The AMEC grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s MEC pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation. Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, Allen led a small group who resolved to remain Methodists. In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated with Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel’s independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the AME.
The geographical spread of the AMEC prior to the Civil War was mainly restricted to the Northeast and Midwest. Major congregations were established in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, and other large Blacksmith's Shop cities. Numerous northern communities also gained a substantial AME presence. Remarkably, the slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, and, for a few years, South Carolina, became additional locations for AME congregations. The denomination reached the Pacific Coast in the early 1850’s with churches in Mother Bethel Church Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco, and other places in California. Moreover, Bishop Morris Brown established the Canada Annual Conference.
The most significant era of denominational development occurred during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oftentimes, with the permission of Union army officials AME clergy moved into the states of the collapsing Confederacy to pull newly freed slaves into their denomination. “I Seek My Brethren,” the title of an often repeated sermon that Theophilus G. Steward preached in South Carolina, became a clarion call to evangelize fellow blacks in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Texas, and many other parts of the south. Hence, in 1880 AME membership reached 400,000 because of its rapid spread below the Mason-Dixon line. When Bishop Henry M. Turner pushed African Methodism across the Atlantic into Liberia and Sierra Leone in 1891 and into South Africa in 1896, the AME now laid claim to adherents on two continents.
While the AME is doctrinally Methodist, clergy, scholars, and lay persons have written important works which demonstrate the distinctive theology and praxis which have defined this Wesleyan body. Bishop Benjamin W. Arnett, in an address to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, reminded the audience of the presence of blacks in the formation of Christianity. Bishop Benjamin T. Tanner wrote in 1895 in The Color of Solomon – What? That biblical scholars wrongly portrayed the son of David as a white man. In the post-civil rights era theologians James H. Cone, Cecil W. Cone, and Jacqueline Grant who came out of the AME tradition critiqued Euro-centric Christianity and African American churches for their shortcomings in fully impacting the plight of those oppressed by racism, sexism, and economic disadvantage.
In the 1990s, the AME included over 2,000,000 members, 8000 ministers, and 7000 congregations in more than 30 nations in North and South America, Africa, and Europe. Twenty bishops and 12 general officers comprised the leadership of the denomination.
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.
The Motto "God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family" is a great summary of what the African Methodist Episcopal Church believes.
Also known as the A.M.E. Church for short, the denomination is Methodist in terms of its basic doctrine and order of worship. It was born, through adversity, of the Methodist church and to this day does not differ in any major way from what all Methodists believe. The split from the main branch of the Methodist Church was not a result of doctrinal differences but rather the result of a time period that was marked by man's intolerance of his fellow man, based on the color of his skin. It was a time of slavery, oppression and the dehumanization of people of African descent and many of these un-Christian practices were brought into the church, forcing Richard Allen and a group of fellow worshippers of color to form a splinter denomination of the Methodist Church. To find the basic foundations of the beliefs of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, you need look no further than The Apostles' Creed and The Twenty Five Articles of Religion:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead; and buried. The third day he arose from the dead' he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Church Universal, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.
Articles of Our Faith
1. OF FAITH IN THE HOLY TRINITY
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this God-head, there are three persons of one substance, power and eternity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
2. OF THE WORD OR SON OF GOD, WHO WAS MADE VERY MAN
The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the God-head and manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.
3. OF THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST
Christ did truly rise from the dead, and took again his body with all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and sitteth until he returns to judge all men at last day.
4. OF THE HOLY GHOST
The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.
5. THE SUFFICIENCY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES FOR SALVATION
The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scriptures, we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.
The Names of the Canonical Books:
The First Book of Samuel
The Second Book of Samuel
The First Book of Kings
The Second Book of Kings The First Book of Chronicles
The Second Book of Chronicles
The Book of Ezra
The Book of Nehemiah
The Book of Esther
The Book of Job
The Book of Psalms
Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher
Cantica, or Songs of Solomon
Four Prophets, the Greater
Twelve Prophets, the Lesser
All the books of the New Testament as they are commonly received, we do receive and account canonical.
6. OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and the New Testament, everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore, they are not to be heard, who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments, which are called moral.
7. OF ORIGINAL OR BIRTH SIN
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk) but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.
8. OF FREE WILL
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and works to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore, we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God; by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.
9. OF THE JUSTIFICATION OF MAN
We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, by faith, and not by our own works or deservings; wherefore, that we are justified by faith only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.
10. OF GOOD WORKS
Although good works, which are the fruit of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's judgments: yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch that they by them a lively faith may be as evidently known, as a tree is discerned by its fruit.
11. OF WORKS OF SUPEREROGATION
Voluntary works, besides, over and above God's Commandments, which they call works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake than of bounden duty is required; whereas Christ said plainly," When ye have done all that is commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants."
12. OF SIN AFTER JUSTIFICATION
Not every sin willingly committed after justification is the sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after justification. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God, rise again, and amend your lives. And therefore they are to be condemned who say they can do no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.
13. OF THE CHURCH
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
14. OF PURGATORY
The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardon, worshipping, and adoration, as well as images, as of relics, and also invocations of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant of the Word of God.
15. OF SPEAKING IN THE CONGREGATION IN SUCH A TONGUE AS THE PEOPLE UNDERSTAND
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the primitive Church, (to have public prayer in the Church,) or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understood by the people.
16. OF THE SACRAMENTS
Sacraments ordained of Christ are not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they are certain signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in Him.
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord, in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel; being such as have partly grown out of the corrupt following of the Apostles; and partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures, but yet have not the like nature of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, because they have not any visible sign, or ceremony ordained of God.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about; but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation; but they that received them unworthily, purchase to themselves condemnation, as St. Paul saith.
17. OF BAPTISM
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference; but it is also a sign of regeneration, or the new birth. The baptism of young children is to be retained in the church.
18. OF THE LORD'S SUPPER
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather is a Sacrament of our redemption by Christ's death; insomuch, that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith receive the same, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation, or the change of the substance of bread and wine in the Supper of our Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper is not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.
19. OF BOTH KINDS
The cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the lay people: for both parents of the Lord's Supper, by Christ's ordinance and commandment, ought to administer to all Christians alike.
20. OF THE ONE OBLATION OF CHRIST, FINISHED UPON THE CROSS
The offering of Christ once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone. Wherefore the sacraments of masses, in which it is commonly said that that priest doth offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, is a blasphemous fable, and dangerous deceit.
21. OF THE MARRIAGE OF MINISTERS
The ministers of Christ are not commanded by God's law either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage; therefore, it is lawful for them, as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.
22. OF THE RITES AND CEREMONIES OF CHURCHES
It is not necessary that rites and ceremonies should in all places be the same, or exactly alike; for they have been always different, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word. Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant of the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, that others may fear to do the like, as one that offendeth against the common order of the Church and woundeth the consciences of weak brethren.
Every particular Church may ordain, change, or abolish rites and ceremonies so that all things may be done to edification.
23. OF THE RULERS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The President, the Congress, the General Assemblies, the Governors, and the Councils of State, as the delegates of the people, are the rulers of the United States of America, according to the division of power made to them by the Constitution of the United States, and by the constitution of their respective state and the Councils of States delegates of the people, are the rulers of the United States of America, and by the Constitutions of their respective States. And the said states are a sovereign and independent nation, and ought not to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction.
24. OF CHRISTIAN MEN'S GOODS
The riches and goods of Christians are not common as touching the right, title and possession of the same, as some do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally, to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.
25. OF A CHRISTIAN MAN'S OATH
As we confess that vain and rash swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord, Jesus Christ and James, His apostle: so we judge that the Christian religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the prophet's teaching, in justice, judgment, and truth.