African Methodist Episcopal Church (1794-present)
By Michael Barga
Introduction: The vision of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church has remained consistent throughout its existence and is a strongly social and service-oriented spiritual community. Its early history in Philadelphia is filled with legal and financial difficulties which the congregation overcame. An integral part of the A.M.E. Church’s short-term and long-term success was Pastor Allen and his family. In about 100 years of development, the new community would blossom into what W.E.B. Dubois considered an institution… a social center of astonishing efficiency, where the poor and ostracized met in human sympathy, mutual charity and encouragement, to fight the battle of life.1
Background: The A.M.E. Church evolved out of the Free African Society at the end of the 18th century in Philadelphia. The Society was a response to the discrimination against black Methodists who requested aid from the charitable funds of their church. Even during these initial years, the organization surpassed its immediate purpose and included religious, social, and intellectual aspects. The first religious gathering was documented about nine years before the church’s official organization in 1794. While oppression was less severe for free blacks in Philadelphia than in many other cities, the strong discrimination of white Methodists served as the catalyst for the new congregation with Richard Allen as pastor.
Development and Activities: The founding document of the church was worked out largely between Allen and white Methodist leaders, church hierarchy. Allen’s congregation was supposed to remain a part of the Methodist Church but would be largely self-governing. A level of oversight by church hierarchy was expected, and the hope was to create a system of checks and balances between white authorities and black power. Tension flared following the growth in membership of Bethel Church from 40-400 between 1794 and 1810. White Methodists hoped to impress upon the new dynamic community that there were still limits of its independence.
The uneasy agreement broke down as white Methodists threatened to prevent church meetings and used other tactics to discourage Bethel’s self-governance. By 1807, Allen received legal help and wrote an African supplement to the church’s founding document which made stronger claims of independence while maintaining Bethel’s inclusion into the Methodist Conference as an equal member. Membership continued to grow as Bethel became known for its opposition. In turn, white Methodist tactics became more extreme as they saw membership growing. In 1814, an inaccurate circular had been produced stating Bethel’s baptisms and marriages were invalid since the Methodist authority had expelled the new congregation.
The first of the crucial legal challenges that went to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court dealt indirectly with the question of Bethel’s legitimacy as an independent church. The lawsuit was lost by the Congregation before the end of 1815, but the court’s treatment of Bethel was of an independent entity. When a second and more direct legal challenge came at the beginning of 1816, the 1807 Supplement and Allen’s right to self-determination as a pastor were affirmed.
One elder had attempted to preach to the congregation in early 1815 and was physically blocked from approaching the altar by those present. Despite Bethel’s legal successes after the incident, many whites in Methodist hierarchy continued to express their will to preach at Bethel’s pulpit. Newly appointed Elder, Robert Burch, had made a public statement that he would preach, and he stopped by the church a week before to make an appointment. In a brief meeting with Allen, Burch had been warned that no one could guarantee him that the congregation would remain non-violent.
Burch returned to a fortress-like Bethel the next week with members having brought various items to blockade the pews and aisles as an expression of defiance. Richard Allen was not present for Burch’s arrival and had left Assistant Pastor Tapsico to preach. When Burch addressed the congregation from the back of the church, yelling and other noise from the congregation ensued to drown him out. When the sermon at the pulpit continued, Tapsico declared that he spoke in the name of God and the laws of his country.
The law of Pennsylvania, as interpreted by the state Supreme Court, would favor Bethel a third time when Burch filed suit after his failed attempt to preach. The ruling maintained that Burch was not a voting member of the democratically-structured Bethel community and could not make a decision about any church matter, including the pulpit’s speaker. Allen had explained to others before that it was the community’s discretion which guided who was at the pulpit, and now the principle was legally maintained.
Elements of patriotism and democratic ideas are evident throughout Bethel’s early history, and Allen had been a proponent of the sentiment. There are many possible motivations for early blacks’ nationalism in the Bethel community, especially practical reasons. Pride of country was likely a common cultural phenomenon in the Philadelphia community during the early days of the republic. The community could avoid appearing militant and potentially gain credibility through adhering to this cultural norm, something which might especially be helpful in court.
Certain opportunities related to patriotism allowed blacks to present themselves as part of the overall community. When George Washington’s funeral procession went through the streets of the city, black participation was unlikely to have been restricted. Nationalism sometimes also enabled abolitionist efforts. For example, Allen had eulogized the death of Washington, who he commended for having freed his slaves and given funds for an African church. The re-framing of a national hero into someone sympathetic to the cause of former slaves could be very powerful and likely helped Bethel’s collection of signatures for abolition.
Other aspects of the early Bethel community appear to show a more philosophical embrace of United States ideals. A voting machine from the early community, of an unknown purpose, still remains in the Richard Allen museum. Also, expressions of nationalism remained after the final 1816 legal battle. Tapsico and Allen wrote a new founding document in 1817 for the church known as The Discipline which included the phrase perfect union from the Constitution, and a strong emphasis on voting was maintained even after independence was established.
By 1816, Bethel’s congregation had grown to nearly 1400 members, and the galvanized community had great confidence in their new institution. During its first decades of struggle, the church community had become known as a haven to people of color, in addition to its reputation for victory over white oppression in the courts. Aside from political abolitionist activities, the church often welcomed travelers and runaway slaves who had came to Philadelphia hoping discrimination was not as extreme. In 1795, a group of newly freed individuals led by David Barclay arrived from a Jamaican plantation and joined the Bethel community.
Allen and his family led the community in supporting strangers and travelers with housing, food, and other resources, especially black apprentices and boarders. The legacy would spread as new A.M.E. Churches were established, and many church buildings have secret basements which indicate their use in the Underground Railroad. The church was dedicated to continued social protest, and Allen stressed social justice as the unifying and driving force of his church.2
The struggle for social justice was analogized with the Exodus story of the Bible. The first literary contribution of the new church was Allen’s autobiography, published posthumously, and one of the themes is the belief that blacks were on the side of God and destiny despite the many obstacles which appeared in the way of establishing Bethel. The Exodus typology evoked a feeling that their community transcended the here-and-now, and similar Biblical connections would be made by civil rights leaders of the 20th century.
Allen also served as an example of prudent money-handling for the early church. One of the most astonishing details of the Bethel conflict with Methodist hierarchy occurred outside the courts in 1815. The church property technically belonged to the Methodist hierarchy, and it was put up for auction to the highest bidder with little warning to the Bethel community. Allen, the onetime slave, walked away as winner of the auction, buying back the church building on behalf of the community for $9,600 – the equivalent of roughly $112,000 in 2010.
Many had been watching Bethel’s struggle with great interest, and the legal victories created a stir among populations of blacks throughout the Northeast. Allen had encouraged other black Methodists, particularly Daniel Coker in Baltimore, to employ the same mass-activist strategies, and a conference of black Methodist communities occurred in the summer of 1816. The new denomination that sprang from the gathering was the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and after some debate Richard Allen became the first ordained black bishop in the Western world.
The A.M.E. church was made up of mostly illiterate and uneducated individuals, but one of the methods identified as crucial to achieving social justice was educational efforts. The message was one of social uplift, not just spiritual perfection lived in community like many other churches. Both spiritual growth and social progress were considered possible only through high moral standards. Trustees in the church ensured that members “stood fair” in terms of their conduct, and those judged guilty of serious misconduct would be banished from the community. The hope was for blacks to remain pious, work hard, and avoid behaviors that might stigmatize their community including gambling, affairs, idleness, and abuse. Allen believed laziness would tighten the reigns of oppression.
The exercising of authority by trustees led a small group of members to leave within the first decade, but most likely accepted this as a continuation of moral life in their previous integrated community. If anything, there was greater confidence in the authority of black trustees than those whites who formerly ensured their moral standards. Still, the way in which Allen and others could judge and ultimately remove members from the community gave them substantial power and influence.
Some who disagreed with Allen and held mixed sentiments about Bethel’s structure still decided to work within the system, like Jarena Lee. A free black widow from New Jersey, she hoped to expand the role of women in the new church. When she asked permission to preach, Allen allowed for her to hold prayer meetings in her own house. He disallowed female ordination and preaching, yet over time Lee would become a traveling representative to new A.M.E. Churches and on one particular occasion spontaneously preached at Bethel without reprisal. Both held great respect for each other, and Lee’s story in the early history of the A.M.E. Church was certainly not forgotten in later discussions about the role of women in the congregation.
By the early 1820’s, the A.M.E. Church was a realized hope for blacks who wished to create their own society as a response to the overall oppression faced throughout the country. The A.M.E. Church quickly spread to Pittsburgh, Ohio, Buffalo, and Charleston, SC. The last location would be disbanded shortly after its organization due to an incident that became known as the Vesey Insurrection. Reportedly, members used meeting times at the church to plan a violent attack on and escape from the white community. When the plans were discovered, the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church was disbanded with many of the members convicted as part of the conspiracy. The black church experiment was not to be repeated in the southern city until after the Civil War.
Richard Allen died in 1831, but the church he helped found continued to spread throughout the Western and Northeastern United States, especially in Indiana, New York, Washington D.C, and Massachusetts. Copies of The Discipline numbered the thousands and held a place immediately next to the Bible in many black Christian homes. Independent black Christian communities requested to become associated with the new denomination, probably encouraged by its social justice message. By 1840, there were 93 new A.M.E. Churches, and the idea of publishing a magazine was first discussed at the Annual Conferences of that year.
Up to the 1840’s, the social welfare contributions of the A.M.E. Church were mostly providing a local spiritual, social, moral, and intellectual space for blacks to foster their own society. It is at this point that educational efforts begin to take shape and gain recognition, while upkeep of morality becomes more proactive. An A.M.E. Church in New York had a school attached with an enrollment of 121 students and 30 Sunday school students. Baltimore reported an educational society, temperance societies, Sunday Schools, and an educational society to train young men for the ministry.
In 1844, the Ohio Annual Conference decided upon the purchase of land for a school. It later became known as the Union Seminary, although instruction in many fields took place not just the ministry. By 1846, there were 298 churches in six A.M.E. Church districts located throughout 14 states, as well as some foreign mission communities. Most communities had at least a Sunday school, with many having developed literary societies, day schools, and libraries. Temperance societies continued to flourish, while women consistently took part in associations for aid and charity. As church projects grew, the hierarchical structure adapted by giving the pastor the ability to establish schools, rather than the Annual Conference alone.
The dark reality of slavery continued to deter A.M.E. missionaries from the South, and by the 1850’s the A.M.E. Church created a “Committee on Slavery” to foster abolitionist ideas. Local churches were not required to condemn slavery since it sometimes came with the risk of the church being disbanded by authorities. Still, this avoidance of a unified stance did not alter its place in the abolitionist movement as an active forum and established aid to runaways and newly freed blacks in the struggle against slavery.
Intellectual life in the A.M.E. Church was flourishing, and the first church magazine was published in 1841. An educational conference took place in 1845, and The Christian Recorder, a weekly publication, was established in 1851. The capstone of the efforts would come in 1856 when Wilberforce College was established in Ohio. The goal was to train teachers that would provide leadership for the next generation of A.M.E. schools. Those who were literate in the A.M.E. Churches came from across the country with their families to the location.
These initial strides toward education faced significant hurdles and yielded limited success. Both the church magazine and Christian Recorder immediately struggled upon release to the public. Financial difficulties undercut the ability of producing consistent issues, and a major setback occurred in 1865 when a fire left the building of Wilberforce College nothing but smouldering embers.3
The end of the Civil War was the catalyst for the next major development. The A.M.E. Church would follow northern troops, sometimes serving as chaplains, and immediately begin to set up communities among former slaves. By 1880, there were nine districts including areas of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. In the last location, the A.M.E. Church was well-documented as having a positive impact on former slaves. Individuals like Alfred Brown, Charles H. Pearce, and Robert Meachem provided spiritual, intellectual, and social uplift to the newly freed communities in the face of violent opposition.
The A.M.E. Church’s rugged commitment to education blossomed in the post-Civil War era, especially in the development of higher institutions. Wilberforce was rebuilt and drew scholars and students of high regard from around the country. It became the base for the renewed Christian Recorder publication in 1884, and one department received the high endorsement of the Ohio legislature in the allotment of state funding. The Kansas Annual Conference of the A.M.E. Church established Western University, and other developments included the founding of Paul Quinn College in Texas, Allen University in South Carolina, and Morris Brown University in Georgia. These institutions are only a few examples of the strong A.M.E. educational presence in the newly emancipated South.
The dynamic growth in membership in the decades following the Civil War was an important factor in the ability to create these institutions. From 1856-1866, membership went from 20,000 to 75,000. The A.M.E. Church more than doubled to 200,000 members in the decade following, and the subsequent increase in funds was instrumental in the development of educational institutions in a multitude of former slave-holding regions.
The educational development at the end of the 19th century led to the need for more outlets for intellectual expression among clergy and laypeople alike. In 1883, Dr. B.T. Tanner made the suggestion for a quarterly publication. At the General Conference of 1884, the idea took form as the A.M.E. Review, with Tanner as editor. The scholarly journal would become a focal point for black intellectual life leading up to the Civil Rights movement, including discussions of Gandhi’s non-violent efforts in the 20th century.
In 1886 and 1891, two other publications in the A.M.E. Church were started. The Southern Christian Recorder was a church magazine organized for the growing A.M.E. Church communities in the newly emancipated areas. The Western Christian Recorder held a similar purpose for distant communities, like California, some of which had been established just before the chaos of the Civil War.
The A.M.E. Church was a voice of protest against the troubling and violent shift back from Reconstruction to bitter segregation. In 1889, the Ohio Conference declared that the only thing remaining for blacks was to let the law of self-defense have its course if neither the state nor national government would stop lynching in the South.4 An 1893 Review article called for the formation of an armed secret organization of black self defense. In 1894, Frederick Douglass gave his last great speech, “The Lesson of the Hour,” at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C. on the injustice of lynching.
As always, the independent culture of the African Methodist Episcopal Church continued to develop even as greater white oppression evoked reactions. One of the crucial issues under further discussion was female ordination. Women had contributed so much to the development of the church, especially in terms of benefit societies and through missionary work like Mary Still of the mid-19th century.
While Jarena Lee was the first, many women felt called to become preachers and pastors in the A.M.E. Church, and resolutions had challenged the gender line insistently at conferences since its founding. In 1885, Bishop Turner made the bold move of ordaining a female deacon. The act was rebuked by the General Conference of the A.M.E. Church two years later, even though preaching by women had just recently been accepted. Ultimately, female ordination would begin in the A.M.E. Church by the mid-twentieth century, highlighted recently by the first female bishop Vashti Murphy Mckenzie.
Another developing stream of thought in the A.M.E. Church was socialism, although it was a minority view. Reverdy Ransom was a minister in Chicago and saw the development of the black urban poor. He created the Institutional Church and Social Settlement, a program for blacks similar to Jane Addams’ Hull House. Ransom would later become bishop and editor of the A.M.E. Review. As always, church leaders were allowed to express varied beliefs on the struggle against oppression, including those which might be considered radical.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the A.M.E. Church had thirteen districts, which grew to eighteen by 1920. President Theodore Roosevelt responded to the 1904 General Conference’s invitation to attend by explaining that every decent citizen must feel a peculiar interest in every movement for the spiritual and material elevation of our colored citizens.5 That year, the governor of Illinois had invited them to hold the General Conference in Chicago, and the total of all Annual conferences included 11 bishops, 9 general officers, 296 ministers, and 125 laymen.5
A.M.E. Church members and resources were vital in the eventual overthrow of de jure segregation in the South, and only a few highlights will be given here. A.M.E. minister J.A. Delaine filed suit against a local school administration, a precursor to the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case. The A.M.E. church held the funeral for one of its own, Rosa Parks, in 2005. Dr. Dorothy Height spoke reverently of the A.M.E. Deaconess, referenced by many to be the “Mother of the Modern Civil Rights” movement. Brown A.M.E. Chapel is designated as a historic landmark in Selma, Alabama on Martin Luther King, Jr. Street; the building is a living testament to its role in the civil rights movement as the starting point of courageous marches to the state capital.
Conclusion: Today, the A.M.E. Church continues its mission as a ministry that seeks out the oppressed and those in need, spreading the gospel of liberation in the spirit of social justice present from its roots. There are church communities in thirty-nine countries on five continents led by twenty-one active bishops and nine General Officers. The total membership stands at nearly 2.5 million, and their relief and social justice efforts respond to the spiritual, intellectual, physical, emotional, and environmental needs of all people…through word and deed.6
1. “The Negro since 1900: A Progress Report” in W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader, Ed. Meyer Weinberg. New York: Harper and Row, 1970: 227.
2. Freedom’s Prophet by Richard S. Newman. New York: New York University Press, 2008: 179.
3. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church by Daniel Alexander Payne. Ed. Charles Spencer Smith. Tennessee: Publishing House of the A. M. E. Sunday School Union, 1891: 429.
Electronic Edition available through the Documenting the American South initiative, accessed at http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/payne/payne.html
4. Negro Thought in America 1880-1915 by August Meier. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1963: 73.
5. A History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: Being a Volume Supplemental to A History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, by Daniel Alexander Payne, D.D., LL.D., Late One of Its Bishops: Chronicling the Principal Events in the Advance of the African Methodist Episcopal Church from 1856 to 1922 by Charles Spencer Smith. Philadelphia: Book Concern of the A.M.E. Church, 1922: 227, 225.
Electronic Edition available through the Documenting the American South initiative, accessed at http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cssmith/smith.html
6. “Welcome” on African Methodist Episcopal Church website: para. 3. Accessed at http://www.ame-church.com/
Black Church Beginnings by Henry H. Mitchell. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.
“‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’: Virgil Darnell Hawkins’s Early Life and Entry into the Civil Rights Struggle” by Larry O. Rivers. The Florida Historical Quarterly 85(3), (Winter, 2008), pp. 279-308.
“Missions, Institutional Churches, and Settlement Houses: The Black Experience, 1885-1910” by Ralph E. Luker. The Journal of Negro History 69(3/4), (Summer – Autumn, 1984), pp. 101-113.
“African American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, 1930-55” by Dennis C. Dickerson. Church History 74(2), (Jun., 2005), pp. 217-235.
“Timeline of Historic Events” by member Thelma Dean Jacobs. Metropolitan AME Website, accessed at http://www.metropolitanamec.org/almanac.asp
“Black Mainstream Churches: Emancipatory or Accommodative Responses to Racism and Social Stratification in American Society?” by Hans A. Baer. Review of Religious Research 30(2), (Dec., 1988), pp. 162-176.
“Brown Chapel AME Church” on the National Park Service website: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/al2.htm
“African Methodist Episcopal Church” on the World Council of Churches website: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/member-churches/african-methodist-episcopal-church
“About Us – Our History” on the AME official website: https://www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/
Richard Allen – http://www.wardchapelamechurch.com/amehistory.htm
George Washington, Slaves – http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/history/articles/the-founding-father-and-his-slaves/
Uncle Tom’s Cabin – http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/uncletom/illustra/cover22.html
Douglass Funeral – http://www.metropolitaname.org/frederick_douglass_funeral_at_metropolitan_ame.asp
Vashti Murphy McKenzie – http://www.wms-amec.org/commchair.html
Roosevelt, NAACP – http://www.metropolitaname.org/eleanor_roosevelt_at_metropolitan_ame.asp
For More Information: Contact the African Methodist Episcopal Church through their website http://www.ame-church.com/contact-us/ or visit the Documenting the American South initiative at http://docsouth.unc.edu/index.html
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2012). African Methodist Episcopal Church (1794-present). Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=7713.