1816 African Methodist Episcopal
I. Group Profile
Preliminary Beginnings. As early as 1784, black Methodists had already begun to hold exclusive meetings. Whites allowed this practice to go on, but with the provision that "proper white persons" be chosen to oversee the meetings (Baldwin, 1983:26). They had the intention of minimizing discontent and curbing any possible ideas of insurrection, but the unfortunate result was that blacks felt they were being restrained religiously (Baldwin:26). So began a dissatisfaction in the hearts of many blacks with regards to the Methodist church (which was itself in a gestational period in 1784).
In February of 1786, Richard Allen, an African-American Methodist preacher, went to Philadelphia and began evangelizing to blacks there. He was accompanied in this endeavor by Absalom Jones and some other black members of Philadelphia's St. George's Methodist Church. The white congregation there was directly opposed to black assemblies; and accordingly, as before, they restricted the gatherings and also segregated worship service. At this time, Allen began to entertain the idea of forming a separate congregation for blacks, but his intentions met with considerable resistance -- in equal amounts from both blacks and whites.
White Discontent. A majority of white Methodists wanted to see blacks obtain social freedom and equality, but for some reason did not feel this freedom should carry over into the ecclesiastical realm (Baldwin:26). Many saw black forms of worship as questionable at best, and perhaps feared that giving blacks leadership in church would have deleterious effects on their religion. Whites felt nervous and in some cases even threatened by many black members' unique approach to serving God. For instance, African-Americans often integrated several "unorthodox" behaviors into service such as call-and-response, rhythmic movement and jumping, dance, weeping, groaning, and shouting (Baldwin:22-23).
Allen's Persistence. Allen moved forward with his idea of forming a separate group for blacks. (Still not a separate church at this point). On April 12, 1787, he decided to organize the "Free African Society" with the help of Absalom Jones, William White, and Dorus Ginnings. This was the first- ever independent black group in America, and it dedicated itself to abolishing slavery and providing help one to another between members -- helping blacks to help themselves (Murphy, et al, 1993:404).
The Last Straw. November 1787. It was becoming an accepted practice to not let blacks partake of communion until after white members of the congregation had done so first (Melton, 1996:330). While this insulted blacks, they were not roused enough to take action until a Sunday morning service at St. George's Methodist Church. Allen and some black companions were led to an upstairs section -- a new "special seating arrangment" designed to segregate the congregation. Some sat in the front rows, not having been told of the rule that blacks couldn't sit in the front -- even in their own upstairs section. During prayer, a sexton interrupted and told them they were in the wrong area of the gallery. At this point, the group left, and collectively decided that they would build their own church, specifically for black worship. The pastor of St. George's was against their idea, but they did manage to win the support of a few prominent people (Benjamin Rush, the physician, is one example). The dissidents began a fundraising effort, with the ultimate goal of constructing a church building of their own. This occurred even in the face of flagrant opposition from St. George's, and threats of excommunication from the church (Murphy, et al:7).
Affiliation. When the time came for the group to decide on a religious affiliation, they cast a vote. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones backed Methodism, but the rest (due to an understandable disillusionment with that denomination) preferred Episcopalianism. Allen and Jones both felt the need to have amicable ties with the larger Methodist Church -- despite the already existing hostility -- because, in Allen's own words, "No religious sect or denomination would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodists; for the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people" (Murphy, et al:7).
Baldwin (1983:19) has identified several reasons to explain why Allen and many blacks in general were so attracted to Methodism during its early years. First, preachers of this denomination seemed genuinely concerned for the spiritual lives of blacks. Second, the preaching style was appealing to Africans, in that it included simple, easy-to-grasp concepts that were Bible-based, and presented them in an emotional way. Third, blacks were often impressed by the Methodist policy that allowed them to participate in ministry. Last, and perhaps most importantly, the Methodist church took an early, clear-cut stance in opposition to slavery.
Birth of AME/Struggle For Legitimacy and Autonomy. In 1794, Allen personally purchased a blacksmith shop and converted it into a church. Bishop Frances Ashbury dedicated it as the Bethel Church. Allen was the informal leader of the congregation that met there, and in 1799 was ordained a deacon by Asbury, thereby becoming the first ordained black in the Methodist Church. Up until this point, the church had been forced to accept various visiting preachers. Officially, though, the congregation was served by whites (namely the elder of Philadelphia), and was denied any political voice in the denomination until 1863. Moreover, he couldn't perform the Eucharist, baptisms, or weddings (Murphy, et al:34). Another setback came when Bishop Asbury, who had once been a valued supporter of the movement, had a reversal in values. Asbury revoked his support, and after 1809, he decided not to ordain any more blacks as elders of Methodist churches. Further, he approved of revised versions of the Discipline, from which words against slavery were deleted (Murphy, et al:). Nevertheless, in the face of impediments, membership grew to 427 by 1795, and by this time the church had become a cornerstone of the black community (Murphy, et al:34). The sect grew at a steady rate in the North and Midwest up through 1865. Still to come, the time of greatest expansion -- after the Civil War, following which Southern blacks were allowed to identify themselves with religions of choice (Melton:330).
Beliefs of the Group
The Book of Discipline identifies the AME's goals. The church primarily seeks
...to minister to the spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional needs of all people by spreading Christ's liberating gospel by word and deed. Each local church of the African Methodist Episcopal Church shall engage in carrying out the spirit of the original Free African Society out of the the African Methodist Episcopal Church evolvedMost AME churches interpret this to include some or all of the following: (a) teaching/preaching; (b) helping the needy (i.e., feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.); (c) cheering the fallen; (d) providing jobs for the jobless; (e) caring for the sick, shut-in, mentally and socially disturbed, and (f) encouraging thrift and economic advancement (Allen Chapel: Our Mission, n.d.).
Above all, members seek to promote Christianity out of respect for Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Despite the fact that the organization was founded and originally organized by people of African descent, membership is extended to everyone who is willing to worship Jesus and accept him as Redeemer -- regardless of that person's race. The motto of one congregation illustrates this sentiment: "God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Man our Brother" (Historical Notes of Anderson Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, n.d.).
The church has, throughout its history, placed a strong emphasis on the need for education. This is probably due to the fact that the group grew up in a climate of racism -- AME members were black, and most people who had any say in government didn't think blacks should be educated at all. Despite the disapproval of many whites in his area, in the very beginning Richard Allen taught night school classes with the aim of teaching black students to help themselves. These classes set a precedent for the church having a long-lasting, adamant policy regarding the necessity of education. To this day, there remains great emphasis on learning and teaching in the AMEC (Historical Notes of Anderson Chapel, n.d.). In 1856, members of the church founded the first black private college in America, Wilberforce University . Since then, numerous institutions of learning have emerged (see list below).
Other important "firsts" accomplished by blacks were the result of AME efforts with regards to publishing. The church has consistently used literature as a major source of evangelizing. The first ever black-owned and operated publishing house was The AME Book Concern. The oldest black periodical in the world, The Christian Recorder (originally The Christian Herald ), was begun by the AME. The world's oldest black magazine, The AME Review , was also a product of the AME Church (Melton:330-331).
19 episcopal districts make up the worldwide AME. Districts 1 through 13 oversee the work in the U.S., Canada, and Bermuda, while the 14th through 19th oversee foreign labors in Africa, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, the Windward Islands, Guyana, and Surinam (Murphy, et al:8). Bishops, the highest-level directors, preside over these geographic divisions (which supposedly contain approximately equal numbers of people and congregations).
The AMEC is governed episcopally. All laws and procedures ultimately are based on teachings contained in the Book of Discipline . The church holds an international "General Conference" every four years, attended by both clergy and lay members. At these gatherings, officials decide on policy, enact laws, and set up budgets for the coming four-year period. There are also smaller, more localized conferences held once every year; there are many separate meetings for subdivisions of each district. Again, attendees are both clergy and laity, and both report on and summarize the evangelistic work that has been done in the past year, assess last year's budget, and plan one for the coming year. These conferences, presided over by the bishop of the district, also assign clerical members to the church they will be serving for the forthcoming year. Methodist preachers are viewed as "itinerant." In theory, they can be relocated each year to a different congregation) (Murphy, et al:7-8).
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