Mount Bethel represents the Moravian Church’s first feeble attempt at church growth in 19th century America. And it took not a life-long Moravian, but a South Carolina orphan to get us to do it.
That was Van Neman Zevely, and he had been visiting the mountains of southwest Virginia for several years when in 1835 he inspired the Salem church to establish a home mission society. A layman himself, he often took an ordained minister on his treks to the mountains — Henry A. Shultz or S. Thomas Pfohl or Christian Lewis Rights.
The mountain people took to the Moravian Church, but the Moravian Church was not yet ready for the mountain people. Finally in the 1850’s, with the ice broken for new churches by New Philadelphia, the Moravian Church answered the pleas of the Virginians. Francis F. Hagen visited the area and reported a committee formed on November 18, 1851. The Country Ministers Conference on February 5, 1852, called the little congregation “Mount Bethel.” Construction was begun on a building on Ward’s Gap Road. Then in services on November 24 and 25, 1852, Bishop John G. Herman dedicated the church and the congregation was organized.
The Moravian Church had committed itself to a congregation in the Virginia mountains, but it was rare when it could supply a resident minister. Most often a pastor would have to come 50 miles — a two-day journey in the 1800’s — from another Moravian church to hold a rare weekend of services.
Under the pastorate of C. D. Crouch in the 1920’s and ’30’s Mount Bethel underwent a transformation. A new wood church replaced the old one in 1924, and a large “mission house” was constructed in the early 1930’s to serve as parsonage and social center. Later, in the 1960’s, to answer the need for Sunday school space, a Christian education building was constructed, and the church was brick veneered. Dedication was on November 19, 1967.
Undaunted by its isolation, Mount Bethel has been the “mother church” of other Moravian work. Willow Hill sprang up in the 1890’s. Members came down from the mountains to work in Mount Airy in the 1920’s, and they formed the nucleus of Grace Moravian Church. And only a few miles away in the mountains the Crooked Oak church was consecrated in 1927.