The Bethel Union, full name British and Foreign Seamen's Friend Society and Bethel Union, was a religious organisation for seafarers founded in 1819 by George Charles Smith ("Boatswain Smith").
The main seaports in England in the early 1800s were well served by numerous religious organisations that devoted themselves to the religious welfare of seafarers of merchant and navy ships. These societies were the precursors of the 'seamen's missions' still to be found in ports all over the world which provide social facilities, of more than a purely religious character. Crews are able to spend spare time ashore relaxing in a friendly and welcoming 'club-like' atmosphere.
One of these groups was known as the Bethel Movement whose activities were focused on chaplains conducting services on board ships lying in the port of London, and distributing religious tracts to crews, which spread to other ports of the British Empire such as Liverpool and Bristol and Sydney. Bethel is a Hebrew word meaning 'House of God'. Following a perceived need for a more formal organisation in 1819 to be known as the Bethel Union was founded.
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In Sydney, a Bethel Union Society was formed in 1822. and a more permanent base was obtained from the colonial authorities ten years later, on Darling Harbour, which was moved in 1851. Five years later a site was obtained on Circular Quay ('The Rocks') and a church built in 1859, with an Annual Service to seafarers. The facilities were extended in the 1870s. In 1895, the Church of England Mission to Seamen became a Branch of the Missions to Seamen, England. Further extensions of the Sydney Bethel Union were made in 1910 with a recreation hall, a new chapel and a vestry, administrative offices, a library and an Officers' Room with some accommodation cubicles, a gymnasium, smoking room and other facilities were added.
On redevelopment of Circular Quay in the 1970s, a new site was obtained at 11-15 Macquarie Place, Sydney. It was opened in April 1977. Changes in the patterns of ship operations (smaller crews and faster turn round times) soon prompted At this time rapid changes were occurring in international shipping and these affected the operations of the Mission. Macquarie Place was sold in 1985 and a property at 320-324 Sussex Street obtained and the new facilities opened in 1993.
The name was changed from "Missions to Seamen worldwide" was changed in 2002 to Mission to Seafarers.
- Kverndal, Roald. "Smith, George Charles". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/25808. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- "Mariners' Church". New South Wales State Heritage Register. Office of Environment and Heritage. H01559. Retrieved 14 October 2018.