In 1946, the New Bethel Baptist Church congregation of 400 met inside a Detroit bowling alley. By 1951, the church had a home, a building. Inside the church the 14-year-old daughter of pastor C. L. Franklin recorded an album of spirituals called ‘Songs of Faith.’
That Aretha Franklin would become the Queen of Soul surely wasn’t fathomed then, but the congregation, and the radio audience that listened to the church choir, knew that her voice must only have come from Heaven.
As the 76-year-old singer asked for prayers while in end-of-life hospice, a vigil was held at New Bethel just as the sun came up Wednesday as family, friends, and fans prayed for a peaceful passage for the icon.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Founded in 1932, Aretha Franklin’s Father C.L. Franklin Would Become New Bethel Baptist Pastor in 1946
Founded in 1932, a preacher from Memphis would take the pulpit in 1946. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as C. L., born to Mississippi sharecroppers in 1915, became a preacher when he was just 16. After serving in Memphis and upstate New York, he moved to Detroit and became pastor. He was married and had four children, Aretha one of them.
When Franklin became pastor there were around 400 members and they met, it’s said, in a Detroit bowling alley until a new building could be secured. The congregation grew and grew. The new church seated 2,500. And it was renowned for its gospel choir and Franklin’s sermons. One singer wold become a legend.
2. Renowned For His Sermons, Which Were Broadcast Nationally, Pastor Franklin Was Called the ‘Million Dollar Voice’
Franklin was called the ‘Million Dollar Voice.’ His sermons were not only broadcast and listened to by hundreds of thousands as his popularity grew during the ’40s and ’50s, but a New Bethel sermon, ‘The Eagle Stirrith Her Nest,’ was recorded and preserved by the Library of Congress.
Franklin was shot during a suspicious robbery at his home in 1979. He was not killed but lay in a coma at his home for almost five years. He died, after being moved to a nursing home, of heart failure in 1984. It was reported at the time that with 10,000 attendees, it was the largest funeral held in Detroit.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy. The funeral was described as a “roaring four-hour display of oratory, music and hand-clapping.”
3. New Bethel Became a Center of the Civil Rights Movement & Many Notable People Have Been Eulogized There
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, New Bethel became hub for civil rights movement events. Pastor Franklin, as the chairman of the Detroit Council of Human Rights asked city officials to bless a 1963 march that is now known as the Detroit Walk to Freedom. In a city where more than a quarter of residents were African-American, most lived poverty and in shoddy housing. Franklin’s “Declaration of Detroit” shined a light on conditions and brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to the march which drew more than 120,000, then the largest civil rights demonstration in the nation.
Two years later, a rally was held at the church to raise money for the Selma, AL, voter registration drive King was holding. In November of 1965, Coretta Scott King delivered an address at the church and the following year, in October of 1966, Dr. King delivered a speech at the annual men’s day dinner. A month later, at another rally held at the church, James Meredith spoke. Activist Meredith had been shot during the ‘March Against Fear in Mississippi’ and was widely known.
New Bethel has been the site for the funerals of many preeminent African-Americans have been held at New Bethel including singer Dinah Washington, civil rights activist and union leader Nelson “Jack” Edwards in 1974 and soul singer David Ruffin of The Temptations in 1991.
4. A 1969 Shootout at the Church Between the Republic of New Africa & Police Left a Officer Dead & a Raid That Saw 100 Arrested & Two Charged
According to Detroit Free Press archives, the Republic of New Africa rented the church out from Franklin for an event. The group had two armed members posted outside the church on the city’s near West Side.
Patrol officers stopped to question the men and, the paper reported, police converged on the church and were “met by heavy gunfire” and police “stormed the church.” One officer was killed and one was injured. Two men were charged at least 100 people were arrested and questioned, the Detroit Free Press reported.
5. Aretha Franklin Grew up in New Bethel & Recorded Her First Album There. Aretha Often Visited the Church & it Was Not Uncommon For Her to Sing in Praise While at Service
In 1987 Aretha Franklin recorded ‘One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,’ at New Bethel. The album was released by Arista label and re-released in 2003. Over the years, indeed the decades, she often sang and in this 2016 video, can be heard stretching her vocal chords in praise.
A gifted piano player, though she leaned by ear and didn’t read sheet music, Aretha came to New Bethe in 2016 and played and sang.