Big Bethel AME is a Downtown landmark
If you travel through Downtown Atlanta, chances are you’ve noticed the neon blue glow of the “Jesus Saves” sign atop Big Bethel AME (that’s African Methodist Episcopal). The sign has been a fixture on the skyline since 1922, when the church was rebuilt after a fire into the edifice that remains a vibrant part of the Sweet Auburn district.
I’ve been looking at the “Jesus Saves” sign since I was a child. My father, Ken Kinnett, is an Episcopalian minister and I was brought up to believe God loves everyone, so growing up it was just a cool sign. And Big Bethel believes it is a sign of hope for all and that all are welcome.
Big Bethel was a Methodist church until after the Civil War when it became an AME – the first independent denomination in the country. Formed into a corporation in 1843, four years before Marthasville changed its name to Atlanta, the church is the oldest predominantly African American congregation in the city.
Big Bethel has been a center of the community and social action since it’s beginnings. In 1879, the Gate City Colored School was the first public school for African Americans and it opened in the church’s basement. In 1881, Morris Brown College also held classes in Big Bethel’s basement until its campus was ready. Throughout the years it has been one of the largest meeting spaces in the community and was known as “Sweet Auburn’s City Hall.” President Taft spoke there in 1911 and in 1990 Nelson Mandela spoke at the same pulpit.
For the congregation, the iconic “Jesus Saves” sign has been a both a beacon and a sign of hope for the city. After meeting the folks at Big Bethel, including the wonderful church administrator, Marvin Fleming, who sweetly gave me his time and a tour on the coldest day in Atlanta, I concur it is about hope.
I had been to Big Bethel before for night concerts and the church itself is quite beautiful. A large semi-circle of pews face the pulpit and the centerpiece is a gorgeous Moller organ built onsite in 1924. The organ has been played every Sunday for the past 25 years by Phillip Skerrett.
Fleming noted that Georgia State University’s opening of a new dorm next door to the church had caused an uptick in attendees. “Youngsters are the future of Big Bethel,” Fleming said