Posted on behalf of our friends at Big Bethel AME Church, whose Big Bethel Saturday Academy is one of our three partners in education:
” … one of Atlanta’s most enduring traditions… ”
The New York Times
In November,1929, shortly after the onset of the Great Depression, Lula Byrd Jones’s idea of a morality play to be presented in Bethel Church germinated in the search for a fund raising project. The play would depict the arduous Christian journey leading toward heavenly rewards. The whole spectrum of humankind would be represented by ‘pilgrims, plagued and taunted by life’s experiences. The idea quickly caught the imagination of the choir, one thought led to another, and a genius work of folk art was born. A procession of saints and angels would come marching through the pearly gates. Singing a song which pours out his or her grief, which reaffirms his or her faith or which lifts up a fervent prayer for the strength to endure, each pilgrim would confront Satan along the way. Some of them would be waylaid, and others spell bound by the trickery and deceit. A celestial choir would raise a mighty hymn when a struggling pilgrim reached the Promised Land. Finally, a “Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” in a heated clash, would deliver a fatal blow to Satan and the Heavenly Host would rejoice.
In February, 1930, at ten cent at head, Heaven Bound makes its debut to a packed house. The play soon became a church-wide production, which returned year after year to huge crowds, and high critical acclaim. Time magazine, in 1931, reported that more than eight thousand people saw an early presentation of the play at the old Atlanta Theatre, with five thousand more packed them in. Out of the Depression and through the War Years, Heaven bound continued to pack them in. By popular demand, the pageant played in towns and cities in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The outstanding choirs performed with the world premiere of “Gone with the Wind” and the Pops Concert series at the Fox Theatre and Chastain Memorial Park.
Presented more than 800 times, the play has been featured in the New York Times in local print and television media. More than one million tickets have been sold since the performance. One saint who performed during the Great Depression, Edna Collier, continues to perform.