Big Bethal A.M.E.
212 Auburn Avenue
Sweet Auburn Historic District
Architect: J.A. Lankford
Architectural Style: Between 1920 and 1930 J.A. Lankford,
a black architect, changed the identity of the restored church
from Victorian to Romanesque Revival.
Original Use: Has been an important spiritual/social/political
institution in the Sweet Auburn Ave. Community since inception.
Present use: Continues functioning as a community church.
1840- Col. Lemuel P. Grants, for whom
Grant Park was named, gives Ransom Montgomery and other African
Americans property on which to erect their own place of worship.
A site was selected on Jenkins Street, where the church stood
until Federals destroyed it during the Civil War. Colonel
Grant returned the site to them, but it was sold and property
on Wheat Street (later called Auburn Ave.) was purchased.
1847 -Bethal Tabernacle is officially founded as a
Methodist church; later called Big Bethal African Methodist
Episcopal Church. (p.2;GATW)
1879- the Gate City Colored School, the first public
school for African Americans in the city is founded in the
basement of Big Bethel.
1881- Morris Brown University is founded in the Basement of
Big Bethal A.M.E. Church. Mary McCree is the first principle.
Bishop Wesley J. Gains contracts with Armstrong soap for the
school to receive a percentage of all proceeds from soap sold
in a certain period. From this percentage the university's
first building is erected in 1885.
1922- A lighted cross and neon lights bearing the words
"Jesus Saves" are placed on the steeple of the Big
Bethal A.M.E. church.
1930- The notable morality play "Heaven-Bound"
was first performed and has since been shown many times to
1936- Feb.12; John Wesley Dobbs speaks for 2 hours
at Big Bethal to awaken the political conscience of Atlanta's
90,000 blacks. He proposes that night to organize the Atlanta
Civic and Political League to register 10,000 voters. Twenty-eight
year old C.A. Scott, owner and editor of The Daily World backs
him up the next day in his newspaper.
1937- The Federal Theatre of
the Works Progress Administration sponsors a production of
"Heaven-Bound" in the Atlanta Theatre.
Much of the following is from the Big Bethal
Founded in 1847, Big Bethel is the oldest predominately African
American congregation in the metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia
area. At the time of the founding Atlanta was still called
After the Civil War the congregation became associated with
the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent
denomination in the country. Bishop Payne sent Reverend James
Lynch to organize the AME Church throughout the South. While
passing through Atlanta he met Brother Joseph Woods, a member
of Bethel Tabernacle. A year later in 1865, Reverend Joseph
Woods was appointed as the first pastor of Big Bethel A.M.E.
Big Bethel rapidly grew to become a center of the community
as well as a focal point for social action. In 1879, the Gate
City Colored School, the first public school for African Americans
in the city, was founded in the basement of Big Bethel. Later,
the school moved to a basement on Houston Street. In 1881,
Morris Brown College, the only college in Georgia started
solely by African Americans, held classes in the basement
of Big Bethel before moving to its first campus.
In 1917, fire struck the area known as the Fourth Ward, destroying
most of the area east of Boulevard, extending to Ponce. Big
Bethel was the only church in the ward owned by Blacks and
still standing. As a result the church served as a hub for
the gathering of large numbers of African Americans for public
meetings between 1917 and 1920.
In 1920 fire struck the sanctuary and completely gutted it.
The insurance policy on the church had expired the day before
and a tremendous debt was incurred to pay for the rebuilding.
Between 1920 and 1930 J.A. Lankford, a black architect, changed
the identity of the restored church from Victorian to Romanesque
Revival. Crowning the newly rebuilt Big Bethel was a lighted
cross bearing the message "Jesus Saves" on the steeple.
During this time an $8,500 pipe organ was installed.
In 1930, Heaven Bound, morality pageant that gained world
acclaim, was first produced as a fundraiser. The theme centered
on faith of 24 pilgrims trying to reach the Heavenly Gates.
In 1944, the Wedding of roses, a friendly competition between
church auxiliaries, boards, and clubs was introduced by sister
Ada Thomas to help pay off the debt from the 1920 fire.
The activist movement of the 1960's left a distinct impression
on Big Bethel. A new Black theology was flowering, and a more
activist, liberation-focused church was evolving.
Under the leadership of Pastor James Davis, Big Bethel has
just completed a $1.8 million dollar renovation. The church
is now accessible to the physically disabled and is home to
a deaf signing ministry.
Use browser back button to return to original page.