For half of the year 1785, a young Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) lay preacher by the name of Richard Allen was stationed at a Methodist meeting house in Baltimore. Allen preached at the meeting house and free African Americans of the city came to hear him. Before the year was over, a number of those free Methodists left the MEC to worship amongst themselves. That newly formed African Methodist Society has become the Bethel AME Church we know today.
By 1797, the African Methodist Society was known as the Bethel Free African Society and formally submitted a letter of separation from the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1801 a preacher by the name of Daniel Coker joined the Bethel prayer group. In 1811, he became the first official pastor as Bethel was incorporated and named the African Methodist Bethel Church of Baltimore City.
In 1816, Rev. Daniel Coker led a Bethel delegation to a conference called by that same Rev. Richard Allen in Philadelphia. At the conference, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was created with Richard Allen being consecrated the founding Bishop of the Denomination . The largest delegation at the conference was from Bethel Baltimore. Thus, Bethel AME Church – Baltimore is one of the founding congregations of the AME Church.
In 1847, Rev. Daniel Payne was Bethel’s pastor and he was responsible for purchasing the organ that was used during worship. Thus, Bethel Baltimore became the first AME Church to have instrumental music during church services. Payne later became president of Wilberforce University and became the Senior Bishop of the AME Church for over 40 years.
Rev. Levi Coppin served Bethel from 1881 to 1883 and would go on to become the 8th former pastor of Bethel to become a Bishop. He was the presiding Bishop when Bethel purchased its present sanctuary on Druid Hill Avenue for $90,000 in 1910. In 1937, the African American community mobilized to demand Black police officers. The 1,500 seat Bethel sanctuary was filled as meetings were held. As a result, Bethel member Violet Hill Whyte became the first Black police officer in Baltimore.
Rev. Harrison J. Bryant pastored Bethel for 16 years and became the 13th pastor to become a Bishop in 1964. He was followed by Rev. Frank M. Reid, II, who became the 14th pastor to become a Bishop. Bishop Harrison Bryant’s son, Rev. John R. Bryant was Bethel’s pastor from 1975 to 1988. He too became a Bishop and is now the retired Senior Bishop of the AME Church.
Bishop Frank Reid’s son, Rev. Frank M. Reid, III was selected as Bethel’s 53rd pastor in 1988. Under Rev. Reid’s leadership, Bethel partnered with New Shiloh Baptist Church to hold the first religious event at the new Baltimore Orioles ballpark, broadcast worship services on the US Armed Forces Network, and partnered with Harvard University to open the Martin L. King Jr After School Program.
At the 50th Quadrennial Session of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. Reid was elected as the 138th Bishop of the AME Church. He became the 16th former pastor of Bethel so elected to the Bishopric.
In September of 2016, Bishop James L. Davis selected a pastor with only five years of pastorial experience to be the new pastor of one of the oldest congregations in African Methodism. Bethel’s 54th and new pastor became Rev. Patrick D. Clayborn, PhD. Rev. Clayborn arrived at Bethel with gifts abounding in education, praise and worship, Bible study, scriptural interpretation, praise worthy preaching, prophecy, and spiritual gifting in many other areas.
In Bethel’s 231 years, never had the First Lady of the Church arrived at Bethel as an ordained elder as did Rev. Sheri S. Clayborn. Pastor Clayborn has an infectious laugh, is a humorous storyteller, and allows the Holy Spirit to reign freely during all phases of the power cells of the church. There is no diminishing of the movement of the Holy Spirit no matter how long it takes. At Sunday services in October and November 2016 and in September 2017, the “preached Word” was delivered through praise and worship because of the movement of the Holy Spirit.
This spiritual freedom has caused the congregation to grow with new membership and returning membership as visually evident every Sunday. This new enthusiaism has created greater gift giving by the congregation. This has resulted in new capital improvement projects for assuring the longevity of the properties God has provided Bethel.
This increased gifting allowed Bethel to give $5,000 to the Baltimore Youth Works, send 57 attendees to the Hampton Youth Retreat, award ~$32,000 in college scholarships, send $5,700 to aid in the recovery of the mudslides in Sierra Leone and the flood victims in Texas, donated $1,500 for a nearby after school program, and more than $1,000 was sent to the Virgin Islands to assist a pastorial son of Bethel who loss 90% of his possessions from the recent Hurricane Maria as he started a new church on the island of St. Thomas.
2017 has been designated as the “Year of Refreshing” with a church motto and mission of “Healing, Help, and Hope”. Bethel continues to strive to make our mission statement, one of “Mission Accomplished”. As for the Bethel AME Church congregation and for our pastor, Rev. Clayborn, we know “It doth not yet appear, what we shall be………..”