Atlanta is home to numerous historical Black churches that have not only served as safe spaces for African Americans to congregate, but also have spearheaded the way for the betterment of African American people, education, social and civil justice. It is imperative to reflect on those churches’ efforts during Black History Month as an homage to our heritage.

For instance, historic church, Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church located in the Sweet Auburn community of Atlanta, Georgia.

Once called Bethel Tabernacle, it is believed to be the oldest predominantly African American congregation in the metropolitan Atlanta area. It’s earliest congregational roots date all the way back to the early 1800s.

According to its pastor, the Rev. John Foster, Big Bethel’s impactful community efforts include serving as a transitional facility for men recovering from addiction and a referral agency that distributes clothing and toiletries to the homeless. They also provide tutoring, mentoring, social skills development and spiritual enlightenment to multicultural children and youth.

Reverend Bessie Donaldson of Big Bethel states, “Original Bethel was formed prior to the incorporation of Atlanta in December 1837. However, the roots of the congregation of Big Bethel emanated from the population of Terminus, Georgia, that incorporated the name of Marthasville in 1843. From this was established the first colored church in Marthasville, which was Methodist.

In 1847, the city officials determined that the township of Marthasville was destined to become the railroad center of the South; thus the name Marthasville changed to Atlanta.”

“After the Civil War, the Bethel congregation became associated with the AME Church, the first independent denomination in the country. As Bishop Daniel Payne and Reverend James
Lynch organized the AME churches throughout the South, Big Bethel grew to become the center of the community, focal point for social actions, and especially a house of worship inviting to all with the message as on the steeple, “Jesus Saves.”

According to Georgia Encyclopedia, during its early years, Big Bethel served solely as a place of worship for slaves who had actually been approved to worship in the white union church. It also became a hospital to aid those who fell ill to smallpox and served as an educational mecca offering classes to newly freed African American children.

Big Bethel gained national and international recognition for its religious pageant, Heaven Bound. The African American folk drama portrays the struggles and pitfalls of a group of pilgrims striving to reach the gates of heaven. The pageant attained so much acclaim when it was originally performed on February 17, 1930, that it has now been performed annually ever since.

“The organizers and producers of the awesome ministry (and it is ministry) have designed it so that contemporary music is blended into the presentation to better meet the appetites of the younger generation. The pageant is now being streamed to reach a greater community, globally,” said Donaldson.

Heaven Bound would eventually provide Big Bethel with the funds needed to pay off old debts and to complete reconstruction of their third church building after a disastrous fire in 1923. The misfortunate event occurred just one day after the church’s insurance expired, leaving the church in a rut.

During this phase of rebuilding, Big Bethel would obtain it’s now widely recognized cross heralding the blue message “Jesus Saves” placed across its steeple. This construction would acquire the name “Big Bethel.”

One of Atlanta’s most historic landmarks has grown to be Big Bethel’s lighted cross bearing the message “Jesus Saves,” the sign was installed in 1922. This neon blue lighted sign on the church’s steeple is still shining as a symbol of “Hope for the World.”

Much of Big Bethel’s fast-growing congregation is accredited to the Great Depression during the 1930s. Audiences continued to pour in to lift their spirits and experience Heaven Bound as well as hear angelic voices of the church choir.

Eventually, the choir would later be featured at the Atlanta world premiere of Gone With the Wind and at Warm Springs for former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

This would not come to be Big Bethel’s only association with public or political figures. U.S. Presidents William Taft, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton would be hosted at Big Bethel along with educational leader Mary McLeod Bethune and South African President Nelson Mandela.

Education has always been a prominent pillar of Big Bethel. They have come to found Morris Brown College and Gate City Colored School, the first public school for African Americans.

In addition, Atlanta’s WERD, which operated as the nation’s first radio station to be owned by an African American, broadcasted sermons by Big Bethel’s Pastor Harold Irvin Bearden during the 1950s. This catapulted the church into the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.

The 1960s were dedicated to the expansion and the construction of Bethel Towers. This complex opened in 1972 providing one hundred and thirty-five low-income housing units for community residents.

“Bethel Towers low-income housing facility still stands in its original location, 210 Auburn Avenue, NE Atlanta, GA 30303. It is currently undergoing renovations for future growth for future generations,” said Donaldson.

This historic church has served various purposes throughout history that have greatly impacted the community and stood the course of time. They stand firm in their grounds to preserve the great historic Auburn Avenue community.
Big Bethel continues to live by their mission to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ; and to communicate to the world through preaching, teaching, evangelizing, worshipping, and stewardship, that “Jesus Saves.”

(Photo: Emily Butler)

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