Big Bethel A. M. E. Church was founded in 1847, and is the oldest predominantly African American congregation in the Metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia area. Historical records indicate that our congregation, variously Old Bethel, Bethel, the African Methodist Episcopal Tabernacle and finally Big Bethel, was formed prior to the incorporation of Atlanta on December 28, 1847. However, the roots of the congregation of Big Bethel emanated from the population of Terminus, GA that incorporated under the name of Marthasville in 1843. "Thus was established the first colored church in Marthasville and it 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 was changed to Atlanta.
After the Civil war, the congregation became associated with the A. M. E. Church, the first independent denomination in the country. Bishop Payne sent Rev. James Lynch to organize the A. M. E. Church throughout the South. While passing through Atlanta, he met Brother Joseph Woods, a member of Bethel Tabernacle. One year later in 1866, Rev. Joseph Woods was appointed as the first pastor of Big Bethel A. M. E. Church.
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. It later moved to a building 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.
For years the church was used for community gatherings because it was the largest meeting space in the African American community. Big Bethel was known as "Sweet Auburn's City Hall." In 1911, President William H. Taft spoke from the pulpit of Big Bethel. Heaven Bound, an internationally acclaimed and celebrated morality play, was first performed in 1930, and continues to open to packed houses after 70 years. In 1990, Big Bethel again became part of history when Nelson Mandela spoke here. Big Bethel has been designated a historic landmark.
The edifice itself is an architectural phenomenon. The existing building was rebuilt in 1922, after being destroyed by fire in 1920 and erected with a lighted cross in the steeple with the message, "Jesus Saves." All walls, except the west wall (the wall next to the organ) are original. The stained glass windows in the balcony feature our founders, Bishop Richard Allen, Bishop Henry M. Turner and Bishop Joseph S. Flipper.
Under the administration of a number of Bethel's former pastors, several renovation projects have been completed; all of which have been essential for the upkeep and beautification of our magnificent structure. The story of Big Bethel represents the lengthened shadow of the faith and dreams of one of the world's most astute Christian prophets, Richard Allen.