“Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord God Almighty
In 1906, when Bethany was established, the Yahara River was still more of a wetland than a river, Norwegian was spoken by many of the city’s residents, and the Free Church Movement was in a phase of vigorous outreach.A congregation was established August 27, 1906 after tent revival meetings held by Evangelists T. T. Hansen and Ingvald Loe. Rev. C. T. Dyrness, Pastor of Salem Evangelical Free Church in Chicago, presided at the meeting where 18 founding members signed the charter.The first meeting place of “Betania”, as it was called, was in a home at 1352 Williamson St. The church home from 1908 to 1912 was a chapel built at 416 S. Baldwin St. Meetings were held for two years in the basement of the church built at Winnebago and Riverside, until 1914 when the upstairs portion was completed. Mr. Randolph Rosten was the first infant baptized in the new church in 1910.At that time, Bethany was on the edge of town, as the river had been straightened in 1910. Services were held in Norwegian. As the community developed with residences all around and shopping centered on Schenks Corners and Atwood Avenue, Bethany’s members came from and ministered to that community.
Under Pastors T. T. Hansen (1906-1910), K. P. Wufflestad (1911-1918), B. A. Erickson (1918-1924), and Bernhard Rom (1924-1957) the church grew to a vigorous congregation of about 240 people with 300 in Sunday School. A Christian Education wing was added in 1953.
Bethany began to extend God’s Word farther than it’s close community. First with a radio ministry that brought Biblical teaching to some outlying areas. Also, at about this time, a group of University students from Bethany began “Badger Christian Fellowship”, which was one of the first InterVarsity groups in the nation.
Rev. Bob Fallt (1958-1965) succeeded Rev. Rom. as Bethany extended it’s reach even further by starting a branch church (Door Creek Church) on Buckeye Road. Ground breaking for that church building was held in October of 1963. At the same time a group was forming on the West side which came to be Blackhawk E.F.C. in May of 1965.
This extended outreach led to a debate as to whether Bethany should stay or move. Bethany decided to stay where is began. Rev. Fally was succeeded by Rev. Howard Lanphear (1965-1978). The old church building was torn down and replaced by the current structure in 1978. Since that time, the daughter churches have formed strong and growing communities. Each of the Madison Free Church’s have developed independantly into their own ministries with a focus on their own personal Christian ministry.
Under Rev. Russell Hamilton (1979-1984) and Rev. Pete VanderHook (1985-1994) the church extended it’s reach toward the youth in and around the community. This youth work has been a challenging mix of success and struggle.
Currently, we are developing a new vision for the present time. We can not be a Norwegian Church - that was actually decided in 1927 when English hymnals were purchased. We find ourselves in the city of Madison, not outside of it. We live alongside people very different from those who lived here in the past. We have felt that God is calling for us to minister here, to this community of believers and to the community of unbelievers around us.
Some of the strengths of Bethany are the same. A foundational commitment to the Good News as found in the scriptures; A love of music; A family feel; A neighborhood flavor and a sense that this is a place to meet the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we go through our 10th Decade we can be tempted into two errors. The first is to make big predictions for our plans and prospects - too often these are simply an ego trip. The second mistake is to say our mission was in the past, and that we have no future. Our vision cannot come from looking at ourselves, of from looking regretfully at past glories. It must come from discovering the heart of God and seeing where He is at work and joining in as He sets the pace and the reach for this ministry.
“Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead, since he was about a hundred years old… Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God.” Romans 4:20-21
This is how the Bible describes the faith of Abraham, when he was about the same age as Bethany is now.