By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
COXSACKIE — A tiny gem of a church on Mansion Street in Coxsackie can trace its roots back to the enslavement period of the 1850s.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 123 Mansion St., is the oldest surviving church building in the village and was founded by former enslaved people, historical records show.
The church received a historical marker from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation in 2021 honoring its place in local history.
The blue and yellow historical marker, which can be seen in front of the church, reads: “Bethel AME: This African Methodist Episcopal congregation was established in 1853 by free and formerly enslaved people of Coxsackie. Church built 1856.”
Volunteer researchers looked into the history of the church for the historical marker’s application and learned the founders of the church were John Clow, Abraham Clow, Benjamin Bronck and William Van Allen, researcher Linda Deubert said when the historical marker was approved in 2021.
Bronck is a common — and historical — Dutch family name in Coxsackie. Benjamin Bronck was enslaved and enslaved people commonly took the name of their slavers.
“It looks like Benjamin Bronck was born to Maria, who was ‘owned’ by Leonard Bronck,” Deubert said at the time. “These people, who were all African-American, were founders and trustees, and they had Dutch names because people in Coxsackie had slaves. I had never really thought about that before.”
The Rev. Shirley Whitlock has been the beloved pastor at Bethel AME Church for the past 10 years and said the church continues to have an impact on its congregation and community to this day.
“We have a food pantry that we run and we never stopped during COVID — we ran it all the way through COVID, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and it is still running,” Whitlock said. “We also support the local elementary school with school supplies every year and we do Thanksgiving for the community every year.”
The congregation is a devoted one, with some families worshiping at the church for generations.
“Spiritually, the church is second to none,” Whitlock said. “It’s a family-oriented church. It is really, really a family church.”
Congregants at Bethel AME attend Bible Study on Wednesday nights and some church members have been attending worship services for decades.
“I have some members that are in their 80s and this is the church they have been in all their lives,” the pastor said.
Because there are many elderly parishioners, the church has not held in-person worship services since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, but as the church has done for the past 166 years, it has persevered — and discovered new opportunities to serve the broader community far beyond Coxsackie’s borders.
“We are still doing our services by Zoom because we have an older congregation, but Zoom is working for us because we have people from Las Vegas, from New Jersey, from Florida, that join us on Zoom,” Whitlock said. “Some of these people lived here before and have moved on, but because of the virus we have been on Zoom, so they have been able to come back with us.”
The hope is to reinstate in-person worship services for Easter this year, but even if that happens, the opportunity to attend services will not be lost to long-distance congregants.
“Once we go back into the church, I am going to continue using Zoom,” Whitlock said.
Bethel AME Church in Coxsackie is not only the oldest surviving church building in Coxsackie, it is the oldest Black church in Greene County.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church is a national organization that grew out of the Free African Society that was established in Philadelphia in 1787 by Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and others, according to the national AME website.
It was a response to the racial discrimination and intolerance African-American individuals experienced at the time.
“When officials at St. George’s MEC (Methodist Episcopal Church) pulled Blacks off their knees while praying, FAS (Free African Society) members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African-Americans,” according to the website. “Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation.”
The African Methodist Episcopal Church now has membership in 39 countries on five continents.