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Arnett Chape AME and its sanctuaries

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By Canter Brown Jr.
Special to the Times
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles sponsored by the New Bethel AME Church History Project with Dr. Brown serving as consulting historian. The Rev. Charles Morris pastors New Bethel.

The origins of Arnett Chapel AME Church date to 1865 and the Civil War’s end. Several hundred former members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, longed to pursue their faith in freedom. They met first in a brush arbor located near Quincy’s “Tan Yard.” Local ministers Dennis Wood, Allen Jones, and Ben Williams led them.
By late summer 1866, Union Army veteran and Florida-raised missionary William G. Stewart toured North Florida to recruit congregations into the Philadelphia-based African Methodist Episcopal Church. He visited Quincy in late summer 1866. Local believers by then worshipped in a modest wooden structure likely constructed by freedman Robert Zeigler, Quincy’s leading carpenter. Stewart embraced the congregation and forged the agreement for its admission to the AME Church.
Charles H. Pearce, Florida’s first presiding elder, officially accepted the church into the new Florida Conference the next year. Dennis Wood had pastored after Stewart’s initial visit. Pearce appointed Benjamin W. Quinn in 1867, although he died unexpectedly that fall.
Pearce thereupon dispatched Stewart to “Quincy Station.” His pastorate of nearly four years saw the congregation expand and prosper to the point that the minister could boast in 1871, “African Methodism is about to rule Florida.” When Stewart moved that year to Tallahassee, “at least one thousand citizens escorted him and family to the depot.”
A variety of forces, from society at large and from within the AME Church, contributed in the following years to create challenges for the local congregation. Mother Nature took the severest toll Sept. 19, 1873, when a fierce hurricane destroyed the sanctuary. Pastor Allen Jones managed to rebuild the structure, although members yearned for “a proper temple for the worship of God at this place.”
Before that end could be achieved, a second hurricane brought destruction to Quincy.  A Tallahassee newspaper described the damage caused by the “cyclone” of Sept. 12, 1882: “The colored Methodist church building and the school house,” it noted, “are a mass of ruins.”
The Rev. Dernard Quarterman repeated the near miracle accomplished earlier by Rev. Jones and replaced the ruined building. “For two months after conference (in December 1882) we had no church at this place,” Presiding Elder Fuller White advised, “but I thank God for enabling us to build one.”
Conditions for African Americans in Florida and, specifically, Gadsden County meanwhile were deteriorating.  Racial violence and intimidation ushered the state toward the “Jim Crow” era of racial discrimination and segregation. Economic hard times for many accompanied that transition.
By summer 1885, Pastor Joseph H. Spears, with some members again calling for a more-imposing sanctuary, hesitated even to conduct a “protracted meeting.” He recorded: “I began to pray that God would pour out his blessings on the church.”
Three more years passed before newly assigned Bishop Benjamin W. Arnett infused dynamic leadership into the Quincy church. He ordered college-trained lawyer and minister Nesbit Washington Edwards to build a suitable facility. Edwards succeeded, and on Dec.  22, 1889, the Florida Annual Conference dedicated the new sanctuary in Arnett’s name.  The bishop led the proceedings.
“It is a creditable edifice, 60 x 40, with a seating capacity for 350 persons,” a church official related. “It is nicely ceiled with pine, (tastefully) painted, has a walnut stained pulpit, and a gallery at the end of the church, constructed with a view to extending it along the sides.”
The Arnett Chapel sanctuary served the community for nearly a decade. Then, Arnett’s successor, Bishop W. J. Gaines, assigned the Rev. Edward W. Johnson to Quincy with instructions “to build a new church in which to hold the conference” in 1898. Johnson proved the man for the job, and, on Dec. 14, 1898, the second Arnett Chapel was dedicated.
“The newly furnished and beautiful church,” future pastor and presiding elder Sandy S. Herndon wrote, “reflected great credit on the pastor, Rev. E. W. Johnson and his congregation.”
For four decades the 1898 sanctuary offered the Arnett Chapel congregation and Quincy’s African American community a center for activity and inspiration. It remained in service until the late 1930s. At that time the Rev. D. A. Russell constructed the present brick sanctuary, completed in June 1940. So pleased was the church with the results that Bishop H. Y. Tookes then placed Russell in charge of constructing Hurst Hall, a three-story dormitory building at Jacksonville’s Edward Waters College.
Russell’s success mirrored that of Dennis Wood, Allen Jones, Dernard Quarterman, Nesbit Edwards, and Edward Johnson in overcoming long odds — in partnership with African Methodists at Quincy — to ensure a suitable sanctuary for worship.
A national church official described Rev. Johnson in words that applied to them all: “Brother Johnson is one of the few men among us who does not understand what the word failure means,” he insisted. “I love the man who will not fail.”

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You can help keep history alive
The New Bethel AME Church History Project respectfully encourages readers to share information regarding African Methodist history and the early history of African Americans in Quincy and Gadsden County. Scans or other copies of historical photographs and other relevant images are always are welcome. Please contact the Rev. Charles Morris, pastor, New Bethel AME Church, 23209 Blue Star Highway, Quincy, FL 32351. Phone: 850-627-3859. Email: kane0304@yahoo.com.