Charleston is known for its many historic churches, but some of the oldest are not open for public tours. For a limited time, Old Bethel United Methodist Church is offering group tours by reservation only. Queen Atterberry, writer and founder of the African Dance & Drum Company in Charleston, leads these exciting tours which include not only the history of the church, but interactive songs, call and response, African drumming and stories about the Lowcountry and Gullah-Geechee culture.
Old Bethel United Methodist Church is the third oldest church building surviving in Charleston, and is an architectural reminder of the significant relationship between African Americans and the Methodist Church in the Holy City. Founded and paid for by both black and white citizens, construction began in 1797 and was completed in 1807. The church was originally constructed in the gabled meetinghouse style with white clapboards after a design by Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop in the United States. It stood at the corner of Pitt and Calhoun Streets, then the extreme northwestern part of the city. Membership in the congregation of Old Bethel was open to both free blacks and slaves. However, in 1834 a schism developed over whether blacks were to be restricted to sitting in the galleries. By 1840 the black members seceded to form their own congregation.
In 1852 the church was moved to the western portion of the lot where it stood for use by the black congregation, and a new church, Bethel Methodist, was built to serve the white congregation. After being given to the black population, in 1880, Old Bethel was moved across Calhoun Street to its present location where it currently serves a black congregation, which includes descendants of the 1880 congregation. In 1975, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the Spoleto Festival in the spring, to Moja Arts Festival in the fall, the play, When I First Remember, written by Queen Atterberry, is performed every Thursday in the church. This season, by request of local citizens, Ms. Atterberry is presenting the play in February at various locations throughout the city. The play takes the viewer on a journey with the characters who are African slaves traveling to the Lowcountry on a slave ship. The audience will be transported with the actors and witness how they survived, adjusted and adapted to their new world, creating a new culture and identity that is recognized today…the Gullah-Geechee culture.
To make tour reservations or find out more about When I First Remember and Old Bethel United Methodist Church, call Queen Atterberry at 843-577-4080 or visit www.oldbethelumc.org.