A Short History of Bethesda Baptist Church, Felixstowe
The first town centre Baptist church in Felixstowe opened in 1907, when Hamilton Hall on the present Tesco site was hired for meetings. This was under the guidance of the Rev E.A Carter of the Pioneer Mission, and later of Rev W.G Howe, followed by Rev H.P.E Ferguson. However, Mr F.R.W Heath, who had begun worshipping there in 1909, soon felt God's call to establish a church in the Langer Road area.
So that same year, a small group of Christians began meeting for worship in a room in Langer Road, just beyond Beach Station Road. When the church grew steadily and needed more space, the Iron Chapel, affectionately known as the “tin tabernacle”, was erected in Beach Road West. A later extension proved inadequate, so the present site on the corner of Langer Road and Cavendish Road was purchased, and building commenced in 1915. The foundation stone of that original building, which initially only occupied the south-western part of this site, was laid on 20th October of that year.
At this stage, the 1st World War was into its second year, and there seemed little to rejoice about. But for the first members of Bethesda, as they stepped out in faith to establish a permanent Christian witness in the west end of the town, laying the foundation stone was a very joyful occasion. The building was completed in 1916, and opened with a full day of celebration and thanksgiving on the Easter Monday. At this point, the Hamilton Hall church, unable to proceed with its own building project, united with Bethesda.
The Cavendish Road building has been subject to many alterations and additions since 1915. However, the true church is not the building but the people themselves coming together to worship the living God. Bethesda has been blessed over the years to be led by very faithful pastors, all of whom have preached and explained God’s Word, the Bible, and led by example. Mr Heath, now the Rev F.R.W Heath, was appointed its first pastor in 1917. For the first year this was a joint appointment with the Rev H.P.E Ferguson. In 1923 the Rev Heath oversaw the enlargement of the original building to occupy the entire site. Other pastors followed: the Rev E.V Whittle in 1924, the Rev P.M Ward in 1928, and the Rev Dr. F.T Ellis in 1932.
During the 2nd World War, Bethesda suffered a major decline as many people were encouraged to leave the area for safety reasons. As people returned at the end of the war, the Rev L.W Long was appointed pastor.
On the night of Saturday 31st January 1953, strong winds combined with an exceptionally high tide to form a surge in the North Sea. This surge flooded low-lying areas all along the east coast of England, including Felixstowe, causing great destruction and loss of life. The damage to Bethesda was extensive, but, after 2 weeks of very hard work, the building was open again for worship. The Rev H.C Tyler followed the Rev L.W Long in 1959, and became the first occupant of the manse in Mill Lane. He was followed in 1967 by the Rev Timothy Alford.
Sunday School, Bible Classes, Junior and Senior Christian Endeavour and other children's and youth work have always been well supported. A particularly successful initiative was Discoverers, started in 1968 for children aged 7 – 11. This very popular meeting for children in the area ran for more than 40 years, until 2009, when, together with F-BYE and Friday Club, it became part of ‘Monday Madness’ in a reorganisation of the youth and children’s work.
The Rev Gordon Murray was appointed pastor in 1978 and continued for 20 years until his retirement. During this time further work on improving the church building was undertaken. In 2001, the Rev Peter Croft was appointed and served for 9 years until his retirement in 2010. While Mr Croft was pastor, Bethesda decided to venture on its most recent refurbishment, during which the building had to be vacated for 18 months with all services and activities taking place in St Philip's Church in Wadgate Road. In 2014 the church was pleased to invite Mr André Beck to become the current pastor.
Over the years, Bethesda has been very supportive of missionary work both in the UK and overseas. The church’s first missionary was Miss Rene Cordle, who went to India in 1933 and worked with the Baptist Missionary Society for 10 years. Since 1984, a further six church members have been called by God to full-time service both in the UK and abroad.
During more than 100 years of Bethesda’s existence, many people have heard the good news of Jesus and come to follow him, for which we give all the praise and glory to God. May the next 100 years be equally fruitful.
(based on material from ‘Go, build a church’ by Mary Austen and reproduced with her kind permission, and from an unattributed, undated paper, ‘A short history of Felixstowe Bethesda Baptist Church’)