Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835-1923) was an A.M.E. bishop and editor of the church’s influential newspaper, Christian Recorder from 1868 to 1884. He used the newspaper several times to openly criticize the poor stewardship of the Bethel Burying Ground by the trustees of Bethel Church.
THE BODIES OF THE SAINTS – BETHEL BURYING GROUND
The teaching of the Old Testament in regard to the bodies of believers, may be said to be stated, Psl. xii. 14. And precious shall their blood be in his sight.’ Nor does the general scope of the New Testament, change this high estimate; if anything, it increases it. Paul says, 1 Cor. 111 16. “Know; ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that God dwelleth in you. ”
In keeping with these high teaching’s God’s people have ever acted. Joseph gave commandment concerning his bones, and his children were only too glad to obey him in after days. How tenderly the Disciples looked after the body of Jesus is familiar to every Scripture reader; while the Catacombs bear witness to the early thought of the Church in regard to her dead. Nor has this sentiment ever decreased among the really godly. In fact, care for the dead, may be said to have become a badge of our profession. Of course we can have no sympathy with this feeling when it runs into such abuses as are practiced in the Romish Church. They have converted a respect for the dead, rational in its nature, and elevating in its tendency, into a kind of second-rate worship, that is mockish and miserable; and should be treated as a criminal caricature of rational sentiment.
We were led to pen these words after gazing upon the burial ground of Bethel Church in this city.
In this ground lay the bones of the fathers and mothers of our Israel-the coadjutors of Richard Allen; and in no same number of square feet, is there more precious dust. One would think that such a spot would be kept in unexceptionable trim. Aside from this sentiment of religion, a common gratitude would dictate that it should be so. The nation has gathered together the fallen heroes in well-chosen cemeteries all over the land, and annually garnishes them with flowers. Surely if gratitude thus demeans itself, religion cannot do less. We say nothing about garnishing with flowers, save that which nature does itself if but allowed, but we do plead that the men and women, who laid the foundation of our Bethel Zion, should at least rest decently . We are confident that the majority of the Christians who sing and shout in the grand old building which these dead heroes and heroines erected, are not aware of the shameful condition of this burial place. Let us tell them-FOR THE PALTRY SUM OF A FEW HUNDRED DOLLARS A YEAR, THE INCORPORATION HAVE RENTED IT, AND NOW IT IS PILED UP WITH EMPTY HOGSHEADS AND OTHER RUBBISH.
If we mistake not the metal of Bethel, this shameful state of affairs will soon be remedied. More in regard to this matter next week. (Christian Recorder, July 6, 1872)
“More than a fortnight ago, we called attention to the miserable and most disgraceful condition of this consecrated ground; and then promised more “next week.” We now fulfill our promise, if not in regard to time, certainly in regard to the matter itself.
As we said then, it cannot he possible that Bethel church known as the condition of these grounds. If she did, we feel sure that she would rise up in her might, and right the wrong, by putting away the disgrace. Her disgrace! It is nothing less. Is not the son disgraced who refuses to pay the funeral expenses of his mother? Is he not disgraced if he give her not decent interment? And would he not be doubly disgraced, if he were to barter away for pelf, the family burial ground; and at the same time, be too mean to remove the bones of his dead ancestry? All the Christian world would give a most hearty affirmative to each and all these interrogatories.
It is almost precisely thus with the few men who led Bethel into this affair of bartering away Old the Burial Ground. In that ground, lay the dead fathers and mothers of our Israel; and their children of this generation have made traffic of their bones. For the paltry sum of five hundred dollars a year, they have disgraced themselves, disgraced the Church; we might say, disgraced the race.
Visit that ground today, perfumed with the sweet odors of the dead, and which ought to be perfumed with sweetest flowers, and what do you see? A most shameful spectacle-old hogsheads, and barrels and lumber of every conceivable shape. Not a gravestone unbroken, not a grave to be seen – all is confusion and shame.
Who led Bethel – the first to recommend it we mean, into this Slough of Contempt, we know not; we possibly may know by the time we write our next article. Whoever he is, he ought to be made do forty days penance, and wear deepest sackcloth. In the meantime we invite the friends to take a walk down to the ground, on Queen St. between Fourth and Fifth, and view it for themselves.
In our next we hope to give the names of some of the venerable dead there interred with a little more comment.” (Christian Recorder, August 3, 1872)
“As it relates to the horrible work of the ghouls upon the dead of Lebanon Cemetery, we have this to say. Not a little of the responsibility rests upon the colored people themselves, owing to the wretched condition in which they allow the graves, with the entire surroundings of their dead, to remain. They practically invite the ghouls to their work. When we as a class shall show the respect for our dead that others show, such outrages will measurably cease. Let any who doubt the truthfulness of what we say, pay a visit to the graveyard of Bethel Church, where sleep the dead fathers and mothers of our connection. Its condition is certainly not credible to us as a church.” [Italics added] (Christian Recorder, December 14, 1882)
The Reverend B.W. Arnett observed of Tanner, “His pen is sharper than his razor, and his editorial chair finer than his barber chair.” For more on Bishop Tanner, his biography is an excellent source – Fire in His Heart: Bishop Tucker Tanner and the A.M.E. Church by William Seraile.