Bishop Joseph Benjamin Bethea

On a hot July day in 1988, the United Methodist Church of South Carolina reached a significant milestone. For the first time since the state’s white and black Methodist churches merged in 1972, an African-American was elected bishop to lead the members of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. For Joseph Benjamin Bethea, the occasion of his installation as bishop at Columbia’s Washington Street Church was unforgettable. He had returned home to his native state after a 32-year absence. Bethea quickly set about to create a more open church and a greater degree of cooperation and understanding between white and black Methodists. In 1990, he sent two black pastors to minister to predominantly white churches and three white ministers to preach to largely black congregations. Bethea’s commitment to integration in religion is consistent with his belief that the church can only be strong if its decision-making process incorporates people of all ethnic groups. “God loves all people. People of all races and cultures can serve in leadership positions in the church,” he said. “Integrating the church is the key to attracting young people to the ministry. The church becomes a place where they can work, and I think people will better hear the call of God in their lives if they hear the church is open.” The South Carolina United Methodist Conference has more African-American members than any other conference in the nation and Bethea is more than qualified to initiate cross-racial appointments. Most of his work in the ministry has been carried out in North Carolina, where he was instrumental in securing the appointment of a black woman to an all white Methodist church. As superintendent of Rockingham District, he was successful in instilling harmony in a tri-racial district, where there were almost equal numbers of white Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans. He had been in South Carolina scarcely a year when he helped ease community tensions after an integrated Methodist youth group was refused admittance to the Saluda Swim and Tennis Club. Bethea’s commitment to civil right has always been strong. During the famous lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro in the early 1960s, Bethea, then a pastor in the city, openly supported the students who sought desegregation. Bethea was literally born to preach. His father, the Reverend Rufus Bethea, was a Methodist Episcopal minister, and young Joseph delivered his first sermon from the pulpit of his father’s church at the age of five. The call of the ministry was not insistent, however, and Bethea became more interested in music. He learned to play the trombone and performed with jazz bands, which helped provide him with a source of income when he attended college in Orangeburg. After completing his bachelor’s degree at Claflin College in 1953, Bethea planned a career in public education. His father had other ideas. Convinced that his son would commit to the ministry, the elder Bethea enrolled him in seminary during his final year in college. “My father enrolled me before I even knew about it,” said Bethea. “I don’t know whether he had some insight.” He went on to earn a master of divinity degree at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. After pastoring churches in upstate South Carolina and North Carolina, he helped develop and served as the Director of the Black Church Studies Center at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. Bishop Bethea has received numerous honors and awards including the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor bestowed to noted individuals by the state of South Carolina. It is a fitting tribute to a man who has done so much to integrate churches in the state and the country.