A Quick Atlanta Trip

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I spent a couple of days in Atlanta this weekend and had the opportunity to visit both Big Bethel and Greater St. Peter AMEC. While in attendance at Big Bethel's 8AM service I noticed that the church bulletin stated that the congregation was founded in 1847. I find this date to be of interest because it is clearly an ante-Bellum (i.e. before the Civil War) reference. I may be mistaken but I thought it was strictly prohibited by state law for black slaves or even black "freedmen" to have an independent congregation. The Gestapo-like enforcement by southern whites were aimed at discouraging slave revolts organized in churches like those attended by Nat Turner or Denmark Vessey. The plaque on the wall at Big Bethel however chronicles the first pastor as beginning service in the year 1867. This makes historical sense by virtue this time reference coincides with the start on Reconstruction. The unresolved question in my is what did Big Bethel do between 1847 and 1867? Can a church's founding date be considered legitimate even if it was not a legally recognized date? My suspicion is the church was largely "underground". I look forward to the contributors of this BB to help me with this issue.

Later that day (3PM) I attended a dedication ceremony for a new K-6 elementary school built and staffed by the congregation of Greater St. Peter AMEC, JOnesboro, GA, Dr. Isaiah Waddy Pastor. Bishop Cummins and Bishop Bresot Williams were present for the dedication program. In his remarks Williams provided a succinct report about his involvement in the 17th District. Williams stated that the 17th District now totals 156,000 member with over 2,000 new members joining in the past year. He will be in Wash DC meeting with diplomatic officials for all of the African countries under his charge (Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Congo). There is still much work to do. QED

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002


Bishop Williams' first name was grossly misspelled in the above post. His first name is of course Preston. If his parents are still living they can feel free to chastise me for this blunder :-) QED

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002

Bro. Bill, Oh my, you came to my church and I was at my 2nd. church, my other work station. I hope that you enjoyed the service. As for the history of Big Bethel... the specific dates that you mentioned, I'll have to check with one of our mothers for that info. I've never thought that to be an issue and I've been at Big Bethel all of my life, but you've raised an interesting question. One that I will surely get some info. about and pass it along to you. Maybe my aunt can share some wisdom with me.

As for the school and Greater St. Peter, that is great. Do you know if this building was a part of the Habitat projects or their own private school?

I pray that you had a grand time in the Atl. Have a blessed week

Oh, and you must come back for Big Bethel's " Heaven Bound", a morality play that has been done for over 70 years. One of our meembers, Gregory Coleman, has written a book chronicling it's history and impact in Atlanta's history, past and present. It's usually done the 2nd. weekend of November. I'll keep you posted.

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002

Bro. Bill I am glad you enjoyed your trip. What a fascinating question. It will be fun to hear the answer. Did you meet anyone from the AME-Today discussion board? And what and where did you eat.

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002

@ Rev. Denise....I wasn't present at Bethel on yesterday. I have passed along the website to some friends there and am looking forward to them joining our fellowship. But, please if any of you are coming to the Atl. at any time, let me know, especially if coming to Big Bethel. I'd love to greet and meet my sis. and bros.

Have a blessed week!

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002

The timeline Bill mentions sounds similar to that of Reedy Chapel, the "Mother Church of Texas". It began worship services in 1848 under the auspices of the Methodist Church (south). Slaves worhsipped essentially on a land grant. Eventually a building was constructed on the site. In 1865, Reedy was one of the sites where the "Juneteenth" proclamation was read (It has a very interesting history of its own - see the link on the web site above). Finally in 1868 (or thereabouts) Bishop Shorter convened the first session of the Texas Annual Conference at Reedy.

For a better description than this, read the Reedy Chapel History.

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002

The timeline Bill mentions sounds similar to that of Reedy Chapel, the "Mother Church of Texas". It began worship services in 1848 under the auspices of the Methodist Church (south). Slaves worhsipped essentially on a land grant. Eventually a building was constructed on the site. In 1865, Reedy was one of the sites where the "Juneteenth" proclamation was read (It has a very interesting history of its own - see the link on the web site above). Finally in 1868 (or thereabouts) Bishop Shorter convened the first session of the Texas Annual Conference at Reedy.

For a better description than this, read the Reeady Chapel History.

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002

Let's play a game Saints. It's called, "Where In the World is Bill Dickens?" Make sure you are at the doors of your church every Sunday. He might just pop up at your church next!

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002


You will note that not all African Americans were slaves prior to the Civil War and some of them even owed their own slaves. Thus, they hated to give them up after the Emancipation Proclamation. I am please to report that I do not know any of the family who did.

However, in and around Atlanta you will find a number of African American Churches founded before the Civil War. Some of them were always AME and were in the South Carolina Conference, which predates the founding of the original Georgia Conference.

Since my father, his parents and siblings were members of Big Bethel, I am certain from what I have been told, that these dates were accurate. My grandfather was both a colleague and Presiding Elder of Henry McNeal Turner. I believe Rev. Woods who founded Woods Chapel (now Allen Temple) was pastor of Big Bethel before the Civil War but Wesley John Gaines (Bishop) became pastor in 1867.

You will also note that British Law prohibited the enslaving of royalty and this prevented South Carolina from making the Turner Family slaves because Henry's grandfather (David Greer?) was know to be African Prince. It is said that the Turner men were very strong and would challenge and physically beat anyone of any race who threatened or harmed them in any way

My own church was founded in 1863. At first they rented a house from a white man named Benjamin Cobb--thus they named it Cobb Bethel. When they had sufficient funds, they bought and built the church on property, which they purchased from one of its original founders. Several acres, which surround the church, are still owned by this family who are members of the church.

Among the founders was my mother's grandfather who came directly from Africa. Though he probably had been a slave, his wife was never a slave. By 1863 he had acquired his freedom and had begun a family of 14 children--many of whom were already grown in 1863. He was also the only blacksmith in Fulton County, GA and both backs and whites had to support his then thriving business. With his money he was able to either purchase or inspire all his children to purchase their own land.

So in the greater Atlanta Area there seem to have been a number of African Americans with similar histories and they seem to have been able to overcome the legal restriction of the black society. This even allowed them to acquire land and begin their own business ventures. Many were farmers. They were well acquainted with Richard Allen and his work, and thus became either Methodists or A.M.E. They always had permanent buildings in which they always freely worshipped.

-- Anonymous, August 05, 2002

Let me add some additional information about Big Bethel.

The church was the first black church founded in Terminus, which later came to be known as Marthasville and then Atlanta. Both names were derived from the daughter of Governor Lumpkin (Martha Atalanta Lumpkin).

The original church was located on Old Wheat Street (Auburn Avenue) and was named Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Tabernacle. You should also note that Auburn Avenue was the seat of many thriving businesses and large churches and was once called "The Richest Negro Street In the World."

When (Bishop) Wesley John Gaines was pastor of Bethel, he and Steward Wiley were among the founders of Morris Brown College. This occurred because Clark College (A Methodist Episcopal Church School) asked to use their facilities for classes. Thus, they realized that if they could provide for others it was time to establish their own. The General Conference of 1876 was held at Bethel, and it hosted the General Conference of 1976.

In 1865 when the members who lived and owned homes in the Summerhill Community found it too much to walk the 15 or 20 blocks to Bethel, especially at night, they founded Woods Chapel (Allen Temple) at Clarke and Fraser Streets. Two yeas later those in Mechanicsville did the same and founded Saint Paul at McDaniel and Crumbley Streets. The founders of each of these churches were once members of Bethel.

Many of the persons mentioned in the posts I made are now buried in Historic Oakland Cemetery which is not very far from Bethel Church. Prominent Georgians of all races are buried there and it once served as both a cemetery and an Atlanta City Park.

To mention a different but a similar subject check out also Mound Bayou, MS

This all black city was begun in 1887. It has always been totally owned by blacks and they established businesses and voted since its beginning. At their inception they also founded an A.M.E. Church. Although this is after the Civil War and the period mentioned above, I mention it here because it thrived in MS and survived during Jim Crow days, which in some ways might have been equally as trying as the pre Civil War.

-- Anonymous, August 06, 2002

I'm sorry Renee you chose to be in your 2nd church this past Sunday. The Heaven Bound production sounds very interesting and provided the event comes equipped with Southern Fried Chicken, collard greens, candied yams, rice pilaf, very sweet iced tea and PEACH COBBLER, I could be talked into making the trip. The fine folks at Greater St. Peter had a sumptuous reception Sunday afternoon so you and your members must keep up that tradition. Many thanks also, to Robert for his thorough replies about the history of Big Bethel. I didn't know about the connection between Bishop Gaines and Big Bethel. Actually Robert your findings prompt another question in my mind. How many Bishops have been elected out of Big Bethel between Gaines and McKinley Young? Oh, lest I forget let me give Barbara a preview of of my upcoming travel itinerary over the next several weeks. I'll be in New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and possibly Jackson, MS. My northern/midwest tour will start around mid October 2002. If any members of this BB happen to reside in any of these cities you are officially on alert about my arrival. It doesn't matter whether you are "1st Church", "High Church", "Low Church" or even a mission, I am looking forward to meeting co-laborers in the Gospel. See you in a few. QED

-- Anonymous, August 06, 2002


I believe that approximately 16 Bishops were native Georgians, however not all of them were elected from the Sixth Episcopal District. As my unofficial observation there are churches in each Episcopal District, which have a history of electing Bishops. With few exceptions they rarely come from any others except where the ministry of the individual has been exceptionally outstanding. I also suspect that Bishops and ministers who are aware of this fact have actually sought and been appointed to these churches if they were seeking the Bishopric. Additionally I suspect that if we examine them closely these are churches, which are know throughout the Connection to been consistently, and traditionally A.M.E. in every sense of what we know to be A.M.E., despite what others were doing at the time. Apart from these churches most of the others who were elected have only been persons who either served as Presiding Elders or General Officers.

In the Sixth Episcopal District, three(3) churches are noted for electing Bishops. Listed in order of highest number of persons elected from each church, they are Allen Temple in Atlanta, Big Bethel in Atlanta and Saint Philip (not Monumental) in Savannah.

To answer your specific question, if I remember correctly the persons elected from Big Bethel are the following: 1) Wesley John Gaines (16th Bishop - 1888). 2) Henry Blanton Parks (32nd Bishop - 1908) was a member (not a pastor) of Big Bethel but was serving as Secretary of Missions when elected. 3) Harold Irvin Bearden (83rd Bishop - 1964). 4) McKinley Young (109th Bishop - 1992).

For an historical account of the more formal planting of Southern A.M.E. Churches following the Civil War see Bishop Gaines' African Methodism in the South; or Twenty-Five Years of Freedom

Finally, let me add yet one more thing to the history of Big Bethel Church. Hopefully this will be the last correction I will need to make. It is also one, which is most pertinent to the original question. Since what I have already said is from my memory and from an oral tradition. I feel it necessary to make this clarification in case someone should think that either my memory or oral history is infallible. What I failed to include is that the original Bethel Church was located on Jenkins Street, Sherman and his Federal Troops destroyed it during the Civil War and the "Battle of Atlanta". They virtually burned the whole city. Grant returned the property to the church, but following the War the members of the church sold it and bought the present site on Wheat Street--now known as "Sweet Auburn" Avenue. Also I believe that the original location of Saint Paul was McDainel and Humphries rather than McDaniel and Crumbley.

-- Anonymous, August 09, 2002

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