Wednesday, March 14, 2012
One of the denominations that sprouted up in the decades following the American Revolution was the African Methodist-Episcopal Church (AME). Had blacks been welcomed to worship alongside their white counterparts, the history of American religion would have been very different but that was not the case. The pervasive racism of slavery and segregation led to inevitable denominational splits both before and after the Civil War. The trend began when Richard Allen (1760-1831) separated from the Methodist Church and founded the AME in 1816.
While recognizing the cruelty of slavery Allen paid tribute to a particular slaveholder, Mr. Stokley of Delaware: “He was a very tender, humane man. My mother and father lived with him for many years.” But such tenderness only went so far: “He was brought into difficulty, not being able to pay for us; and mother having several children after he had bought us, he sold my mother and three children.” Such was the emotional torture of a slave family.
Converted at a Methodist revival meeting when he was seventeen, Allen taught himself to read and write and later earned his freedom. But freedom did not mean free time. He frequently worked two shifts a day, cutting wood, laying bricks, and driving wagons. But he is determined that long work days would not prevent him from following his call to preach. He finds time to conduct revivals in the evenings—revivals sponsored by both Methodists or Quakers. “In the year 1784 I left East Jersey, and laboured in Pennsylvania,” he recalled. “Many souls were awakened, and cried aloud to the Lord to have mercy upon them. . . . Seldom did I ever experience such a time of mourning and lamentation among a people. There were but few coloured people in the neighbourhood—the most of my congregation was white.”
Settling down in Philadelphia in 1786, he establishes a Methodist society of more than forty members and is contemplating a building to house his growing congregation. But he faces strong opposition from white Methodist leaders, including one who “was much opposed to an African church, and used very degrading and insulting language to us, to try and prevent us from going on.” Allen is informed that he and his congregation can attend the St. George’s Methodist Church. Soon, as a result of Allen’s evangelism, attendance grows and blacks are pushed into sections reserved for whites. Amid prayer one Sunday morning the “coloured people” are told to move. Insisting that they do not want to create a commotion, they remain on their knees—until one of the church trustees begins pushing and shoving and beckons to another trustee for help.
“By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body,” Allen recalled; “and they were no more plagued with us in the church. This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct.” The “coloured” contingent, poor as they are, had been paying their pledges for remodeling St. George’s Church, “and just as the house was made comfortable, we were turned out from enjoying the comforts of worshiping therein.” They initially rented a storeroom for their own worship but were threatened by trustees who wanted them back paying their pledges.
Throughout his personal narrative, Allen shows deference to Methodist leaders despite ill-treatment. Many local blacks want nothing to do with the Methodists, opting rather to associate with Anglicans. But Allen is opposed. “I was confident that there was no religious sect or denomination that would suit the capacity of the coloured people as well as the Methodist. . . . All other denominations preached so high-flown that we were not able to comprehend their doctrine.” Others organized a church, and in 1793 solicited him “to be their minister, for there was no colored preacher in Philadelphia but myself. I told them I could not accept of their offer, as I was a Methodist.”
Then in 1794 Allen purchases an old blacksmith shop, has it moved to another lot, and hires a carpenter to remodel it. With his own money and that of his followers and sympathetic whites, he raises enough funds for his new Bethel Church. “I hope the name of Dr. Benjamin Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston [both Presbyterians] will never be forgotten among us,” Allen gratefully wrote. “They were the two first gentlemen who espoused the cause of the oppressed and . . . the first African church in America.”
But problems with the Methodists are not over. Local leaders demand the new property be turned over to the Conference. Allen balks. He is now free from their demeaning oversight and he wants independence. One of the leaders agrees, offering to draw up incorporation papers. “We cheerfully submitted to his proposed plan,” recalled Allan. But once again he had been double-crossed: “He drew the incorporation, but incorporated our church under the Conference, our property was then all consigned to the Conference for the present Bishops, Elders, and Ministers, &c., that belonged to the white Conference, and our property was gone.”
Initially Allen—“being ignorant of incorporations”—does not even realize what had occurred, but some years later this dishonest man (whom Allen identified by his initials as J.S.) is placed in charge of the Philadelphia Methodist churches. He demands “the keys and books of the church, and forbid us holding any meetings except orders from him.” After protracted deliberations the incorporation papers are finally changed giving the Bethel congregation ownership of its property, but the mean-spirited conduct of the local Methodists continues. The new church, in order to be properly Methodist, has to be served periodically by licensed Methodist preachers—white lay preachers who are far less qualified than Allen himself. For this service, they demand six hundred dollars a year, far beyond what the tiny poverty-stricken congregation is able to pay. The amount is decreased to four hundred and finally two hundred. But when a lay minister is sent only five times for the year, Allen and his followers discontinue his services.
That African American Christians are demanding control of their own religious affairs is galling to some Methodist leaders. Finally, writes Allen, “an edict was passed . . . that if any local preacher should serve us, he should be expelled” and “a circular letter [was published] in which we were disowned by the Methodists.” But it is not enough to merely throw them out of the denomination. Preachers were also sent to force their way in their place of worship, “but having taken previous advice we had our preacher in the pulpit when he came, and the house was so fixed that he could not get but more than half way to the pulpit.” Finally the little congregation is faced with a lawsuit, which ultimately fails.
“We bore much persecution from many of the Methodist connexion,” Allen concluded; “but we have reason to be thankful to Almighty God, who was our deliverer.” The blacks in Philadelphia, however, are by no means alone. “About this time our colored friends in Baltimore were treated in a similar manner by the white preachers and Trustees, and many of them drove away. . . . Many of the colored people in other places were in a situation nearly like those of Philadelphia and Baltimore, which induced us in April 1816 to call a general meeting, by way of Conference.” Delegates come to Philadelphia from surrounding areas and determined to form a new denomination.
Resolved: That the people of Philadelphia, Baltimore, &c., should become one body, under the name of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. We deemed it expedient to have a form of discipline, whereby we may guide our people in the fear of God, in the unity of the Spirit, and in the bonds of peace, and preserve us from that spiritual despotism which we have so recently experienced—remembering that we are not to lord it over God's heritage, as greedy dogs that can never have enough. But with long suffering, and bowels of compassion to bear each other's burthens, and so fulfil the Law of Christ, praying that our mutual striving together for the promulgation of the Gospel may be crowned with abundant success.
Not surprisingly, Allen is elected bishop of the new organization. In the following years he founds the Free African Society, a benevolent organization that helps newly freed slaves get on their feet. And for those still in the bonds of slavery, he oversees for more than three decades a station on the Underground Railroad. Amid his other activities he and his wife Sarah rear six children. Despite his own ill treatment, Allen resists opening the door for full ministry to women. When Jerena Lee, one of his converts, tells him God is calling her to preach the gospel, he tells her that the AME has no place for women preachers. She nevertheless goes out on her own as an evangelist, as does Amanda Smith and other African-American women.
Sidebar: Delivered from the Snare of the Devil
My aunt was very religiously inclined naturally. She was much like my mother in spirit. So as we walked along, crossing the long bridge . . . and were looking off in the water. Aunt said, “How wonderfully God has created everything, the sky, and the great waters.” . . . Then I let out with my biggest gun; I said, “How do you know there is a God?” and went on with just such an air as a poor, blind, ignorant infidel is capable of putting on. My aunt turned and looked at me with a look that went through me like an arrow; then stamping her foot, she said: “Don't you ever speak to me again. Anybody that had as good a Christian mother as you had, and was raised as you have been, to speak so to me. I don't want to talk to you.” And God broke the snare. I felt it. I felt deliverance from that hour. How many times I have thanked God for my aunt's help. If she had argued with me I don't believe I should ever have got out of that snare of the devil.
Amanda Smith, Autobiography