The African Methodist Episcopal Church was, the first black denomination in America. It was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1787 by a young man named Richard Allen. Allen had been born in slavery in Philadelphia in 1760 and later sold, along with his family, to a farmer in Delaware. Allen had a religious conversion in 1777 at the age of 17. By 1780, he was preaching while working as a proficient woodcutter, brick mason and wagon teamster. He then managed to convert his “master” and purchase his freedom.
Returning to Philadelphia in 1786, Allen began to preach to mixed congregations, but realized he wasn’t welcome when he was refused ordination and “thrown out” of a local Methodist Church. However, he still felt he had a special duty to spread the Gospel among Africans and people of African descent and began preaching in areas around Philadelphia in 1787. This led him to establish Bethel Church, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church, as a place of worship and assembly for African-Americans in Philadelphia.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church movement grew and Allen was finally ordained in 1799. In 1816, several A.M.E. congregations organized into the A. M. E. denomination and Richard Allen was named its first bishop. The First General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was held in Philadelphia in 1820. Allen died March 26, 1831. After his death, the denomination continued to grow and move further west with the immigrant tide.
Now we’ll begin to look at the history of our local Pilgrim Rest A. M. E. Church. The church was first organized in a blacksmith shop belonging to another Richard Allen just east of the southeast corner of the block where the church sits today. (Part of the foundation of that shop is still visible.) According to the memory of the late Narcissie Allen, an itinerant preacher and founding member of the church, the people living in the area gathered on a Saturday afternoon on July 10, 1871 and decided to organize their church.
The first meetings were held under a brush arbor. Later they worshipped in a little log cabin with the neighboring First Baptist Church. After a time disagreements arose and the two congregations began to meet on alternate Sundays. Finally, the Methodist group withdrew to build their own church.
The first deed of the congregation stated that the church had bought a lot on East Gaines (Block 50) near the old Union Motor Company from W. T. Wells for $85 in 1877. Persons listed on the deed were church trustees Aaron Thomasson, Richard Allen, Granville Stephens, John Rawls and Amstead Davis. It is not known why those plans were changed.
However, their present site on Bailey Street was bought from W. S. Jeter soon thereafter and a large frame building was built on that site by Mr. Wiley Sheets. The first pastor was Simon Rawls. During the years of 1878-1880 the Fifth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized to include the states of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.
As the twentieth century arrived, the population of Monticello increased and Pilgrim Rest A.M.E. Church grew with it. As is true with all structures, time marched on and the need arose for many changes and improvements to the church building.
In 1904, church member Shed Hudspeth loaned the church $1000 to have the 1877 frame building remodeled under the pastorate of a Rev. Sutton. Other members at the time included Cynthia Etta Bassett, M. J. Lee, Maggie Rollen, P. J. Tolliver, Allen Evans, the McCrays, Presely Robertson,Sr., Shed Hudspeth, Henry Bradley, Gill Matthews, Jasper Wells, Gaylor Taylor and John Parker. This second frame building was remodeled, bricked and painted by Rev. J. W. Stanfield.
This new building upgraded the first building and added a front entrance with unique window designs and a bell tower. The bell still sits in the present building today. It was a very noble-looking structure attuned to the Victorian era in many ways.
Over the next 50-plus years many additions were made to the property. City water was put on the grounds by Rev. Kilpatrick. The first parsonage was built under the leadership of a Rev. Whiteside. The first piano was brought into the church in 1926 by Rev. Quinn. Sewage was added to the church by Rev. C. H. Jones and to the parsonage by Rev. N. L. Dove. A cafeteria was later added as a separate building.
By 1955 the once remodeled and nearly 100 years old building was showing wear. During the pastorate of Rev. W. L. Lomax it was torn down and the red brick building that stands today was constructed. When the project began, several friends, businesses, sister churches and congregations from both races contributed to their fundraising campaign. A special mention was given to the congregations of the First Methodist and First Presbyterian churches for their support.
While the new building was under construction, many older members recall spending days of their childhood cleaning the red bricks that enclose the present building. There is a back section clad in buff bricks to cover an area when they ran out of the red bricks.
On a rainy Palm Sunday, March 30, 1958, Pilgrim Rest A. M. E. celebrated the completion of its new church building with a special mortgage-burning service led by the pastor, Rev. W. G. Wynn. It was a grand Palm Sunday and a grand day all around for the church membership.
From 1964-1971 many additions were made to enhance the sanctuary of the church. Under Rev. John David Jamison several purchases of new furnishings were made and window units (air conditioners) were added. The choir purchased the outdoor changeable church directory and the baptismal font.
On July 11, 1971, Pilgrim Rest A. M. E. celebrated its 100th anniversary in its 11:00 a.m. service. The opening hymn was “Amazing Grace” and the sermon was given by the late Rev. C. H. Hankins, presiding elder of the South Pine Bluff District.
In preparation for the occasion many members had worked diligently before and during the celebration to make it a huge success. Special thanks went to Edward Wells, Andrew Wells, the late Carnell McCray, James McCray, Lavern Tucker and Julius Wherry, all of whom had graciously donated their time and talents to painting the woodwork of the church and parsonage and the laying of carpet in the sanctuary.
In 1977-79 central heat and air was added to the sanctuary. Contributions were gathered and the stained glass windows were also purchased and installed.
Over the years many other “extras” have also been added to the church to enhance its appearance, programs and effectiveness in the community. During the summer of 1979 robes, additional hymnals and KJV Bibles were purchased by the Young Adult Choir. Christian Education classes and a nursery were added. In 1980 Mrs. Addie Brown contributed two stereo speakers so the sermons could be heard in the basement.
A new refrigerator was added by the missionary society and a new piano by the choirs. Andrew Wells donated a bulletin board and a guest worshipper’s directory. Stewardess Boards No. 1 and No. 2 donated a small heating unit to the stewardess’ room for the cold months.
Friday, May 8, 1982, marked the beginning of renovation of the first floor and interior decoration of the sanctuary by contractor R. E. Cruce at an estimated cost of $24,000 plus interest.
Today Pilgrim Rest A. M. E. church is alive, well and growing. While repairs, renovations and changes are inevitable, the future of the church is bright and shiny.
The church celebrated its 125th anniversary held on July 7, 1996 with a two-day event with the Rev. T. B. Lamb serving as pastor, the Rev. O. B. Gillespie serving as presiding elder and Rt. Rev. Frederick Hilborn Talbut serving as bishop.
During the celebration program several members were recognized, including four living members of the church who had been members for the most years. They were: Mrs. Nealie Hudspeth-Ridgell (a member since 1914 – 82 years), Mr. Garfield Robertson (a member since 1924 – 72 years), Mr. James Moore, Sr. (a member since 1927 – 69 years) and Mr. James McCray (a member since 1932 – 64 years).
Pilgrim Rest A.M.E. Church has had a long and successful history in Drew County producing many faithful members active in the church and many great leaders who have served in the community. This is still true today as the congregation approaches its 150th year.
One of its longest-serving members was the late Rev. J. D. Jamison. His ministry there leads to the story of a historic artifact.
One day during Rev. Jamison’s tenure, he and his sons brought an unusually handsome, large wooden pulpit to the Drew County Historical Museum. According to the story, the church had undergone some remodeling and purchased some new furnishings. The delicately hand carved old pulpit was replaced in the church and brought to the museum to be treasured as a piece of Drew County history.
Although no one seems to know who carved the magnificent piece, many suspect it was Wiley Sheets, who built the original church structure. Possibly it was made for the church during the 1904 remodeling. Regardless, it is an object of much beauty. The decorative designs are cut into the wood similar to the Eastlake style popular at the time as opposed to raised carvings. The pulpit is well-stained and finished similar to the work of the late James McCrary, a longtime church member. It is a splendid piece of American folk art and we are proud to own and display it. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
Lampkin credits Dorris Wells of the Pilgrim Rest A.M.E. Church for historical research conducted in 1981 for the church’s homecoming event and sharing that information.