The history of the Bethel AME Church – Tallahassee, Florida, mirrors that of its parent body, the African Methodist Episcopal Church that was originally organized as the Free African Society in 1787. This was following a walk out by black Christians from the segregated St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, led by Richard Allen. In 1816, this group was chartered as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Similarly, in 1865, a group of Black Christians in Tallahassee walked out of the Methodist Church, South. Led by the Reverend Robert Meacham, a former slave preacher, these courageous freedmen began their worship in a rough lean-to of leafy sapling called a brush arbor, located at the corner of Duval and Virginia Streets. Subsequently organized as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church by Presiding Elder Charles H. Pearce, the history of Bethel is intrinsically connected with the history of the Florida Conference. Bethel, already in existence when the AME Church came to Florida, served as the site of the first two Annual Conferences held in Florida by the AME Church on June 8, 1867 and March 4, 1868.
The physical transformation of Bethel began early and has been continuous throughout its history. In 1867, a wooden building was erected to replace the brush arbor. It was brick veneered during the pastorate of the Reverend Glen C. Bledsoe. The Reverend J.E. Starkes is credited with erecting the first parsonage and the Reverend H. McNeal Harris built the second parsonage that still stands at 206 West Virginia Street. The Reverend M.T. Gaines demolished the old edifice, salvaging parts of it to build a new sanctuary. The Reverend N.Z. Graham is credited with burning the mortgage under immense odds. The Reverend I.D. Hinson completed a two-story education building that was eventually named in his honor, air-conditioned the church, and remodeled the basement of the sanctuary. The present modern-day, spacious, multipurpose, worship, study, and community complex, houses a sanctuary with a 1,300 seating capacity, classrooms, an education wing, a chapel, and a fellowship hall. This spacious state-of-the-art edifice, located at the corner of Orange Avenue and Wanish Way, was constructed in 1984 during the pastorate of the Reverend Adam J. Richardson, Jr. (1978-1996), at a cost of 1.1 million dollars. The stain glass windows, the pews, and the altar rails, from the Virginia Street location, were restored and placed in the new building. Additionally, Bethel by the Lake, a ten-acre campsite that includes lodging and recreational facilities, was purchased.
Throughout its history, Bethel has valiantly carried out the African Methodist mission of “spreading God’s liberating message through word and deed.” The preaching, teaching, and exhorting of Bethel’s ministers have strengthened, encouraged, comforted, and enhanced the spiritual growth of both members and non-members. Its membership has grown from 116 in 1865 to 1,700, in 2012. Over the years, numerous and diverse ministries have been established to meet the needs of the people. Bethel’s history is also characterized by its efforts to carry out the AME tradition of promoting an improved quality of life for all people. As an infant church, during the Period of Reconstruction, Bethel became embroiled in local and state politics and was intimately involved in efforts to promote educational opportunities for blacks in Tallahassee. While serving as the chairman of the Florida Senate Commission on Education, Bethel’s minister, Reverend Charles Pierce, debated a school bill that prohibited racially mixed schools. Later, he was appointed Superintendent of Public Instruction for Leon County. Joseph Oats, a member of Bethel, was a representative to the National Negro Convention in Washington, D.C., in 1866. Voter registration rallies and other community meetings were held and continue to be held at Bethel. Leaders and members actively opposed the oppressive Jim Crow laws that permeated southern society during the 20th Century and they continue to fight against the lingering political, economic, and social injustices of the 21st Century.
During the pastorate of the Reverend Adam J. Richardson, Jr., who, in 1996, was elected and consecrated the 115th Bishop of the AME Church, Bethel ushered in a new era of worship and outreach – expanding its methods of improving the spiritual, economic, and social levels of church members and the community at large. His plan for church growth and involvement was called the Seven-Fold Ministry of Bethel: the Administrative Ministry, the Worship Ministry, the Christian Education Ministry, the Stewardship Ministry, the Evangelism Ministry, the In reach Ministry, and the Outreach Ministry. Reverend Richardson initiated a weekly television broadcast of Sunday sermons, the Children’s Church, and weekly children’s’ sermons. He also developed an Adopt-A-Student Program which paired out-of state college students with church members who ministered to their spiritual and emotional needs while they were away from their families. Outreach ministries such as A Life Recovery Center, a short-term out patient program providing counseling and emotional support for individuals needing drug and alcohol rehabilitation, was established. Bridgeway House (a female ex-offender transitional house), the Daughters of Sarah Allen and the Sons of Allen (mentoring programs for underprivileged boys and girls in the community), and a Prison Ministry, were also established. The Center of Excellence Educational Program, which promoted after school cultural and academic enrichment, was created. Reverend Richardson’s legacy of changing the lives of the people who live in the shadow of the church is seen in the establishment of the Bethel Community Development Corporation (CDC), founded in 1995 to assist low income first time homebuyers to acquire decent and affordable housing. During his tenure, the first three houses were constructed and the first three families were served as he pursued his goal to “change neighborhoods…one family at a time.”
In November 1996, the legacy of dynamic leadership passed to the Reverend John F. Green. His plan for spreading the gospel and addressing social problems was embodied in his 4-D Program of Spiritual, Family, Educational, and Economic Development. Concentrating first on meeting the spiritual needs of the congregation, he established new ministries such as the Bereavement Ministry and the Prayer Partner’s Ministry. He created a Mid-Week Family Service to include prayer meeting, bible study, worship, and a fellowship dinner, and established traditional and contemporary worship services. His emphasis on educational development expanded Bethel’s in reach and outreach programs. He initiated a scholarship program for Bethel’s graduating high school seniors, and provided financial assistance to licentiates attending seminary school as well as college students attending Edward Waters College and other AME institutions. Additionally, a Bethel Youth Community Center was established under the egis of the Bethel by the Lake, Inc. New emphasis was placed on the education and training of church officers and leaders through annual leadership development workshops, church growth institutes, and church school teacher certification workshops. A variety of seminars and workshops were created and conducted to address issues such as education, domestic violence, family values, elder care, and health. The Bethel Health Network was created out of which developed the Annual Day of Dialogue which brings local churches, communities, and health professionals together to develop strategies for improving the health of African Americans. Reverend Green continued to expand Bethel’s Economic outreach through the Bethel Community Development Corporation. By the end of his pastorate, fifty-five homes had been constructed. And the quality of life for numerous individuals was enhanced through A Life Recovery Center, which provided non-residential treatment to more than 900 clients who were drug abusers or chemically dependent. Additionally, Bethel contributed to overseas missionary needs, especially in the 14th and 20th Districts. Reverend Green led the congregation in the burning of mortgages for the Bethel by the Lake property and the property on the corner of Wahnish Way and Orange Avenue. He reduced the church mortgage to approximately $500,000, and led the church in a renovation project to improve facilities and meet expanded building codes.
In August of 2008, Reverend Dr. John F. Green was appointed President/Dean of the Turner Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA. For the next two months, Reverend Ralph L. Wilson, Presiding Elder of the Tallahassee District of the AME Church, served as Interim Pastor. In addition to his dynamic teaching and preaching of God’s Word, Presiding Elder Wilson provided outstanding guidance and insight as he prepared the Bethel congregation to receive its 35th pastor.
October 12, 2008, witnessed the beginning of the pastorate of another wise and godly servant leader, the Reverend Dr. Julius H. McAllister, Jr. (Reverend Julius), who began his pastorate by introducing Bethel to a “Ten Point Thrust for a Thriving Church,” consisting of essential characteristics that Bethel should strive to perfect as the congregation joins together in Christ:
A Spirit-filled Church
A Bible-based Church
A Witnessing Soul Winning Church
A Caring Church
A Strong Christian Education Church
A Community Conscious Church
A Politically Aware and Active Church
A Church With a Global Vision
To accomplish God’s purposes effectively, Reverend Julius immediately took up the challenge of reaching new frontiers in the areas of evangelism, stewardship, outreach, and ministry. His penchant for evangelism is embodied in the church theme he established, “Called to make a Difference,” as believers, are encouraged to adhere to Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Determined that Bethel would actively pursue the church’s mission to win souls for Christ, one of Reverend Julius’ first priorities for Bethel was to expand its evangelism program. He created a Street Evangelism Ministry whose members go into surrounding communities sharing the Word of God, engaging individuals in personal witness and prayer, encouraging the unsaved to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and to become actively involved in and committed to the life and work of the body of Christ. Approximately 400 members have been added to Bethel’s membership during Reverend Julius’ four years as senior minister.
Reverend Julius established Christian Stewardship as another priority for Bethel. His passion for stewardship is fueled by his extensive biblical/theological research as evidenced in his doctoral dissertation, “Encouraging Churches in the development of a Comprehensive Stewardship Ministry.” With this background in stewardship, he is leading the congregation toward a broader understanding and acceptance of stewardship as an act of obedience to God’s Word. He believes that managing and giving of one’s time, talent, and material resources to glorify and serve God is evidence of a Christian’s faith and is an integral part of a Christian’s commitment and responsibility. Through weekly lessons, printed in the church bulletin and other church publications, he teaches the biblical reasons and rewards for the faithful giving back of God’s gifts. He also teaches tithing as an act of obedience to God’s law, and encourages members to accept this biblical principle as the fruit of a living faith.
Under Reverend Julius’ leadership, Bethel continues its tradition of reaching out to the community with programs designed to improve the quality of life for others. Under his leadership, the Bethel CDC has constructed nine new houses in the Bond and Springfield communities, bringing the number of affordable homes built for first time home buyers to 64 over the past 16 years. Five new homes for rent have been built. Further, the CDC has added to its inventory of services owner-occupied rehabilitation and weatherization of homes in the historic neighborhoods of Frenchtown, Springfield, Apalachee Ridge, Providence and Bond. More than twenty families have been served through this program and it has had a fiscal impact of more than $780, 000 in these communities. A Life Recovery Center continues to provide services to as many as 300 recovering addicts annually. Reverend Julius has also called the Commission on Christian Social Welfare into action. As a result, the commission has developed partnerships with community and government agencies such as the local police department, the United States Census Bureau, the City of Tallahassee, and the United States Marshals Service to provide increased opportunities for persons on the edge of society to transform their lives for the better. Frequent seminars, forums, and town hall meetings are conducted to enhance citizens’ knowledge and understanding of critical political, economic, and social concerns. Under the direction of the Commission on Missions and Welfare, Bethel’s initiatives to provide financial assistance to needy members of the congregation and the community have also been strengthened. Bethel continues to support Edward Waters College, Turner Theological Seminary and other institutions of higher learning with generous financial contributions. Also, Reverend Julius has led Bethel in responding to the humanitarian needs of our sister churches in the Sixteenth Episcopal District (Haiti) and the Twentieth Episcopal District (Malawi and Zimbabwe).
Christian Education is also one of Reverend Julius’ major priorities. Under his leadership, Church School membership has increased. Classrooms have been upgraded, new and improved instructional materials and aids have been provided, and the time allocated for instruction has been increased. Workshops and seminars are conducted for the spiritual and personal enrichment of officers and members, often facilitated by Connectional officers and outstanding AME Church clergy from across the country. Reverend Julius gives special attention to the children and young people of the church, developing programs specifically designed to lead them to Christ, instruct them in the knowledge and wisdom of God’s Word, and equip them for the work of ministry. He encourages the congregation to give strong support to the Children’s Youth Ministry, Young People’s Division (YPD), Collegiate and Young Adult Ministry, and Children’s Church. A Spiritual Guidance (SGS) Program, formally known as the Adopt-A-Student Program, has been reestablished, again connecting college students with church families and individuals who provide them with spiritual, emotional, and educational support while they are away from home.
As a good steward of the buildings, land, and other physical resources God has given Bethel, Reverend Julius provides leadership in church maintenance, repairs, and upgrades to ensure that the church is a welcoming and appropriate meeting place for God and His people. His knowledge of and experience in church management and finance allowed Bethel to liquidate a $250,000 loan in less than three years
Bethel’s history is progressive to a large extent because its pastors, past and present, met and continue to meet the challenges of the day, advance the work of our Lord, and give effective leadership to a conventional, yet vibrant membership. The pastors who have provided leadership to Bethel since 1865 include the following:
Pastors Serving Bethel AME Church – Tallahassee, Florida
The Reverend C.H. Pearce
The Reverend H.A. Attaway
The Reverend R.E. Brookins
The Reverend H.K. Daniels
The Reverend Abraham Grant
The Reverend A.J. Kershaw
The Reverend S.S. Herndon
The Reverend W.B. Kellix
The Reverend R.H. White
The Reverend Thomas Moorer
The Reverend J.E. Starkes
The Reverend B.F. Dilworth
The Reverend F. Layette
The Reverend W.B. Stewart
The Reverend A. Joseph Reddick
The Reverend Dr. Adam J. Richardson, Jr.
The Reverend H.J. Jackson
The Reverend J.A. Brown
The Reverend R.H. Dames
The Reverend G.C. Bledsoe
The Reverend M.T. Gaines
The Reverend J.S. Johnson
The Reverend A.L. Bennett
The Reverend R.J. Jones
The Reverend W.R. Akery
The Reverend N.Z. Graham
The Reverend Henry M. Porter
The Reverend A.F. Little
The Reverend J.A. Roberts
The Reverend H. McNeal Harris
The Reverend Ira D. Hinson
The Reverend Dr. John F. Green
The Reverend Dr. Julius H. McAllister, 2008 – Present
During its147 year history, God has poured His choicest blessings upon the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Tallahassee, Florida. And with God’s help, Bethel continues to commit itself to the work of Christ and to the mission of the Free African Society upon which the AME Church was founded, “…preaching the gospel, binding up the broken hearted, healing every kind of disease and sickness, be it spiritual physical, or economic. Enfolded in His grace, Bethel continues to answer God’s call to Make a difference.