The History of the Bedford-Central Presbyterian Church
Bedford-Central's birth took place under an apple tree in a field at Vanderbilt and Atlantic Avenues where Henry Newcomb ministered to children who had little or no education. This eventually led to the creation of a school on July 4th of 1852. After outgrowing an attic, the school moved to a barn on Dean Street and Underhill Avenue which became Mt. Prospect Mission School, under the leadership of Superintendent Silas Davenport.
Worship services were held at the Atlantic Avenue chapel of the Clinton Avenue Congregation Church under the leadership of A. S. Barnes. A chapel was built in 1871 at Classon Avenue, between Park and Sterling place. This new Congregational Church of the Covenant had two pastors, first Dr. Brothwall and then Dr. Henry Waite. The church was later renamed Trinity Congregational Church in 1892.
February 1894 marked the beginning of our affiliation with the Presbyterian denomination. The church became Bedford Presbyterian Church, with a membership of less than 100 with Rev. George E. Gillespie as pastor. During his tenure, the congregation remodeled an old house on the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Dean street. Rev. William J. Hutchins became the pastor from 1895-1907. Oct. 25, 1908 began the ministry of Dr. S. Edward Young. What is now the chapel was then used for worship services but the membership outgrew its 600 seating capacity.
By 1909, the congregation had grown from 101 to 742 members, while the Sunday school grew from 81 to 900, hence, the necessity for the building that is now the main Sanctuary. Through the sacrificial giving of the congregation, the entire cost of $100,000 was paid in full. The three-manual electric organ cost an additional $10,000 and the rose window in the back was donated by the Sunday School at a cost of $500. The entire structure was dedicated in 1910.
Central Presbyterian Church united with Bedford on January 1, 1944, and on May 1, 1961, Classon Avenue Presbyterian Church joined the merger. The new congregation became Bedford-Central Presbyterian Church under the dual leadership of Dr. Arms (from 1929-1948) and Dr. Paul Barackman (from 1944-1951). Rev. Frederick Evans had a short pastoral ministry from 1951-1954. After him came the renowned and scholarly Dr. Samuel Jackson. During his tenure, from 1955-1971, the first African-American joined the congregation. Dr. Jackson's retirement left a vacancy that was filled by the gentle, warm-hearted, spiritual leadership of Rev. Alexander Balden from 1973-1981. It was during this time that the congregation became predominantly African-American and Caribbean-American.
After many years of strong leadership, Bedford-Central endured seven years of lean. We spent those years diligently seeking a man of God. We received a welcome respite from our labor in 1986 when pastoral candidate, Rev. Richard Hagler burst on the scene with an energetic and innovative ministry.
Seven years of obedient and diligent prayer resulted in the calling of Dr. Clive E. Neil to the pastorate in 1988. He became the first black pastor of Bedford-Central. Under his dynamic, spiritually-gifted and creative leadership, we have experienced:
- A 30% increase in membership
- An increased annual budget
- An emphasis on Christian education, which led to the development of the Spring and Fall Bible Institutes and church library
- An increased emphasis on developing new leaders, with a vision towards commissioning 30 lay leaders to teach and preach
- The development of a music ministry that is lively and relevant to our worship experience
- The institution of a day of prayer
- A desire to make the youth feel like a vital part of the church by developing a teen outreach partnership with New Life
In the words of Dr. Neil, we have gained, "A renewed commitment to shift from a membership-centered church to a community-centered ministry, which addresses the multifaceted issues facing our people." Hence the inception of the Day Care Ministry, the Angel Tree Project, Christmas dinner for those in need, companionship visits to those in the Marcus Garvey Nursing Home, health fairs, aerobics classes, an international dinner (held outside), and an annual outreach day, where we take the gospel to the streets.
It's been over one hundred years and we are determined as we continue to serve Christ in this community, to continually re-evaluate our ministries and to analyze their usefulness and relevance. As we do this, we seek to practice 1 Cor.15:58 "Standing firm allowing nothing to move us. Always giving ourselves fully to the work of the Lord for we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain."
There is a creed in Native American culture that reads, "Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it." Bedford-Central Presbyterian Church will take only what we need, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we will leave this church, this community, and this country better than we found it. Amen!