One of the oldest churches in Mount Pleasant just turned another year older on Monday. Olive Branch African Methodist Episcopal Church celebrated its 150th birthday, dating back to its inception on March 23, 1870.
Olive Branch chose to commemorate the milestone from afar and postpone the anniversary's event given the current state of affairs amid COVID-19. The church decided to heed the direction of Gov. Henry McMaster and the Town of Mount Pleasant and decided to shut down in-person gatherings and strictly conduct services virtually through Facebook Live indefinitely until directed otherwise.
Rev. Richard C.K. Harkness, a 59-year-old senior pastor of Olive Branch's congregation, prays the church will be able to safely reconvene within the next month or so. Harkness hopes to celebrate the anniversary in-person sometime early May.
Prior to Harkness' arrival to the Lowcountry in 2001, he bounced around several ministries across the Upstate. Originally born in Abbeville, he and his family moved in his early childhood and became members of an AME church in Columbia. This is when Harkness found his calling as a pastor.
Since being assigned to pastorate Olive Branch in November 2014, Harkness said he's never been part of such a congregation that has such an active commitment from 70-years-old and older.
Harkness established various ministries within Olive Branch. Those ministries are as follows:
- 10 Most Wanted Ministry
- Golden Heirs Ministry
- Media Ministry
- Singles Ministry
- Young Adult Ministry
- Noon Day Bible Study
- Youth Ministry
- Afternoon Tutorial Program
- Fourth Sunday
"Even with this coronavirus it gives us an opportunity to begin to explore and look at ways we can do some things on social media and other media platforms to maintain the body of the church," Harkness said. "Church is not the building, that's the church house where we gather. Church is the people who make up the congregation."
Harkness has also reorganized the Health Ministry and has organized the Commissions of the Church. Youth Church on the second and third Sundays was also initiated under Harkness. More so, he also has been instrumental in having the members of Olive Branch engage in fellowship with numerous churches in the area to include All Saints Lutheran Church, Hibben United Methodist Church and Mount Pleasant Presbyterian.
Harkness is a strong believer in bringing all Christians together despite race, in the wake of the mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine African-Americans during an evening Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. He had been pastor at Olive Branch for only seven months when the tragedy struck.
"My reaction personally, as with everyone else, was one of shock and horror and then some anger," Harkness said.
The late Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, senior pastor at Mother Emanuel and representative of S.C. Senate's 45th District, was supposed to help Harkness get acquainted with Charleston's church scene. Pinckney's life was taken that night.
Also, the late Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr. who was Harkness' friend and a former pastor of Olive Branch. He was a member of Mother Emanuel's ministerial staff who's life was taken too.
During the passing of that dark period in Charleston's history and church society, Harkness admitted Olive Branch was very cautious and suspicious moving forward. The church invested in a security system with surveillance and now there's a Mount Pleasant Police Department officer on site for every Sunday morning service.
Olive Branch also hung a permanent banner in their fellowship hall to honor and memorialize the "Emanuel Nine."
"It did change the way we did church forever, but it can't change the church and the sense of who we are and reaching out to others," Harkness said.
Harkness is very pleased with his church's community involvement and giving back to local organizations in need. Not just around the holidays but year-round.
A particular proud achievement that came to Harkness' mind, aside from Olive Branch's partnership with Lowcountry Food Bank and Windwood Farms, is Taste of Olive Branch. A unique tradition that celebrates Lowcountry cuisine the first Saturday in April each year. The church hopes to reschedule the event once the impact of the coronavirus passes.
According to its most recent survey, Harkness estimates approximately 860 regular parishioners call Olive Branch home. With a capacity for nearly 600 churchgoers, the church averages anywhere from 300 to 500 in attendance monthly and 150 to 250 any given Sunday.
Over the past century and a half, Olive Branch has undergone structural changes but has never relocated from its address at 1734 N Highway 17. As for its early beginnings, the following historical timeline was sourced by Olive Branch's senior pastor Marshelle Grant:
In 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. Shortly afterwards, the African Methodist Episcopal Church came into existence in South Carolina. The African Methodist Episcopal Church returned to the South in 1863 with the Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne as Presiding Prelate.
In 1865, during the same year as the abolishment of slavery in the United States, the South Carolina Conference became one of the largest conferences of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The conference oversaw the Mount Pleasant District, which included Olive Branch.
In 1910 the Palmetto Conference was established. Olive Branch became part of what was known as the Mount Pleasant Circuit.
The property which became Olive Branch was purchased from John and Ann Hamlin, owners of a plantation adjacent to what became the church. The purchase date is noted to have been March 23, 1870 in Christ Church Parish. The property is bound on the North and West by Willock, on the east by Georgetown and Mathis Ferry Roads, on the South by Georgetown Highway.
Trustees during the purchase were: J.W. Venning, Robert Curtis, Jacob Swinton, Sires Howard, Lot McNeil, David Dyall, Charles F. North and Mingo Ward.
Rev. John Graham was the minister in charge at the time. Graham erected a pole building at first and around 1885, a board building was erected. Olive Branch began a circuit and shared the following pastors with Goodwill AME Church: J.B. Greer, Jack Singleton, F.E. Rivers, W.F. McBrown, M.A. Hollings, A.C. Brown, E.E. Jones, S.S. Bruington, William Taylor, W.P. Carolina, C. Lindsey, C.S.T. Mollette, W.T. Murray, E.P. Butler, William Jackson and J.J. Taylor.
Services were held at Olive Branch on the first and third Sundays and at Goodwill AMEC, our sister church on the second and fourth Sundays.
The congregation at both churches grew rapidly. To fulfill the spiritual needs of each congregation each church was assigned their own pastor. In 1962, Rev. JJ Taylor was appointed to Olive Branch and served until he was transferred to Goodwill AMEC in 1970.
Over the years
Over the past 50 years there have been eight changes in pastoral leadership. The following is a timeline from the early 70s to present day:
- Rev. James Brown (1970-73)
- Rev. Dr. Louis Osbourne Johnson (1973-94)
- Rev. Charles C. McLamore (1994-96)
- Rev. Jonathan Jerome Baker (1996-2001)
- Rev. Daniel L. Simmons (2001-03)
- Rev. Frank Madison Moses (2003-11)
- Rev. Dr. Harry L. Wilson (2011-14)
- Rev. Richard C.K. Harkness (2014-present)
"It's been an honor to be a pastor of a church that has that type of legacy where it as been a vital congregation in the past and it continues to be a vital congregation currently," Harkness said. "I'm looking forward to the continued growth and expansion, not only physically be spiritually."
For more information, visit olivebranchame.org.