AfricanMethodism in the United States
TheMethodist society began in Antigua following its formation byNathaniel Gilbert in 1760. The church’s presence in the Caribbeansaw the baptism of two women, namely Sophia Campbell (black) and MaryAlley (mulatto) by John Wesley that same year1.Six years later, an Irish lay immigrant, Robert Strawbridge,organized the first Methodist class in the United States at SamsCreek, Frederick County, Maryland2.The first members were Africans. Moreover, Phillip Embry prepared aclass in New York, which comprised an enslaved black woman calledBetty. In 1769, Wesley sent the first Methodist preachers to theUnited States. The first to arrive was Francis Asbury in 1771. Asburyteamed up with Harry Hosier and preached the first sermon in 1781. By1870, the Methodist Church had elected its first colored Bishop namedWilliam H. Miles3.However, this paper will provide the history of African Methodism inAmerica including the problems faced by blacks during and after theinception of the church.
AndrewWhite, a renowned AME (African Methodist Church) denomination writer,wrote that the term Africa indicated that people of African descentorganized the church4.He also claimed that the name “Methodist” showed that the churchidentified with the Methodist churches, while the term Episcopaldenoted the form of government that the church operated. The originof the Methodist Church is attributable to two brothers Charles andJohn Wesley, who visited the Georgia Colony inhabited mostly by theNative Americans. Their purpose entailed ministering to thecolonialists and teaching the Gospel to the enslaved. The popularityof the Wesley brothers grew after the return of John to England wherehe met several clergymen. The Wesley brothers used three principlesas the foundation of their faith namely5:
People are naturally “children of anger” and “dead in sin.”
Faith justifies people’s actions.
Faith generates internal and external holiness.
Theearly missionaries arrived in America in the year 1766, who includedRev. Laurence Coughlan, visited Newfoundland and founded a school atConception Bay, in Black Head. Other Methodist preachers thatmigrated to America included Richard Boardman, Philip Embury, JosephPilmoor, and Barbara Heck. The initiator of Methodism, John Wesley,argued that the New Testament failed to give bishops the ordinationpower to the priesthood. He believed that the New Testament gaveother priests the ordination power instead. Therefore, he ordainedEnglish, American, and Scottish preachers with the authority toadminister sacraments6.He also sent Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke to establish an independentAmerican Methodist church in America.
DespiteMethodist church’s success in America, differences over slaveryremained contentious at the beginning of the 19thcentury. Church leaders from the North remained dreadful of adivision with the South, and were hesitant to take a position.Nevertheless, white Protestant evangelists started persuading blackAmericans to join their faith during the Great Awakening of the1740s. On the other hand, Methodists were more successful thanProtestants because they believed in a near, rather than a distantgod. Besides, John Wesley condemned slavery and attracted many blacksthroughout the northern and middle colonies.
Evangelicalrevivals allowed lower classes, such as slaves to pray and preach inpublic. Moreover, the Methodist church ordained African Americanpreachers, who started their Methodist or Baptist congregations bythe 1770s. Moreover, many African Americans joined congregations inCharleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York during theRevolution. At this point, tension rose between blacks and whitesover the issue of slavery.
Withthe ongoing tensions in the South, white elders tried relegatingblack parishioners to a freshly erected gallery at St. George’sMethodist Church located in Philadelphia. This attempt led to theformation of the black-governed Bethel church and AME in 18167.The Civil War increased the number of Methodists, especially in theMidwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. Despite being dominated by women,the clergy included men only until the 20thcentury. Nevertheless, women served on support missionaries, Sundayschool panels, and conducted home prayer meetings.
Thepolitical concerns of slavery significantly contributed to thedivision of the Methodist Church in the 19th-century.The northern church leaders failed to take a stand on slavery due tothe fear of splitting from their southern partners. Their actionsforced staunch abolitionists to establish the Free Methodist Churchesand the Wesleyan Methodist Churches. The Free Methodists activelyfreed slaves using the Underground Railroad. Such ideologicaldifferences resulted in an added rift between the Southern andNorthern churches, especially when the south founded the MethodistEpiscopal Church South, in Louisville, Kentucky in 1845. They laterunited in 1939, although some conservative segregationistsestablished the Southern Methodist church after the 1939 merger.
Thesplitting events and scenes created by the Civil War among theNorthern and Southern States compelled the newly emancipated Negroesto experience varying conditions and lives. Despite the abolition ofslavery, its attending troubles remained. The Southerners were bitterbecause of the resultant devastation, wealth destruction, and thedepletion of resources. The white men of the southern sufferedseveral battle field defeats and realized that their families had toembrace low living standards than usual. The abolition of slaverydenied them the right to command slaves to do their biddings. Theirsons had to work on farms and other places rather than engage inidleness as earlier imparted by the terrible slavery system. Thesystem trained them to despise menial jobs. As a result, the Southernwhite men started hating their colored counterparts. They triedgaining control through legislation and courts, therefore, bestowingthe black man with new fields and combats to fight. Penniless andhomeless, the black man was sent to the streets without food andshelter.
TheSouthern white people, especially the Episcopalians, thePresbyterians, and the Baptists and Methodists realized that they hadblack contingents8.The new conditions in the south assumed a vital amendment inreligious and church matters to resemble those that occurred in thepolitical and civil life. The separation was imperative to both thewhites and blacks since it helped them see the importance ofdepending on each other for the growth of the church. Additionally,the eruption of the Civil War saw 260,000 colored people retain theirquasi member relations to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Theywere congregants as the Southern Methodist Church gave them religiousservices and allowed them to hold meetings although with certainlimitations.
Furtherproblems ensued in the Methodist Church after the emancipation9.Some blacks wanted a separate and autonomous organization, whileanother group wanted the church to remain the same10.The former severely criticized the latter for failing to rebel andwithdraw. Independent Negro Methodist Churches that rebelled andwithdrew identified those who chose to remain in the SouthernMethodist Church as sympathizers of slavery or Democrats. TheMethodist Episcopal Church, South bishops assisted the independentsto perfect the organization. After three years, the independent NegroMethodist Church organized a meeting in Jackson, Tennessee in 1870.Additionally, bishopsof the Methodist Episcopal Church in the South, partnered with Rev.A.L.P. Green, D.D., Edmund W. Sehon, D.D., R.J. Morgan, SamuelWatson, D.D., Thomas Taylor, D.D, Edmund W. Sehon, and ThomasWhitehead, D.D. to help in the formation of the independent NegroMethodist Church.
Theplanned merger of Colored Methodist Episcopal, African MethodistEpiscopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion and sent shock wavesto the adversaries of Birmingham and Pittsburg treaties of 1918 and1927 respectively11.The merger was intended to unite the three religions into a religiousbody named the United Methodist Episcopal church. The opponents feltthat the organization would unite and benefit the black population.By 1923, intense denominational divisions decelerated the movement’sattempt to merge and undermined efforts to culminate thee religioussquabbles between the three crucial black institutions. The rivalrybetween the three institutions originated from property andterritorial disagreements during the 19th-century.AME and AME Zion denominations each deemed to stay in the respectivegeographical vicinities of their founding congregations, mostlyPhiladelphia and New York12.
Despitethe rivalry between the three denominations, they made ferventefforts to unite. The AME and AME Zion tried to merge, but wereunsuccessful both in 1864 and 1868. They later created anintroductory arrangement to unite as the African Zion MethodistEpiscopal church. The decision garnered sharp reproach from BishopHenry M.M. Turner of AME church, who alleged and argued that addingthe term Zion signified "simpleabsorption of the African Methodist Episcopal Church”and blotting out of the church’s individuality. Turner and Rev. J.W. Wood from Arlington advocated for the removal of the term Zionclaiming that it would cause bitter wars in the future. Today, theAmerican Methodist Church is decreasing, but Methodist churches inother nations are growing rapidly. The concepts of self-disciplineand self-examination have reduced in America, while 8.6 millionMethodists continue seeking excellence through church fellowship.
Inconclusion, Methodist Church has come a long way since its inceptionin the United States. The founders may have been unwilling to giveblacks their right to pray and preach, but the latter reclaimed it.Slavery escalated the problem, especially in the South, thus creatinga rift with the North. The church gave blacks the peace of mindedthat lacked in their masters’ homes. It was the only place theycould find solace and connection with their creator. However, therise of the Methodist Church has reduced in America compared to otherplaces in the world.
Campbell,James. Songsof Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United Statesand South Africa (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1995), 1-254.
Case,Jay Riley. AnUnpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity,1812-1920 (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1-305.
Cone,James, “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Man Our Brother: ATheological Interpretation of the AME Church,” AMEChurch Review106, no. 341 (1991). 245-336.
Dennis,Dickerson, “BlackEcumenicism: Efforts to Establish a United Methodist EpiscopalChurch, 1918-1932,”ChurchHistory52, no. 4 (December 1983): 479-491.
Gregg,Howard. History of theAfrican Methodist Episcopal Church: The Black Church in Action(Nashville,TN: Henry A. Belin, Jr., 1980), 1-256.
HenryEckel. TheDoctrine & Discipline of the African Union First ColoredMethodist Protestant Church of the United States of America orElsewhere (Wilmington,Delaware, 1870).1-153.
Lane,Isaac. Autobiographyof Bishop Isaac Lane, LL.D.: With a Short History of the C.M.E.Church in America and of Methodism(Nashville, Tenn. Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South.1916),1-7.
NationalHumanities Center, “The Origins of the African Methodist EpiscopalChurch,” TheMaking of African American Identity1, no.1 (Dec 1833): 1500-1865.
SharonGrant, “Black Methodists and the Wesleyan Context” (presented atthe Hood Theological Seminary, January 3-6, 2017).
Spragin,Ore. TheHistory of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church 1870-2009(Wyndham Hall Press, 2011), 304.
Webster,Robert. Methodismand the Miraculous: John Wesley’s Idea of the Supernatural and theIdentification of Methodists in the Eighteenth-Century (Lexington,KY: Emeth Press, 2013), 1-267.
1 Sharon Grant, “Black Methodists and the Wesleyan Context” (presented at the Hood Theological Seminary, January 3-6, 2017).
2 Webster, Robert. Methodism and the Miraculous: John Wesley’s Idea of the Supernatural and the Identification of Methodists in the Eighteenth-Century (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2013), 16.
3 Dennis, Dickerson, “Black Ecumenicism: Efforts to Establish a United Methodist Episcopal Church, 1918-1932,” Church History 52, no. 4 (December 1983): 483.
4 Robert, Methodism and the Miraculous, 25
5 Case, Jay Riley. An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity, 1812-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 13.
6 Henry Eckel. The Doctrine & Discipline of the African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church of the United States of America or Elsewhere (Wilmington, Delaware, 1870). 1-153.
7 Henry Eckel. The Doctrine & Discipline of the African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church of the United States of America or Elsewhere (Wilmington, Delaware, 1870). 1-153.
8 Spragin, Ore. The History of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church 1870-2009 (Wyndham Hall Press, 2011), 304.
9 Campbell, James. Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 25.
10 Gregg, Howard. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: The Black Church in Action (Nashville, TN: Henry A. Belin, Jr., 1980), 1-256.
11 National Humanities Center, “The Origins of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” The Making of African American Identity 1, no.1 (Dec 1833): 1504.
12 Cone, James, “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Man Our Brother: A Theological Interpretation of the AME Church,” AME Church Review 106, no. 341 (1991). 245-336.