Bethel AME is the city’s oldest and one of Indiana’s most recognized Black cultural sites. Augustus Turner, alongside future Bishop William Paul Quinn, organized central Indiana’s Methodists in 1836. Congregants initially gathered in Turner’s cabin on Georgia Street, before an official house of worship was constructed nearby in 1841. This early church was known as the Indianapolis Station until adopting the name of ‘Bethel AME Church’ in 1869. The Indianapolis congregation is recorded to have 175 members from 1840-45. The Georgia Street Church continued to be used until 1857 when the congregation moved to the Episcopal First Christ Church building. The Georgia Street Church was destroyed by a fire in 1862. It is believed that the fire was the work of pro-slavery arsonists who resented AME’s connection to the Underground Railroad. The building was rebuilt in 1867, being used until the West Vermont Street brick church was built around 1869. The church was briefly sold in 1880 to pay debts, eventually repurchased in 1891, and renovated in 1894. The building did not receive significant renovations until 1974.
Bethel AME served as a parent church for multiple Indiana congregations, including Allen Chapel, Coppin Chapel, Saint John, and Wallace. The Bethel Church was also principally involved in the Blue River conference of 1840, and 1854, 1859, and 1864 annual conferences. Additionally, they hosted the Bishops and General Conference in 1888.
Education and social activism became a core principle of Bethel Indianapolis, Congregants helped in the settlement of escaping slaves and freemen before 1860, as well as Blacks fleeing from the South after Reconstruction. A white majority in the state did not appreciate this influx of blacks leading to an 1830 ban on blacks and mixed-race immigration and forcing those that did to pay a $500 fine. However, this did not deter Bethel’s congregation activities with the Underground Railroad.
Since its founding, Bethel has served as and funded local Black schools. The Indianapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded at Bethel in the early 1900s. The church’s leaders also believed that the hope for the future of blacks, in general, was the youth. In 1858, the church even started its own boarding school, where students studied “spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, history, anatomy, physiology, and hygiene” among other subjects. Bethel was very active in the lives of the African American children of Indianapolis, both in religion and education.
The Vermont Street site originally consisted of a three-story church and a two-story parsonage. A four-story tower and two gables were added in the 1894 renovation. Bethel AME is a prominent example of Romanesque Revival architecture, with red brick over a foundation of limestone. The main entrance features a false façade of stucco with a single arch over the main entrance. The sanctuary is mostly the original 1894 interior, with beautiful stained glass and a Pflegmaker pipe organ. The church’s chancel was redesigned in 1961. The congregation currently holds worship services at The Unity Center on Zionsville Road. Bethel AME Indianapolis has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1991 and is listed with a state historical marker since 2009. After a failed capital campaign in 2015, the property was sold to SUN Development and Management to build a hotel.