Bethel Begins: From Azusa Street to Handsworth (and beyond)

Nicholas Myers gives insight into the history of Black UK Pentecostal denomination, Bethel United Church of Jesus Christ Apostolic UK

Bethel United Church of Jesus Christ Apostolic UK has a long and illustrious history as one of the oldest and largest Black-majority churches in Britain. The organisation was spearheaded by Bishop Sydney A Dunn and others in 1955. 

The organisation flourished from hosting meetings in a Handsworth bedroom to over 40 assemblies in the UK, a ministry whose missions have extended into Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe, becoming the only denomination founded by the Windrush Generation to build a conference facility, the 2,500-seater Bethel Convention Centre based in the West Midlands. 

Bethel’s beginnings can be traced back to the Apostolic Faith Movement — a group of holiness Christians seeking to restore the church back to its New Testament roots. This led to eruptions of the power of God globally — most notably at Azusa Street in Los Angeles — between 1906 and 1909. As souls hungered for God, more truth of His Word was revealed. Missionaries brought the Apostolic message to Jamaica in 1919, and from here churches were established. This is how a young, 17-year-old Sydney Dunn came to be saved. Whenever he was filled with the Spirit, he spoke with tongues from midday to 7pm in the evening and received a powerful vision of God. His pastor, Christine Walsh, one of the first female Bishops in Jamaica, received a prophetic word that Dunn would be a great man in the Gospel, and she was to train him for ministry. 

Dunn quickly rose in the ministry. Aged barely 30 he was consecrated as Deputy Bishop in the Shiloh Apostolic Church of Jamaica. However, spotting the love of his life, Chloe, he turned his sights to the UK for economic betterment. Little did he know God would use this for the spiritual betterment of the Windrush Generation. 

Arriving in the UK in 1955 and connecting with likeminded brethren, Dunn started to hold services in a bedroom. This progressed to a school room, and eventually 2 Gibson Road in Birmingham was initially rented and then purchased with God’s help. For example, Barclays put a deposit into the church’s account without a signature or security to support the purchase, which was unheard of for Black people in Britain at the time. As the church grew, the Lord revealed to Herman Darius Brown in the late 1950s that baptism was to be done by invoking the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. As a result, Brown left the New Testament Church of God, which he had also helped establish in the UK, to join Dunn and Bethel. 

Bethel’s other pioneering bishops include Martin H Simmonds, who may be the first Black leader in Britain to lead a White-majority church in the1950s and 1960s, based in Ipswich, Suffolk. Dunn, Brown and Simmonds, together with Gerald Edmund and Arnold Miller, comprised Bethel’s first board of bishops. The ministry has impacted the UK through its community work, from supplementary schools to the Bethel School of Biblical Studies, food banks, elderly care, and other ministries. For example, during the recent pandemic the church ran a counselling hotline and daily prayer calls for the church and the community. Today, branches of Bethel can be found across the UK, from Trowbridge to Suffolk, and from Southampton to Manchester. Bethel celebrated its 65th anniversary and Holy Convocation in August.

As the church continues to move forward, a new board of bishops, led by Presiding Bishop Dexter Edmund (who, incidentally, is the grandson of Bishop Christine Wilson), is committed to building on and continuing the legacy of the pioneers, who with the help of God, turned little into much.

A complete account of Bethel’s origins can be found in Bethel Begins, available on Amazon worldwide.

Nicholas Myers is author of Bethel Begins, Assistant Pastor at The Well, and Lecturer at Bethel School of Biblical Studies. He also runs a strategic marketing consultancy, Lovable, advising Christian brands.


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