Old Bethel UMC: If These Walls Could Talk

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If you take a stroll down the historic cobblestone streets of Charleston, S.C., you'll find horse drawn carriages and people sipping sweet tea and eating ice cream - almost year round.

Take a quick drive to one of the Sea Islands and enjoy the large live oaks full of Spanish moss.

Just about any restaurant you visit in the Low Country will serve you a bowl of a Geechee favorite - shrimp and grits. On any given day you can visit the Old Slave Market and watch the Gullah women weave baskets from the sweetgrass grown in the area. (Geechees or Gullahs are the former slaves of West African descent. Listen to the Gullah/Geechee language by clicking on this link.)

And about a mile away from the Old Slave Market, on Calhoun Street, you'll find Old Bethel United Methodist Church. The church is nestled between old row houses and a few new buildings.

Happy Anniversary

The church celebrates its 210th anniversary this month as it sits on a lot, virtually untouched by time.

"You can see the church in its original state," Rubye A. Bing, assistant church historian said. "The church is on the National Register of Historic Places. We can only maintain the structure. We can't make any additions or subtractions."

Bing first began attending "Old Bethel" in 1964, and she loves the church like a second home.

"I was out taking a walk with my two young children when Old Bethel found me," Bing reflected. "Because of the race riots, I decided to take a different route and just happened to pass by the church. My daughter stopped and started yelling, 'Mommy look, Mommy look!' The doors of the church were open and the sun was shining on the pipe organ. It was so splendid. I knew this was where God wanted me to be."

The church janitor was sitting on the steps at the time. He gave the Bing's a quick tour of the church, and invited them to Sunday service. And the rest is history.

Why the Name 'Old Bethel?'

According to Margaret Washington, church historian, construction for Old Bethel began on February 14, 1797. The church was originally called Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church and sat across the street on the corner of Pitt and Calhoun Streets.

The two-story church is built in the style of a gabled meetinghouse with white clapboards. Its dimensions are 40 feet x 60 feet, and the ceiling is made of cast iron.

Some of the windows still hold original panes of glass. The gallery of the church is exactly as it was built 200 years ago - with the same seats, and lighting fixtures. And the original pulpit is still utilized today.

Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop, designed the church and named it Bethel - which is the Hebrew word for "church of God."

"When it was originally built, the church served white and black members. Some of the blacks were free and some were still slaves," Washington said.

The black members sat upstairs in the gallery until 1851.

"At the time, the black members outnumbered the whites, and there was a disagreement over how the funds were being handled, so the blacks decided to leave."

According to church records, the black members were using their tithes and offertory funds to purchase the freedom of the slaves in the congregation.

And even though the white members were sympathetic to the needs of the slaves, they were at odds over this issue. Additionally, the white members decided it was time to build a bigger house of worship.

"The white members wanted to build a new structure on their property, so they gave the black members the church," said Bing. "And the black members used logs to roll the church across the street to its current location."

The white members built a new church and named it Bethel United Methodist Church. On August 22, 1876 the black church became Old Bethel United Methodist Church.

"The church was altered one time, and that was after it was moved," Washington said.

"Four fluted Corinthian columns were added to the portico in 1882."

There is an old slave cemetery where Old Bethel once stood. It has since been paved over, but the tombstones were preserved.

Standing the Test of Time

Despite the great earthquake of 1886 and Hurricane Hugo which took direct aim at the Charleston area in 1989, Old Bethel stands strong.

"The church has survived all these natural disasters with minimal damage," Bing said. "It's proof of God's love and protection."

Church records show that former slave Denmark Vesey and Civil Rights leader Septima Pointsette Clark attended the historic church.

"If these walls could talk, they would have some awe-inspiring stories to tell, Washington said. "Old Bethel is a testament of the past and light of hope for the future."

The church is open all year for tours.

May-September : 11a.m. -1 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays

September-May : 11a.m-1p.m. Wednesdays

For more information, call the church office at (843) 722-3470, Gullah Tours or the City of Charleston.

*Originally published in February 2008.

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CBN News
Robin Mazyck

Robin Mazyck


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