The Reverend Joseph Benjamin Bethea was born in Dillon, SC on September 9, 1932. He was the son of a Methodist Minister, the Rev. Rufus Emory and Ella Johnson Bethea. He graduated from Claflin College in 1953 and Gammon Theological Seminary with an M.Div. in 1956. He did further study at Union Seminary in Richmond Va.
He married Shirley Ann Cundiff on June 7, 1953; she would pass away, September 19, 1992 after a marriage of 39 years.
Bishop Bethea joined the S. C. Annual Conference while a student at Gammon Theological Seminary. He served from 1953 to 1956 in various churches in the S. C. Conference before transferring to the North Carolina Conference. From 1956 to 1965 he served in the Western North Carolina Conference. In 1965, he served as District Superintendent in the North Carolina-Virginia Conference of the Central Jurisdiction.
Returning to the North Carolina Conference in 1968 with an appointment in Greensboro, he was appointed as Director of the Black Church Studies Center at Duke Divinity School in 1972. He became the District Superintendent of the Rockingham District in 1977 and was appointed Administrative Assistant to the Bishop of the North Carolina Conference in Raleigh, NC. From 1986 until 1988 he was the District Superintendent of the Raleigh District until elected Bishop in 1988 and assigned to the South Carolina Conference and was stationed in Columbia, SC. He was the first African-American Bishop to serve in South Carolina.
Bishop Bethea was very active at every level in the life of the church. In addition to serving on several boards of the South Carolina Annual Conference he also served on the General Board of Church and Society. He was also a member of the World Methodist Council as well as a delegate to Jurisdictional Conference (1984, 1988) and a delegate to General Conference in 1984 and 1988.
After surviving a 1992 stabbing from a would-be car thief in Columbia, Bishop Bethea was hospitalized for two months. He told reporters at the time that he believed God had spared him for a purpose. Bishop Bethea died in March 12, 1995 in Columbia, SC and was buried in Booneville, NC. His Memorial is in the 1995 NC Conference Journal.
Rev. Dennis Lamm
All information was taken from the NCC Archives and the history of Bethea UMC in SC.