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Bethel A.M.E. Church - Richmond, IN
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, was organized in September 1836 in Richmond, Indiana. It was organized by then-missionary William Paul Quinn, one of dozens of churches he founded during his life; Quinn would later make his permanent home in Richmond after he was elected a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The church began with 54 members. Its first permanent building was a relocated two-story frame warehouse which was then renovated by the congregation into a church and school. In the first half of the nineteenth century, African Americans had few opportunities for state-sponsored education in the Midwest, so churches such as Bethel AME provided educational services. As a city founded and largely populated by abolitionist Quakers, Richmond was a haven for free blacks in the nineteenth century. Bethel AME Church served as the socio-cultural center of the African American community in Richmond.
The church’s current building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.
**This history has been compiled from souvenir books from the 112th (1950), 124th (1962), 136th (1974), 158th (1996) sessions of the Indiana Annual Conference where Bethel, Richmond served as host church and the 145th Church Anniversary (1981) of Bethel, Richmond. Additionally, elements of this history have been augmented or corrected by publicly available resources and government documents.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Richmond, IN (Bethel, Richmond) was organized by the Rev. William Paul Quinn, a traveling evangelist and missionary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. At the time, Richmond was a struggling village with a population of about 1,200, with less than 50 adults in the Black community. Most of them had come north from Virginia and North Carolina to escape the Black Laws enacted by those states against free people of color. Richmond, with its Quaker population, was a “city of refuge.” They could live in safety, enjoy religious freedom, and make some progress.
The Early Years (1836 - 1843)
The church started in the two-room log cabin of Cornelius and Jane Overman who lived on the east side of the 400 block on South 5th Street (Pearl Street). Those present, all baptized Christians past middle-age, were Cornelius and Jane Overman; Charles Overman and wife, Elizabeth; Mary Overman, a sister; William and Mary Davidson; Adam and Ann Carpenter; Richard and Matilda Rush, Charlotte Benton, Fanny Albertson, Nathan Ward, and George Black. Rev. Quinn appointed Cornelius Overman class leader and steward, William Davison, Nathan Ward, and George Black Trustees. Nathan Ward, who had been a local preacher in Virginia, was left in charge. At the first Quarterly Conference, his license was renewed. Under the guidance of Rev. Quinn, Ward was later received into the newly organized Indiana Conference and served as the fifth pastor of Bethel, Richmond and Fountain City, where they were in a circuit.
George Black, probably the best scribe in the church, kept legible records for the next 25 years. At first, all church services were held in the homes of the members or in a nearby grove when the weather permitted. With the help of friends in the community, a fixed place of worship was inaugurated on May 19, 1837. Gardner and Phoebe Mendenhall, two well-known Quakers, had a deed recorded in the courthouse in Centerville, transferring to the “Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Lot No. 101 in the John Smith Addition ($25.00 the consideration). The lot was to be used for 436-38 South 6th Street. In the summer of 1837, a two-story farm building, once a warehouse, was bought and moved to the premises. With a few repairs, it was remodeled into a church, seating about 100 persons. In October 1837, Rev. Quinn returned and dedicated the building. The second floor was used as a school. The teachers were men and women from the best Quaker families. Adults were the students initially. They generally graduated when they could count money, write a little, and read the Bible.
Bethel, Richmond was in the Ohio Annual Conference until the organization of the Indiana Annual Conference in 1838, and in the circuit of Oxford and Greenville, Ohio. Rev. Benjamin Shipworth was the first circuit-riding pastor and lived in Greenville, OH.
Rev. Quinn, after his second visit to Richmond, was so impressed at the cordial reception he had received and the interest manifested by all groups in Bethel, Richmond, that he decided to make it his future home. He was a widower, his wife having died during his time as a Circuit Rider in Pennsylvania. For a long time, he lived in Richmond with Harrison and Susan Medley, who kept boarders and roomers in their home on the northeast corner of Washington (3rd) and Sycamore (C) Streets. The Medleys were among the first to join Bethel, Richmond. Harrison Medley was a brother-in-law of Nathaniel Jones, and served as a class leader and trustee for many years.
Our Founder, Bishop Paul Quinn
At the General Conference held in Pittsburgh, PA in 1844, Rev. Quinn was elected the 4th Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on the first ballot. Quinn’s first assignment as Bishop was to all of the territory in the West (west of the Ohio border) that his labors as a traveling missionary and evangelist had manifested, and Richmond became the seat of the Episcopal Residence. His first home was at 225 South Washington (3rd) Street. After he became Bishop, he lived at 71 Main Street, where he kept an open house and lived befitting his station as a high churchman. He was married for the second time in 1856 and was living in his own home at 221 South Marion (6th) Street, when his busy life ended on February 27, 1873.
For 35 years, Bishop Quinn was a familiar figure in the Richmond community, highly esteemed and considered one of its first citizens. He made himself the guardian and benefactor of Bethel, Richmond and the members of the church in spiritual as well as material affairs. All the pastors of Bethel, Richmond during Bishop Quinn’s lifetime were his old friends. Most of them knew him as a circuit-rider in the East and had followed him West on hearing of his great success in building up the church.
Bethel Stands on its own and struggles through the Civil War (1844 - 1868)
Among the early pastors of the church was Rev. Willis R. Revels, M.D., older brother of Rev. Hiram Revels, first Black United States Senator, who was ordained in the Indiana Annual Conference in 1845 and elected and ordained an itinerant elder in 1849. It is noted that his first pastorate was in the Richmond, IN area.
In 1847, Bethel, Richmond became a station, having grown enough to be strong enough to longer need to be a part of a circuit and receive its own pastor instead of a circuit-rider. Rev. Robert Jones was appointed as the first resident pastor. Growth in membership was slow. At the outbreak of the Civil War, there were only 60 active and supporting members. Church trials were frequent and members were dropped for persistent failure to live according to the rules of the A.M.E. Doctrine and Discipline. However, during this period of time, Bethel, Richmond served as a hub for the A.M.E. Church’s efforts to house the formerly enslaved escaping to freedom.
During the war, there was much grief in the church. For a long time, all of the news was bad. The old members were in despair as to the outcome, which meant so much to the church. When the opportunity came, 48 young men in Wayne County volunteered. More than half of them were from Richmond and vicinity. Every family was affected directly or indirectly. William H. Clemens, husband of Amy Clemens, both members of Bethel, Richmond, was the first casualty and died of wounds on June 24, 1864. John Wesley Winslow, son of Dan and Mary Ann Winslow, was killed in action at Fort Wagner. The father was first licensed to preach at Bethel, Richmond, and at the time was serving as a pastor in the Indiana Annual Conference.
Bethel Finds its Permanent Home (1868 - 1891)
After the war, there were many newcomers and Bethel, Richmond welcomed some new members and had a growing congregation. Even on ordinary occasions, the church would be crowded since it was the only place for worship or assembly. The old church could not be enlarged and the membership was too poor to rebuild. Pastors of Bethel, Richmond in the early days were not very learned, but they were experienced and had natural ability. These endowments enabled them to do much in a young church.
Nothing was done until 1868, when the present location was obtained from the Hicksite (Orthodox) Friends congregation. On the premises was a brick church seating 200 and facing Marion (6th) Street, with a like structure in the rear which had been used as a school. The buildings had been erected by the German Methodists in 1854, but the congregations had disbanded. For sometime, the Hicksite (Orthodox) Friends had been in possession but were preparing to move to a larger and more centrally located meeting house, now the present-day Wayne County Historical Museum, located at 1150 North A Street.
Rev. E.J. Joiner was the pastor, with the cooperation of Bishop Quinn, reached an agreement with German Methodist trustees to purchase the church for $2,900.00. As part of the contract, the former Bethel, Richmond church property was to be sold to the school board for $1,000.00. That sum would be paid on the purchase price, with the balance to be secured by notes signed by the A.M.E. Trustees, which in effect were a lien or mortgage. The transfer of title and interest was made on June 4, 1869. On June 24, the new church was dedicated with appropriate services conducted by Bishop Quinn.
Rev. Jonathan Mitchem was long remembered as the first pastor after the present location was acquired. There was a debt of $1,900.00. At his first Trustee Board meeting in 1870, he suggested purchasing 10 shares of stock in the 5th Street Building and Loan. His plan was adopted and the debt incurred when our present location was acquired, was liquidated by this method.
Rev. Willis R. Revels, pastor in 1873, was the first to have any college education. Having graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, IL, he organized auxiliaries to assist the trustees and introduced an envelope system of raising funds.
The school building, or “Vestry” as it was called, served as the parsonage for pastors until the administration of the Rev. Charles Thomas, 1884-1885. Then a new parsonage was built. Rev. Morris Lewis with his family was the first occupant of the new parsonage. Later, and for many years, Rev. Lewis was the presiding elder of the Richmond District of the Indiana Annual Conference.
Bethel, Richmond celebrated its 50th anniversary during the week of September 23, 1886. It was a week of thanksgiving and prayer for the 100 members enrolled. Two other congregations had been organized in the community. Joint (or union) services were held for the occasion. The First Baptist (present-day Mt. Moriah) Church was established in 1871, but it was in 1880, when Rev. Benjamin Smith-Jones became pastor, that the church would become permanently established and make progress. The Wesleyan Methodist Church was organized in 1878 by Rev. C.M. Clemens and was doing good work.
The Second Townsend Administration and a New Building (1891 - 1893)
In 1891, Rev. James M. Townsend was appointed pastor of Bethel, Richmond. A few months before this, Townsend had resigned as Recorder of Deeds in the General Land Office in Washington, D.C., a political appointment made by President Benjamin Harrison. He was no stranger in Richmond, having maintained a residence there since 1880. That year he had been elected the first Secretary of Home and Foreign Missions at the General Conference of the A.M.E Church held in St. Louis, MO. His office was located in this city during the eight years he served. Townsend was a Civil War veteran and member of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Post he had been nominated to and elected in 1885 as the representative from Wayne County to the Indiana Legislature. Like Bishop Quinn, he was an outstanding citizen and was highly respected by all groups. At this time, there were many members of Bethel, Richmond, who had come during his pastorate in 1873-1875. Among them were Thomas Oster, a steward and class leader, and his brother James, Sunday School Superintendent.
In the winter of 1892, Rev. Townsend conducted a six-week “Revival Meeting” that resulted in more than 100 additions to the membership. The old church building was crowded and “overflow” meetings were held in the old Vestry. At a church meeting held on April 11, 1892, it was decided to build a new church. In May, the old buildings were razed. On July 10, 1892, the cornerstone was laid. On June 4, 1893, the present structure was dedicated. Bishop Alexander Washington Wayman, the 7th Bishop of the A.M.E. Church, presided and preached the sermon.
Unfortunately, the new church was built during the “hard times” of 1892 and 1893, which coincided with the Panic of 1893. There was much unemployment in the community, especially in the church. The new church building had cost more than the first estimate. To make matters worse, Rev. Townsend, at the end of his second year, was reassigned to Quinn Chapel in Chicago, IL. The debt at the dedication was $5,000.00, quite a lot of money during the 1890s.
The Turn of the Century (1893 - 1915)
Rev. I. M. Burgan and Rev. Henry Simons followed Rev. Townsend, each staying two years. They succeeded in paying off the most pressing claims and keeping up the spiritual interest. It was ten years after the dedication of the new church building, during the pastorate of Rev. Frank Baker, that the old debt was paid. Rev. Baker was long remembered for his work among the young people of the congregation and Sunday School. He organized a Star Society of teenagers. He remained five years and was the first pastor to stay more than two years.
Then Rev. Noah W. Williams, later elected the 54th Bishop of the A.M.E. Church, succeeded Rev. Baker and served three years. He continued Rev. Baker’s policy of working with the young people and had a very successful administration. During his last year, the City Building Inspector condemned the roof of the sanctuary as unsafe. The cost of lowering the roof, installing heavier timbers, and redecorating the interior cost nearly $4,000.00.
Fortunately, the congregation was able to finance the debt so that it never became burdensome. It was finally liquidated by Rev. J. L. Craven, a young man in the ministry who served four years as pastor.
Rev. J. S. Masterson and Rev. George Sampson were the last of the old school. Both had spent a life of service in the ministry and were winding up successful careers as preachers and pastors. Each gave Bethel, Richmond a spiritual uplift.
After the turn-of-the-century, pastors were younger men having more schooling and special training for the ministry. The year 1915 marked the beginning of a new era. Bethel, Richmond supported A.M.E. educational institutions Wilberforce University and Payne Theological Seminary, among others which were graduating well-trained individuals for God’s service.
Bethel Hits its Stride (1947 - 1971)
Under the administration of Rev. Lyman S. Parks, appointed in 1947, the parsonage was completely renovated. He sponsored the formation of the Semper Fidelis Club and took a major role in community affairs in Richmond, before being transferred to the Michigan Annual Conference to serve as the pastor of First Community A.M.E. Church in Grand Rapids, eventually becoming Grand Rapids’ first Black mayor.
Under the administration of Rev. Matthew A. Lowe, the office annex to the church structure was built, and paid for, at a cost of $20,000.00. Rev. Lowe also introduced a “budget system” incorporating sound business practices into the financial operation of the church.
Rev. John A. Woods served Bethel, Richmond for seven years (1957-1964). During Woods’ pastorate, the church interior assumed a “new look” with modern lighting and new pews that were installed in the sanctuary. The Sunday School room as well as the basement were redecorated and other amenities were added to both the church and parsonage. Rev. Woods went on to become the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. in Ann Arbor, MI.
Rev. Walter D. Parks was appointed pastor in 1964. He came to Bethel, Richmond from a prior A.M.E. pastoral appointment in Clinton, IA. His seven-year pastorate was marked by vigorous leadership. He was active in the community and organized several groups within the church and under his leadership, the church purchased a new parsonage. Rev. Parks went on to become the pastor of St. Paul A.M.E. in Indianapolis, IN.
The Henning Administration and Bethel Joins the National Register of Historic Places (1971 - 1976)
Rev. John P. Henning was appointed pastor in 1971. He came from a family of ministers affiliated with the A.M.E. church for over 100 years. His father, Rev. Herman William Henning, Sr., served as a minister in the 8th and 13th Episcopal Districts for many years. A brother, Rt. Rev. C. Garnett Henning, would go on to become the 112th Bishop of the A.M.E. Church and a sister, Rt. Rev. E. Anne Henning Byfield, would go on to become the 135th Bishop of the A.M.E. Church. Rev. J. P. Henning was appointed October 3, 1971, transferred from Gaines Chapel A.M.E. Church in East Moline, IL. Upon assuming the pastorate, he also extended his ministry to the community. It was through his efforts that in 1975, Bethel, Richmond was added to the National Register of Historic Places - second only to Historic Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, PA.
The participation of young members of the church was encouraged by creating a Young People’s Organization with a program directed to their needs and the recruitment of new members. Also, in this connection, young people were trained in church work through the formation of a Junior Stewards and Trustees Board. Additionally, the parsonage was modernized to serve as a fellowship house for the use of church related activities and the sanctuary was newly redecorated. Rev. Parks served until 1976 when he was assigned as pastor of Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church in Fort Wayne, IN.
The Hearn, Tyson, and Bell Years (1976 - 1990)
Rev. Robert D. Hearn was appointed pastor in 1976. During his pastorate, new carpet was installed in the sanctuary and the Sunday School room, protective coverings were placed over all of the stained glass windows, and a new altar rail was installed. Rev. Hearn was reassigned to Olivet A.M.E. Church in 1980.
Rev. Albert D. Tyson, III was appointed to Bethel, Richmond in October 1980 by Bishop Hubert N. Robinson. During Rev. Tyson’s pastorate, many improvements were made to the physical church building and parsonage. Attendance increased and fellowship with other churches enlarged. Under his leadership, several ministers answered the call including Rev. Becky Anderson, Rev. Marybelle Stafford, and Rev. Martel Winburn. Rev. Tyson went on to become the pastor of St. Stephen A.M.E. Church in Chicago and a presiding elder, serving the Chicago Annual Conference and the Fourth Episcopal District with distinction.
Rev. Larry James Bell was appointed to Bethel, Richmond on December 23, 1985 by Bishop S.S. Morris. During his pastorate, a new roof was installed and other improvements were made. A wooden cross was dedicated and hung in the sanctuary. Rev. Bell was assigned to Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in Indianapolis in 1990.
Bethel Navigates the 1990s and Transitions into the New Millennium (1990 - 2001)
Rev. Hiram H. Walker was appointed to Bethel, Richmond on October 13, 1990, bringing many years of ministerial experience, and served until being reassigned to another charge on April 5, 1991 by Bishop J. Haskell Mayo.
Rev. Kevin K. Owens was appointed to Bethel, Richmond on October 13, 1991. During his pastorate, the radio ministry and the bus ministry began. On March 21, 1992, Bethel, Richmond was privileged to witness the marriage of Rev. Kevin K. Owens and the former Miss Gena Wharton. Rev. Owens served until October 15, 1993, when he was reassigned to Carey Tercentenary A.M.E. Church in Chicago, IL.
The Modern Era (2001 - Present)
Rev. John Halbert was appointed to Bethel, Richmond in 2001.
Library of Congress - https://loc.gov/pictures/item/in0088/
Hiram Revels Congressional Bio - https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/REVELS,-Hiram-Rhodes-(R000166)/
National Register of Historic Places - https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail/04ac3cb1-6065-468a-a688-bfc9d322f4c6
IUPUI Public History - https://publichistory.iupui.edu/items/show/619