Big Bethel AME Church
Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1847 and is the oldest predominantly African-American congregation in the Metro Atlanta area. Reverend Joseph Woods was appointed the first pastor of the reorganized Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta in 1866.The Big Bethel AME Church building on Auburn Avenue was completed by 1891; the former church building (just Bethel, without the "Big") was a brick building immediately to the west, which no longer stands. Most of Big Bethel's interior was destroyed by fire in 1920 and rebuilt. All but one of the outer walls of the massive stone building are original.
Backstory and Context
The building housing Big Bethel A.M.E. Church on Auburn Avenue was built by 1891 of rough-hewn granite. The Romanesque Revival style church has been a prominent landmark in this predominantly African-American neighborhood. The building is shown on an 1899 map as still being under construction, with no roof (see the Sanborn Fire Insurance map image). The "Big" Bethel building replaced the existing, brick building of the Bethel A.M.E. Church next door, to the west; the brick building featured a 50-foot tower on the Auburn Avenue side of the structure. The brick structure measured 20 feet up to the eaves and was heated by stoves; this building no longer stands. Both churches were noted on the map as "Colored."
The National Archives contains a letter written after the Civil War by members of the congregation, requesting federal funds as reparations to rebuild their church. Their church building had been destroyed by Union soldiers when Atlanta was an occupied town, and $7,000 was asked for. Since a number of the signers used an X and someone else wrote their names, an archivist thinks many of the signers were former slaves.
The Big Bethel AME Church has been the location of pioneering efforts in African-American education. The first public school for African-Americans in the city, the Gate City Colored School, was established in the Bethel basement (of the former brick building). The school later moved nearby to Houston Street. Morris Brown College held classes in the basement of the former church in 1881 before establishing itself elsewhere. The college is the only one in Georgia founded solely by African-Americans.
The church has served as the center of local community gatherings, earning the nickname "Sweet Auburn's City Hall." President Taft spoke from the pulpit of the church in 1911. The church survived a fire in 1917 that destroyed many nearby buildings.
Only one of the exterior walls (the west wall, closest to the organ) had to be rebuilt after a 1920 fire. The church interior and steeples were rebuilt by 1924. The church steeple includes a lighted cross with the message "Jesus Saves." The stained glass windows in the balcony honor founders Bishop Richard Allen, Bishop Henry M. Turner, and Bishop Joseph S. Flipper.
In modern times, the church has had the honor of hosting speeches by Nelson Mandela in 1990 and others. The current pastor is the Reverend John Foster, Ph.D., who has combined careers in the clergy and as a professor of electrical engineering and computer science or administrative dean at a number of institutions of higher learning. The church is part of the Sweet Auburn Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, listed in 1976. The church was mentioned in the news recently. The congregation is helping to support the renovation of a 16-story high-rise built in 1972 that overlooks Auburn Avenue and Georgia State University. Bethel Towers' occupants include a number of low-income residents.
Big Bethel A.M.E. Church. Welcome, Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, Where Jesus saves. January 1st 2020. Accessed February 16th 2020. https://bigbethelame.org/welcome/.
Gomez-Graves, Lynne. NRHP Nomination Form for Sweet Auburn Historic District.
Sanborn Map Company. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia. Edition 1899. New York, New York. Sanborn-Perris Map Company, 1899.
Sears, Sally. Fight over elevators opens door to eviction, CBS 46 news. January 29th 2020. Accessed February 17th 2020. https://www.cbs46.com/getting_results/fight-over-elevators-opens-door-to-eviction/article_b76e0516-42e5-11ea-b42d-63d8c8c7240a.html.