In the 1700s and 1800s, Black Americans often experienced racial discrimination in white churches. In response, one group of African Americans started the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in 1816. Others throughout the country were drawn to the AME’s emphasis on racial justice. We do not know much about what it was like for Black residents to worship in Westerville’s white churches, but in the late 1870s, they started Bethel AME Church to “worship in the fullest freedom.”
This church, a small building on Plum Street that is no longer standing, quickly became the center of Westerville’s Black community. For nearly 100 years, the church hosted Sunday services, holiday celebrations, weddings, funerals, and socials.
The importance of community, justice, and equality to Bethel AME members was perhaps best expressed in the minister’s message on the church’s 66th anniversary: “The Race issue is still a ‘thorn in the side’ of glorious America…Christian people of various races who cannot live together as members of a common Christian family on earth, certainly cannot expect to inherit the Kingdom of God. This is a fact the Church must face today. Let us make the Church a living example of the Brotherhood of Man, not just a monument to ‘unattainable’ ideals. The IMPORTANT thing now, is not so much what a religion is in theory, but what it proves itself to be by practice…We must make ‘Love thy neighbor’ a reality, not just a tenet.”