Old Bethel Methodist Church in Charleston shares a history with nearby Bethel United Methodist Church, and its sanctuary stands as the oldest surviving Methodist structure in the Lowcountry.
Bethel’s congregation first met at Blue Meeting House, a simple structure built on Cumberland Street in 1786 following a visit to Charleston by Bishop Francis Asbury, a prominent leader of the early Methodist Episcopal Church. Dismayed by the predominance of slavery, Asbury and other Methodists adhered to strict abolitionism – a stance that held them at odds with the community and resulted in frequent vandalism and even violence.
Still the church grew, and by the end of the eighteenth century its congregation had outgrown the Blue Meeting House. Both a larger sanctuary and space for burials were needed. The new church, measuring 40×60 feet, was constructed at the corner of Pitt Street and Boundary (now Calhoun) Street. It was named Bethel Methodist, and both black and white Methodists worshiped there together, though blacks sat in galleries overlooking the sanctuary.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the church was in need of yet a larger building, and this church was repositioned to the corner of the lot to make way for the present Bethel Methodist Church, built in 1852. Once the new church was completed, black members began worshiping separately in the former church building, which became known as “Old Bethel.”
Finally in 1878, the church was donated to the black members to house their own congregation, and in 1880 it was moved to its current location on Calhoun Street. Some members of Old Bethel Methodist are direct descendants of original members. Old Bethel Methodist is the third oldest church structure in Charleston, behind only St. Michael’s and the Unitarian Church.
Old Bethel Methodist Church is listed in the National Register:
Begun in 1797 and completed in 1809, Old Bethel Methodist Church is the oldest Methodist church building still standing in Charleston. Construction of the original meeting house style church was planned by Francis Asbury, the first Bishop of American Methodism, in the 18th century. The founding of Old Bethel Church by both black and white members was indicative of the Methodist Church philosophy of encouraging black membership in the church. Originally located at the corner of Pitt and Calhoun Streets, the church served a congregation of blacks and whites until the 1840s when the blacks seceded. In 1852 the church was moved to the western part of the church grounds where it was used by the blacks.
A new brick church, Bethel Methodist, constructed on the original site, served an all-white congregation. Old Bethel was again moved in 1880 when the building was given to the black congregation and was rolled across Calhoun Street to its present site. Originally a gabled meetinghouse style church, the white clapboard building has been altered by the addition to the façade of a gabled portico supported by four fluted Corinthian columns. A central double door is flanked by single doors on either side, and these entrances are surmounted by segmented transoms. Within the front gable is a semi-circular louver. Brick foundations of American bond date from 1880.
Queen Atterberry says
This national treasure is open to the public every Thursday 7pm June 1st to Oct 5th