Old Bethel United Methodist Church is the third oldest existing church building in Charleston, and it is the only Black Methodist Church that originated in the Antebellum period. Old Bethel began as a racially mixed congregation; as a result, it serves as a physical reminder of the historic relationship between African Americans and the Methodist Church in Charleston. Its legacy of service, ministry, evangelism, and African American heritage lives on today in its congregation, which includes descendants of the 1880 congregation.
Old Bethel United Methodist Church was Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church at its founding on February 14th, 1797. The church was based on a design by Francis Asbury, the first Methodist Bishop in the United States, using the gabled meeting house style with white clapboards. Its original location was at the corner of Pitt and Calhoun Streets in what was then the most northwestern section of the city. The church was officially dedicated in 1798, but the structure was not completed until sometime between 1807 and 1809. At its founding Old Bethel’s congregation was open to all, including both free Blacks and enslaved peoples. In fact, it was founded and funded by both Black and white congregants. Eventually, the church members built a pulpit and they put in place a sounding board acquired from the First Scots Presbyterian Church.
Even though the congregation was accepting of all, worship was still segregated, with enslaved congregant being relegated to the galleries. Pews in the back of the first floor were reserved for free Blacks, and the front pews reserved for white members. According to the National Park Service’s website, this segregation of worship led to discord in the church, which came to a head in 1834 when a schism developed over requiring Bblack members to sit in the back and in the galleries. This eventually prompted the Black members to secede and create their own congregation in 1840. However, the two congregations were still joined under the same church. In 1851 the church once again became the main place of worship for the Black congregant when the white members decided to build a new church building that would become known as Bethel Methodist. In order to build this new and much larger church, the white congregation had Old Bethel moved northward on the lot of land towards Calhoun Street in 1852.
Both Old Bethel and Bethel Methodist Church would become of paramount importance for the entire Methodist community of Charleston during the Civil War. Because they were fairly removed from the Union shelling that endangered the lower city, both churches served as the official meeting places for Charleston’s Methodist population. White Methodists from all four of the City’s congregations worshiped together at Bethel Methodist Church. Black Methodists were organized into a separate group known as the City Colored Mission, and Old Bethel was one of its two main places for meeting. Both churches remained open after the war during the military occupation of Charleston. At this time there were only three Black Methodist congregations in the city, Old Bethel being the oldest, but there were no Methodist Episcopal Ministers in the city. Through the work of the three congregations and their leaders, all three fell under the auspices of the Northern Methodist Church.
Following the end of the war and Reconstruction, Old Bethel continued worshiping in its original building, and finally sometime between 1876 and 1880 the Black congregation of Old Bethel was given ownership of the building by Bethel Methodist Church. Old Bethel’s congregation purchased land across the street at what is today 222 Calhoun Street, and the original church building was moved in 1882 in collaboration with the white congregation. This move was made to make room for a new Sunday School building for Bethel UMC. Unfortunately, Old Bethel suffered some damage during the Earthquake of 1886, and during the repairs it is believed that the existing metal ceiling tiles and Victorian furnishings were added.
Today Old Bethel UMC stands at 222 Calhoun Street as a vibrant and active church that still serves the city, and more specifically its African American community. Bethel UMC now stands as its sister church across the street at 57 Pitt. These two churches, despite their long and complicated history, are still connected through a shared past, and they still work together on special events and services intended to strengthen their ties as sisters, Methodists, and Christians.