Bethel A.M.E. Church - History

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Bethel A.M.E. Church - History


Church history



At a Church Conference and Get-together held at Bethel AME Church, July 14, 1938, there arose a discussion of the early history of the Church. In consequence, Rev. Thomas H. Stoner, the pastor, appointed a Committee on Church History for the purpose of making research and securing facts concerning the early history of the Church. The members of the Research Committee were: Mrs. Luana Riley, Mrs. Florence Louis Milan, Mrs. Clara Anderson Allen, Mrs. Mary Blackburn Jones and Mr. Albert R. Lee - Chairman

In 1990, Mrs. Esther P. Kemp under the leadership of Rev. Steven A. Jackson organized committees to pull together and update the rich history of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Accordingly, various committees were formed and the work began. The 1990-91 Historical Committee invited Bethel members, descendants of early members and community members with any written, visual, or oral history to share it with them. That information was used to draft early parts of the church history. The members of the Committee were: Mrs. Estelle Merrifield – Co Chair , Mrs. Erma Bridgewater – Co Chair, Dr. Sandra E. Gibbs – Writer/Editor, Dr. Mildred Barnes Griggs, Mrs. Odelia Alexander, Mr. Nathaniel Banks, Sr., Mrs. Carrie Banks, Mr. George Pope, Mrs. Bernice Pope, Rev. Steven Jackson and Mrs. Esther P. Kemp - Coordinator

In 2004, Mrs. Debrae Lomax, the chair of the 141st church Anniversary, asked organizations in the church to provide brief sketches of their group’s history, in an effort to continue to update the church records and the work of those first committees.

Most of what you will read in the pages to follow about Bethel’s history will be of the work that was done in 1990-91 and the new information acquired in 2004. There may be some added information as it relates to the Bethel’s expansion projects and other activities that Bethel has been involved in since August 2004.

As always, remember that we, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, are a growing church and our history will never be complete.

Early History of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Since neither Bethel Church records nor Quarterly Conference minutes before 1800 are available, the time of Bethel’s founding has been determined from the history of Champaign County which shows that the church was organized in 1863. The Quarterly Conference Journal of 1891 stated that the Church was 28 years old. Using this date, the time of origin would be 1863. So in 1864, a small group of people, who had been holding prayer meetings and other religious meetings in their homes, got together and raised funds in the amount of $600 and erected a small frame building on the property of Mr. Jake Taylor at 405 E. Park Avenue.

In 1877, the property at the southeast corner of Fourth and Park Streets was purchased and the frame building at 405 E. Park Avenue was moved to 401 E. Park Avenue, making both building and ground the property of Bethel A. M. E. Church.

First Parsonage

During the ministry of Rev. Charles Holmes, 1880 or 1881, the first parsonage was built in back of the church on Fourth Street. It was a modest, story and a half cottage. Prior to that time, the pastors lived in rented houses.

The New Church

Records for June 1892 show an abstract for the property signed by the church's trustees. On October 5, 1892, a meeting was held to incorporate the church and take action to build a new church. The trustees were authorized to mortgage the lot to secure a loan of $2,000 from Citizens Building Association to build a church. The corporate name of the church was to be “The African Methodist Episcopal Church of Champaign, Illinois.”

Building upon the new church began in early June 1892, and the building was competed in January 1893, at which time the church was dedicated. A Corner Stone laying by Lone Star Lodge No. 18, F. & A. M. featured the early stages of building. The church was financed by a loan from the Urbana Citizen’s Building Association, subscriptions from the members, and generous donations from other citizens. Later a loan was made by the A. M. E. Extension board. Benches and pulpit and the organ from the old church were installed in the new church…..as was an old furnace donated by the First Presbyterian Church of Champaign. The dedication was a special occasion. In the afternoon, a Men’s Chorus from the University of Illinois and the pastor and a large representation from the First A. M. E. of Champaign were present. A large sum of money was donated by members and friends. The dedication was the greatest event in the history of the church.

The new church was a brick building with beautiful stained glass windows. There was an auditorium, lecture room, choir room, often called the Baraca room because of its use as a Sunday School room for the Baraca class, which had an enrollment of 100 at one time. Bethel was the first church in the Twin Cities to have a Baraca-Philathea affiliation with the National Baraca-Philathea Bible Study group.

Parsonage Rebuilt

In 1919, during the pastorate of Rev. R. H. Hackley, the parsonage was rebuilt. At a church meeting held August 19, 1919, members voted to have the Trustees secure a loan of $2,500 for improvement of the parsonage, for painting the interior and exterior of the church, moving the parsonage back on the lot, adding two new rooms, and remodeling the interior to make the building modern. The parsonage was rebuilt and the church painted inside and out.

In 1925, during the second pastorate of Rev. George W. Jones, property at 1010 W. Main Street in Urbana was willed to the trustees of Bethel Church. This property belonged to the late Mrs. Sarah Watson and her husband, Henry W. Watson, who had preceded her in death. Both Mr. and Mrs. Watson had been faithful members of the church. And according to their will, which specified that after burial expenses all proceeds from the sale of the property were to be given to Bethel, the Trustees paid off the mortgage. Bethel was then freed of all its debts for that time.


The growth of the membership of the church was gradual but steady. Figures for the membership from the beginning are unavailable, but it must have been very small as the number of Blacks in the community was small. In 1888 the membership was 62. In 1938 it was approximately 270.

Bethel Rebuilds

The new Bethel was fast becoming old and in need of extensive repair in the late 40’s. In 1948, the Helping Hand Club served meals in a basement for a Sunday School and Church Conference and they raised $190. Rev. Elsie Taborn, who was pastor at that time, asked them how they would like the money used and they indicated it should be used as a starter for a building fund for a new church. Rev. Taborn added $100 and Mrs. Nellie Bradley added another $100. This was the beginning of a drive to raise $95,000.

In 1953, Rev. Taborn established a Building Committee naming R. M. Scott Chairman. Other members were: Elmer Brown, Eddie Glover, Speedie McDowell, Dawson Banks, Sr., Nathaniel Banks, Eugene Suggs, James Henderson, Nathan Williams, James Trotter, Herman Jordan, E. A. Martin and Cecil Pope.

When Rev. Taborn died, the leadership of Bethel moved to Rev. Parks, and the building program continued. Under the slogan “Let Us Rise Up and Build”, Mr. Scott encouraged Bethel to continue to build. Mr. Scott was still chairman of this committee at the time of his death on January 23, 1957. In 1957 the leadership of Bethel was changed again because of the death of the pastor. Rev. C. M. Curry assumed leadership and continued the building program. Before Rev. Parks' death, he had established a Planning Committee for a new building. Eugene Suggs was elected chairman and other members of the committee were: Erma Bridgewater, Ora Edwards, Herman Jordan, Eddie Glover, Cecil Pope, James Henderson and Kenneth Stratton. Rev. Curry added Arthur Evans, Nathaniel Banks and George L. Pope to the Planning Committee.

On April 6, 1958, ground was broken using the plans of architects Laz and Edwards. After many meetings and exchanges of ideas, the final plans were presented to the church conference and the conference approved the same. Construction began in the fall of 1958, and was completed in early 1959. On April 26, 1959, the church was dedicated.

In 1969, under the leadership of Rev. W. R. Stewart, a church conference voted for the trustee board to buy the property adjacent to the church at 405 E. Park Street. This was done and immediate plans got underway for improving the property. The church suffered a loss by fire to the property at 405 in the summer of 1970. Because of extensive damage, the improvement program was given top priority by the church.

On February 8, 1976, under the leadership of Rev. C. E. Carr, Bethel had its Mortgage Liquidation service with Bishop Howard Thomas Primm officiating. Rev. C. E. Carr also appointed a planning committee to draw plans for a new parsonage to be constructed at 405 E. Park Street. Under the leadership of Rev. Alexander C. Wright, Jr., construction of the parsonage began in August of 1977 and was completed and furnished on December 23, 1977. Rev. Wright and his family took occupancy on December 23, 1977. Open house was held on January 11, 1978. On November 23, 1980, the parsonage was dedicated by Bishop Hubert N. Robinson, the Presiding Bishop of the Fourth Episcopal District.

Rev. Alfred Johnson was appointed pastor of Bethel in 1984 and remained at Bethel until 1988. Under his leadership, the pews were refinished and cushioned, kneeling pads were donated for the altar, the kitchen was remodeled, the lower level was retiled, storm windows were installed, pew bibles and hymnals were purchased and the indebtedness of the church was paid off. Also during Rev. Johnson’s pastorate at Bethel, Rev. Osborne G. Munroe joined the ministerial staff in 1984.

In 1988, Rev. Hiram H. Walker returned to Bethel as pastor for two years. He was followed by Rev. Steven A. Jackson, Rev. John Nettles, Jr. and Rev. Charles B. Jackson. Under Rev. Charles Jackson’s leadership, a new organ and piano were donated to the church in memory of Paul Lawrence Pope by his wife Gladys Pope and other family members, new AME hymnals were purchased by members and friends of Bethel, pew bibles were donated to the church, and a new PA system was purchased by the Adult Choir. Also under his leadership, the church received a grant supporting a Tutorial Program and the church became computerized. In September of 2002 Rev. Gregory Wilson was appointed the new pastor of Bethel. Under his leadership, the Tuesday night Bible class began. In January 2004, Rev. Gregory Wilson passed away and Rev. Roosevelt Lindsey, Jr. was appointed pastor of Bethel in February 2004.

Under Rev. Lindsey’s leadership, Bethel began plans to expand. In the three years that Rev. Lindsey was pastor of Bethel, the church purchased several properties in an effort to build the church’s first ever parking lot.

Bethel Builds A Parking Lot

Whereas Rev. Roosevelt Lindsey laid the foundation for Bethel to build its first ever parking lot by acquiring all of the needed space, he moved to California in January of 2007 before construction preparations were finalized. In March of 2007, Rev. Larry D. Lewis became the pastor of Bethel and immediately continued the work started under Rev. Lindsey. Under his leadership Bethel moved ahead with plans to construct a parking lot. After many meetings and exchanges of ideas, the final plans were presented to the church conference and the conference approved the same. On May 16, 2007, a ground breaking ceremony was held. Butts Construction Company of Champaign, IL was contracted to build the parking lot. It was completed in July of 2007. The parking lot was dedicated on July 29, 2007. Rev. Roosevelt Lindsey, the pastor that started it all, was the dedication speaker.

Organizations and Activities

Bethel has a history which includes activity in the community as well as in the church. During the early part of the century when segregation was a fact of life, Bethel maintained a park for the neighborhood children on Ellis Street equipped with volleyball, croquet and tennis. The church also maintained a Reading Center located in the 100 block of East University Avenue in Champaign. The church also established a library, had a church orchestra, and served as a meeting place for Black students attending the University of Illinois. The church has had many active groups which include the Steward Board, the Trustee Board, the Stewardess Board, the Sunday School, the Lay Organization, the Helping Hand Club, the Fleur de Lis Club, the Luana Riley Women’s Missionary Society, the Usher Board, the Willing Workers Club, the Men’s Club, Men’s Bible Study, Biblical Arts Players, Benevolent Committee, the YPD, Adult/Youth/Young Adult Choirs, Women’s Ministry, Temple Shapers, Fitness Club, Calendar Club, S.O.L.D.I.E.R.S. (Step Team), Imani Liturgical Dancers, Stewardship & Finance Committee, Allen Christian Fellowship, and Scholarship Committee.

We can look back and be proud of our Bethel Family and the progress made. We continue to move onward and upward, so that the future generations will be proud of us, following in our footsteps and fully enjoy the blessings and glory of God our Heavenly Father.

Bethel Ministers

1863-1892 – First Church
Rev. Knight Rev. Derrick Rev. Henry Depugh Rev. Rinehart
Rev. J. W. Jackson Rev. William J. Davis Rev. A. Burleigh Rev. Campbell
Rev. Richard Holley Rev. Charles Holmes Rev. E. P. Moore Rev. Harry Lackey

1892-1959 – Second Church
Rev. Harry Lackey Rev. Levi P. Cristy Rev. J. A. Sherman Rev. T. H. Stoner
Rev. Peyton M. Lewis Rev. George Christbrugh Rev. Edward King Rev. M. C. Wright
Rev. Jesse E. Woods Rev. Andrew T. Jackson Rev. George W. Jones Rev. T. S. Henderson
Rev. F. T. Harvey Rev. George W. Jones Rev. J. W. Wiley Rev. John W. Wright
Rev. Peter Cooper Rev. John H. Smith Rev. Charles E. Brooks Rev. Elsie Taborn
Rev. Benjamin Arnett Rev. Henry W. Jamerson Rev. C. O, Mitchell Rev. Andrew R. Parks
Rev. Henry Simons Rev. E. G. Jackson Rev. Isaac S. Stone Rev. C. M. Curry
Rev. J. H. W. Jackson Rev. R. H. Hackley Rev. George T. Shaw

1959-Present – Third & Present Church
Rev. C. M. Curry (1959-61) Rev. Alfred E. Johnson (1984-88)
Rev. Blaine Ramsey (1961-67) Rev. Steven A. Jackson(1990-95)
Rev. W. R. Stewart (1967-70) Rev. John Nettles, Jr.(1995)
Rev. William N. Guy (1970-71) Rev. Charles B. Jackson(1995-2002)
Rev. H.H. Walker (1971-74, 1988-90) Rev. Gregory Wilson (2002-04)
Rev. Clarence E. Carr (1974-1977) Rev. Roosevelt Lindsey (2004-07)
Rev. A. C. Wright (1977-83) Rev. Larry D. Lewis (2007-present)
Rev. John Q. Owens (1983-84)
Ministerial Staff
Rev. O. G. Munroe (1984-2008) Rev. Brenda Wilson (2002-05)
Deacon Charles Butts (1996-?) Rev. Robin Barrow (2003-05, 09-present)
Rev. Eugene Barnes (2001-02)


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Bethel A.M.E. Church, "Bethel A.M.E. Church - History," in eBlack Champaign-Urbana, Item #112, http://eblackcu.net/portal/items/show/112 (accessed October 22, 2020).

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