Bethel A.M.E. to mark 148th anniversary Sunday

Published 1:00 am Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vicksburg’s — and Mississippi’s — oldest African Methodist Episcopal church, Bethel A.M.E. Church, will celebrate its 148th anniversary Sunday with a special service that will feature the president of Alcorn State University.

Dr. M. Christopher Brown II, an ordained minister in addition to Alcorn’s 18th president, will speak at the 3 p.m. service and a reception will follow, said Dr. John Walls, a longtime member.

The connection between faith and academics is not a new one for Bethel. In 1890, the church was the original site of Campbell College, started by Professor A.S. Barnes. It was later moved to Jackson and sold to allow for Jackson State University’s expansion.

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Also, at one time, Bethel’s history notes, “the four city schools (serving black students) were named for members of Bethel: J.G.H. Bowman High School, later Rosa A. Temple High School, L.C. Jefferson Junior High School and G.M. McIntyre Elementary School.”

Bethel was founded in 1864 by the Rev. Page Tyler, a missionary who had traveled down the Mississippi River from Missouri. Tyler left Bethel a few months later to the leadership of Brother John Bowman, later honored as the only person to be buried on the grounds of the Monroe Street church.

Bethel’s original church building was built in 1828 and was the home of the city’s white Presbyterians until the Bethel congregation purchased it after the Civil War. It was said to show “the marks of bombardment” from the 1863 siege of Vicksburg.

In 1867, Prince Hall Masonry, known as “the first Negro Masonic Hall in Mississippi,” was organized by Thomas W. Stringer on the grounds of Bethel.

The building was remodeled and updated a number of times over the decades, but the current brick structure, an example of Romanesque architecture, was erected in 1912, at a cost of $28,000, “plus whatever material could be used from the old church,” its history notes say. Its bell tower is 100 feet tall.

The stained-glass mural windows on the north, west and south walls were purchased and donated by various members and church boards.

Bethel has been honored with a Magnolia Marker by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and was also named to the U.S. Interior Department’s National Register of Historic Places.

Recent pastors have included the Revs. John W. Jenkins, Robert S. Boyd and Vicksburg native the Rev. Quincy Jones, who died tragically in 2011 in a drowning accident at his home.

Bethel is currently led by the Rev. Arnita M. Spencer of Jackson, who “has brought a new and enthusiastic view of worshiping to Bethel,” its history states.