Georgia Historical Society Dedicates New Historical Marker About Atlanta’s Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

View of attendees raising hands in prayer during the dedication of the historical marker.

Atlanta, GA, June 2, 2024—The Georgia Historical Society (GHS) unveiled a new historical marker detailing Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Atlanta on Sunday, June 2, 2024. GHS dedicated the new marker in partnership with Big Bethel AME Church, the oldest African-American church in Atlanta.

“Driving through Atlanta, it is hard to miss Big Bethel’s ‘Jesus Saves’ neon sign,” said Elyse Butler, Manager of Programs and Special Projects, Georgia Historical Society. “While Bethel is already a recognizable part of Atlanta’s skyline, this new historical marker detailing the history of Big Bethel adds a new level of understanding of the church’s history. Anyone who passes Big Bethel while walking or driving down Auburn Avenue can now learn how the church has shaped the cultural and physical landscapes of ‘Sweet Auburn’ and the City of Atlanta for nearly 180 years.”

Big Bethel has been an active congregation and community center since its establishment by enslaved people in 1847. Big Bethel received national attention for Heaven Bound, a religious folk drama written and produced by its members. Heaven Bound has been performed annually since 1930, making it one of the United States’ longest-running musicals. Though Black productions were often kept out of mainstream traditional theater, the show’s popularity attracted White audiences and brought critical acclaim.

"Big Bethel has received a great blessing by this distinction from the Georgia Historical Society,” said Reverend John Foster, Ph.D., Big Bethel AME Church Senior Pastor. “The marker will add to our 177-year history."

The marker dedication took place at Big Bethel, preceding its Sunday morning services. Speakers included Reverend John Foster, Ph.D., Senior Pastor, Big Bethel AME Church; Richard Marion, President, History and Heritage Committee; Breana James, Historical Marker and Program Coordinator, GHS; Anna Cornelius Martin, Grants Committee Co-Chair, Big Bethel AME Church; Bill Sisk, Grants Committee Co-Chair, Big Bethel AME Church; Floyd Baxter, Chair, Trustee Board; and Ernest Tate, History and Heritage Committee.

The marker text reads:

Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is the oldest African-American congregation in Atlanta. Organized by enslaved congregants of Union Church in 1847, the church joined the AME denomination in 1866. As a community center, Big Bethel hosted political gatherings, benevolent societies, and housed Gate City School, a public school for African Americans. Morris Brown College was founded at Big Bethel. Architect John Anderson Lankford and builder Alexander Hamilton constructed the existing building following a 1923 fire. To help pay for construction, members wrote and produced Heaven Bound, a religious folk drama that has been performed annually since 1930. The play’s popularity introduced Black theater to White audiences nationwide and sustained the church through the Great Depression. Big Bethel is a landmark in Atlanta’s “Sweet Auburn” district, recognized by the steeple’s “Jesus Saves” sign.

Erected by the Georgia Historical Society
and Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

For more information about the Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church historical marker dedication or the Georgia Historical Society marker program, please contact Elyse Butler, Manager of Programs and Special Projects, at 912.651.2125, ext. 119, or by email at


The Georgia Historical Society (GHS) is the premier independent statewide institution responsible for collecting, examining, and teaching Georgia history. GHS houses the oldest and most distinguished collection of materials related exclusively to Georgia history in the nation.
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The Georgia Historical Marker Program is an important part of the Georgia Historical Society’s (GHS) statewide educational mission. Through a public-private partnership with the State of Georgia, GHS is responsible for erecting new historical markers and maintaining more than 2,000 markers installed by the State prior to the program’s privatization in 1998. Online mapping tools allow users to explore themed marker trails and design custom driving routes. Visit for more ways to use Georgia’s historical markers and experience history where it happened.