Significant milestones have been etched into the fabric of Atlanta’s growth and development by members of Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church during its 168 year history. Prior to Emancipation, Slave Masters of the Methodist Episcopal Church provided a facility for our ancestors to worship at Bethel Tabernacle Church on the corner of Courtland and Jenkins Streets (now Georgia State University). However, our founders’ never lost sight of their vision to organize a church for self-expression, self-help, self-government and worship. This dream became a reality when the members of Bethel Tabernacle united with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1866.
* One of Atlanta’s Historic Landmarks is Big Bethel’s “Lighted Cross” bearing the message ‘Jesus Saves”, the sign was installed in 1922. This blue neon – lighted sign on the church’s steeple is still shining as a symbol of “Hope for the World”.
* A warm handclasp between Rev. James Lynch, sent to organize the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South, and Rev. Joseph Wood, member of Bethel Tabernacle, in Atlanta resulted in the ‘Tabernacle’ becoming united with the African Methodist Episcopal connection in 1866.
* Rev. Jesse Peck became a member of the Prince Hall Free and Accepted Masons while living in Boston, he became convinced of the organizations’ merits. Later, while pastoring at Big Bethel AME Church (Atlanta), established the first chapter of Free and Accepted Masons in Georgia, which became Saint James Lodge # 4, on March 5, 1871.
* Morris Brown College was established in 1881, when Big Bethel AME Church (Atlanta) hosted the North Georgia Annual Conference.
* The first National Convention of the National Association for The Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was held at Big Bethel AME Church (Atlanta) in 1919.
* A black Community Activist, Mr. Jesse O. Thomas, was able to convince the Atlanta City Council and the County Commission to each give $ 5,000 for rebuilding Bethel church, after it was severely damaged by fire in 1921. The reason for supporting this request was due to Bethel’s capacity to hold mass meetings of a non-denominational nature in the 1920’s.
* The Big Bethel AME Church’s “Heaven Bound Choir” was featured at the premier of the film “Gone With The Wind,” gaining an international reputation in 1930. The morality play “Heaven Bound” was authored and produced at Big Bethel AME Church and has been performed for 84 successive years since that time.
* In 1953, Rev. Harold I. Bearden made arrangements with the first Black Radio Station in Atlanta, WERD, to broadcast directly from the church, the Sunday morning ‘Worship Service” as an “inspirational gospel feast” for the “sick and shut in”.
* In 1967 there was a legal change in the name of the church. The name was changed from Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Tabernacle to Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
* The October 25, 1943 issue of “The Christian Recorder” commended Big Bethel Church for raising $65,000 to clear the church indebtedness made in 1924. This article recognized the leadership of Rev. D. T. Babcock. Rev. Babcock’s tenure of 14 years at the helm of Big Bethel Church has not been exceeded to this date.
* The last segregated graduation ceremony for Grady Hospital Nurses of Color was held on August 16, 1965 in Big Bethel’s Sanctuary.
* During the administration of Rev. Ruben T. Bussey, the church celebrated its One Hundredth Birthday. One of the highpoints of his administration was the erection of Bethel Towers (a Resident Housing Facility,) erected in 1968. On August 11, 2013, the mortgage for this $ 3, 514,700 building was burned.
*Big Bethel’s “Great Moller Organ” was installed in 1924 with 16 ranks, three manual and pedal organ. In 1987 the organ was completely restored and expanded under the pastorate of Rev. McKinley Young, when the instrument was raised to 32 ranks. Additionally, during the Young years, a major renovation of the church was completed, including upgrading, upholstery of the church furniture and carpeting added throughout the sanctuary.
* Rev. James L. Davis appointed as pastor of Big Bethel AME Church in 1992, established ambitious projects and programs. Among his greatest projects was P.R.O.C.E.E.D (Prayerfully, Proclaiming Our Community, Emphasizing Economic Development), a catalyst for revitalizing “Sweet Auburn” and other communities. Some of its positive outgrowths include the Trinity-Bethel Partnership, Big Bethel Senior Village, acquiring the Parking Lot and Renaissance Walk.
* During the administration of Rev Gregory V. Eason, Sr. in addition to his mantra of “Radical Hospitality”, FOCUS (Faithfully Obeying Christ with Unwavering Stewardship) was launched; to raise funds for the church to retire the debt incurred in purchasing the Parking Facility from Beaudry Ford Company. The parking lot is on John Wesley Dobbs & Jesse Hill, Jr. Drive.
* In May 2013, Rev. John Foster, Ph D, was appointed as pastor of Big Bethel AME Church. In addition to continuing the excellent programs and projects that are in progress, he launched a new video ministry, the Big Screens are operational and the church services are streamed LIVE on the web weekly. The latest initiative that the church has embarked upon is “The Vision for Big Bethel 2020”- to be the Preeminent Religious Presence of the Auburn/Edgewood Corridor in Atlanta, GA.
* In the 166 years of Big Bethel’s history, 36 ministers have served as pastors -‘sainted spiritual leaders’ of this flock. Three of those ministers, the Reverends Harold I. Bearden (1964), McKinley Young (1992), and James L, Davis (2004) were elected from Big Bethel’s pulpit and consecrated as bishops in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In addition, three other pastors, who were Spiritual Leaders of Big Bethel were elected and consecrated as Bishop in the AME Church, are the Reverends Wesley J. Gaines, Joseph S. Flipper and Isaac N. Ross.
To God Be The Glory, Great Things He hath Done!
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