History & Heritage: Churches

Influential African-American churches in Atlanta

Known as the spiritual center for the Civil Rights Movement, African-American churches in Atlanta were very influential in the nonviolent protest initiative. Home to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist as well as the headquarters of the nationally-acclaimed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, black churches in Atlanta have provided solace and strength during adversity and times of struggle.

Big Bethel Ame Church

Big Bethel was founded in 1847, making it the oldest predominantly African-American church in Metro Atlanta. In 1879 the Gate City Colored School, the first public school for African Americans in Atlanta was founded in Big Bethel’s basement. Once known as “Sweet Auburn’s City Hall,” for its importance in the black community, the church still stands as a reminder of milestones in our Atlanta’s history.

Cascade United Methodist Church

An Atlanta institution for over 80 years, Cascade United Methodist was the first predominantly Black United Methodist church in the city. Stricken by fire, explosions and water damage, yet blessed with an ever-growing congregation, the church has seen numerous homes. In 1986, the SCLC president Reverend Joseph E. Lowery ministered here until his retirement.

Ebenezer Baptist Church

Since its founding in 1886, Ebenezer Baptist Church has been home to instrumental figures in Atlanta’s history and in the civil rights movement. During the 1960s Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. served as co-pastors, working hard in the surrounding community to provide spiritual guidance and serve as activists on behalf of African Americans.

First Congregational Church

Beginning as a “gathered church” in 1867, First Church is the second oldest Black Congregational Church in the United States. Located in downtown Atlanta on Courtland Street and John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, the church was established when formerly enslaved African Americans petitioned for a church of their own. The current church building was completed in 1908 under the leadership of Dr. Henry Hugh Proctor, the first African American pastor who was a graduate of Fisk University and Yale Divinity School, and former Elder at First African Presbyterian Church. Booker T. Washington was a guest of honor at the groundbreaking ceremony and former President Theodore Roosevelt also visited the church in 1911. The building is listed as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, under the leadership of current Pastor Reverend Dr. Dwight D. Andrews, the church runs innovative programs such as the highly esteemed music ministry, including a jazz chorus and jazz vespers, gospel ensemble, chancel choir and more. 

Friendship Baptist Church

Founded in 1862, Friendship Baptist is Atlanta’s oldest African-American Baptist church. Once nothing more than a boxcar for gathering, Friendship Baptist played an integral part in building the higher education system that is revered to this day. The church was home to the first classroom of Atlanta University in 1865, as well as Morehouse College when it moved from Augusta to Atlanta in 1879. Spelman College was opened in the basement of the historic church site in 1881. The institution’s deep roots and rich history have more than earned its reputation of the “Mother Church” among Atlanta Baptists.

New Birth Missionary Baptist Church

Founded in 1984, this progressive church now has over 25,000 members and 40 ministries. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., now serves as an elder here, after having been elected President of the SCLC. The Cathedral, which accommodates large masses, was the site of Coretta Scott King’s funeral.

Wheat Street Baptist Church

Wheat Street was founded in 1869, and prides itself on having one of the oldest African-American church credit unions. The church had to be rebuilt after a 1917 fire, and the reconstruction during the early 1920s created the church that still stands on Auburn Avenue.

Shrine Of The Black Madonna Cultural Center & Bookstore

Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, formerly the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., founded the Shrines of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC) in the 1950s. Forty members of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church left Detroit in 1975 and founded The Shrine of the Black Madonna in Atlanta. The congregations were named after the Black Madonna, honoring black women and the mother of Jesus, the “Black Messiah.” As one of the largest and oldest black-owned bookstores, the Shrine provides and environment for all visitors to learn more about African and African-American culture and heritage while also offering professional aid and referral services and aid to residents of West End. 

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Established in 1955 in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr., became the first SCLC president with Ralph David Abernathy serving as program director. In what would become the largest consortium of churches in the nation, the SCLC was the spiritual center of the civil rights movement, encouraging nonviolent mass protests. Today it functions as a nation-wide organization dedicated to global human rights.

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