Antebellum church records can be an important resource for African American genealogy as the records often predate public records that document births, marriages and deaths.
Last week, I shared three resources at the room for South Carolina History at the Charleston County Library, Register of St. Philip’s Parish, 1720-1758, Register of St. Philip’s Parish, 1754-1810, and Register of St. Philip’s Church, 1810-1822. This week I would like to also share another resource which can help identify enslaved ancestors and free persons of color who attended Bethel United Methodist Church from at least 1804 until 1880.
I found the history of Bethel United Methodist Church in the book entitled “The Name Shall Be Bethel.” Having studied John Wesley, an early leader in the Methodist movement, I was surprised he had made a visit to Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA on July 31, 1731.
As I wrapped my head around that, the way he felt about enslavement according to the authors of “The Name Shall Be Bethel” answered the question, “Why was his visit not a well known fact?“ “While in South Carolina, John Wesley saw Africans in slavery for the first time. He convened with the Africans, was deeply touched by their spiritual needs and alarmed that one human could hold another in slavery. In his journal he wrote, ‘O God where are thy tender mercies? When shall the Son of righteousness arise on these outcasts of men with healing in his wings?’ This was the beginning of his struggles against slavery…” (Andrus, The Name Shall Be Bethel, 1997)
The Abolition Project: John Wesley (1703-1791): The Methodist Minister told about this visit and mob attacks: “In 1736-7, Wesley visited North America including Georgia, which was then a British colony, and there he came into contact with enslaved people. This experience left him with a loathing of slavery but at first he felt unable to act on this. From 1739 onwards, Wesley and the Methodists were persecuted by clergymen and magistrates. They were attacked in sermons and in print and at times attacked by mobs.” John Wesley was famously known for the following quote: “Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partakers of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with everyone as you would he should do unto you.” (E2BN East of England Broadband Network, 2009)
Francis Asbury was another person born in England in 1745. At 18, he became a Methodist lay preacher. John Wesley asked him to go to America for missionary work. He volunteered. He got to America in 1771. By 1774, most of the Methodist leaders from England had returned. Francis Asbury was the only Methodist minister to remain in America.
Because the Methodist leaders spoke out against enslavement, the Charleston aristocracy saw them as a threat to their social and economic way of life in the Lowcountry. They wanted to banish them, but after 1786, the Charleston Methodist Charge reported 35 white and 23 black members. (Andrus, Entrance of Asbury, 1997)
You can see the Cumberland Street Church was created before Bethel United Methodist Church. We are focusing on Bethel United Methodist Church and its first record of black members in 1804. We know that Cumberland Street Methodist and Bethel United Methodist Church had 903 members. In 1880, black membership dwindled to zero. (Andrus, Membership Statistics, 1997)
The room for South Carolina History has other local church records on microfiche. There is a finding aid in the South Carolina History room which lists the Bethel United Methodist Church, the location and the common names of slaveholders who were members. Please ask staff to view this finding aid.
Sharpen the Saw
Now we have brought forth a second church with blacks before 1804 to 1880. Bethel United Methodist Church is the church. If you have ancestors who would have been members during this time period, you would need to research the microfilm the Charleston County Library in the South Carolina History room. Let us know on Facebook if you discover your ancestor.