meeting it was discovered that the two congregations were of approximately the same size and of similar social backgronds. Both congregations were already exploring the possibility of moving to a new location and so had a common interest in this matter. This initial meeting was followed by a joint meeting of the consistories of both churches. In the summer of 1945 Union Services were held in each church to allow each congregation to meet the other.
Committees from both congregations met for six months and finally in November 1945 the Classis of Albany approved the merger and formation of a new church. The basis of the merger was that all activities of both churches be continued, financial commitments carried to a conclusion, and both properties be disposed of. A new site was to be procured in an unchurched area of the city where the church might minister to those who were without church affiliation.
Fifth Church building was sold to the Italian Christian Church and the last service in that building was held on Sunday, November 18, 1945. Bethany Church used the building of Fourth Church at 86 Schuyler Street as its home until the new church building could be built. The first pastor of Bethany was Rev. Paul Ammerman, pastor of Fouth Church. The work of the church in the Schuyler Street location was becoming difficult due to rapid racial and economic changes in the neighborhood population. Rev. Ammerman resigned in January 1951 and Bethany was without a minister until September 1952 when Rev. Lester H. Alberts was called.
Various sites were considered; final title to the four-and-one-third acres at which Bethany now stands was procured in January 1949. The building site was heavily wooded, and the men of the church volunteered labor for many weeks in clearing the area for construction. The architect was Daniel D. Merrill of New York City. During the period from May 1949, various building plans were discussed; in January 1953 final plans were approved. The style decided upon was Early American because it was most economical in construction and yet it provided the greatest amount of usable space while allowing for future expansion without basic structural change. Rector, Inc. of Rensselaer was awarded the contract and the building was scheduled to be completed by the end of 1953. Ground breaking was held on Sunday, April 19, 1953 and construction started on April 26.
The aim of the church was to appeal to the residents of the community who were unchurched. To create a more acceptable approach it was thought best to change the name to Bethany Community Church (Reformed). Rev. Alberts accomplished much in creating interest in the general function of the church and in speeding the building program. The congregation looked forward to the time when the building would be completed and Bethany would assume a greater share of the work for Christ in the community and city.
The Cornerstone Laying Service was held July 16th, 1953. A historical sketch was placed in the cornerstone together with other papers relating to Bethany and its predecessors. Construction of the new building continued and in the interim arrangements were completed for all necessary equipment and furnishings. The new church was dedicated April 4, 1954 and a dedication banquet was held on Friday, April 9. This dedication represented the culmination of a desire which had been present since 1945 to relocate in an area of Albany with no Protestant Church. Members were gratified to receive 84 new members in the first year of Bethany's existence.
- Compiled by Nancy Zeller