UBC Community, Partners, and Alumni Publications

African Methodist Episcopal Church, also known as “AME/A.M.E. Church” Laudig, Mélena

Description

In 1787, roughly a decade after America’s independence from Great Britain and almost a century before Black Americans were guaranteed U.S. citizenship, a group of Black congregants walked out of Philadelphia’s primarily white St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in the middle of the Sunday service. One of these protesters, Black Methodist minister Richard Allen, eventually founded America’s first independent Black denomination and its oldest formal Black institution—the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Described by W.E.B. Du Bois as the world’s “greatest Negro organization,” the AME Church is a Protestant Christian denomination aligned doctrinally with the United Methodist Church and organized in an Episcopal system. To tell the story of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, one must first turn to the history of Methodism, its antecedent. Originated by English minister John Wesley, the transatlantic denomination became ubiquitous in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America through the revivals of the First and Second Great Awakening. Historians often remark on the egalitarian and democratic nature of these revivals. While it is important for us not to romanticize early Methodism, thereby ignoring Black people's experiences of discrimination and systemic racism within the religious culture and society more broadly, we can still recognize that some enslaved people managed to make a home for themselves within the Methodist fold and, to some extent, were even accepted into communal worship spaces. The fact that services were held in large, open-air fields created a come-one, come-all atmosphere, and ecstatic, embodied worship experiences were customary. It was into this Methodist culture that Richard Allen was converted as a seventeen-year-old enslaved person in 1777. And ten years later, when he led a group of Black Methodists out of St. George's, it was as a consequence of this Methodist culture that he protested. While the Methodism to which Allen had been introduced as a young man was more open to Black congregants, the religious culture he experienced at the turn of the eighteenth century was increasingly stratified by race. Although sizable numbers of Blacks had been evangelized by Methodists and even licensed to preach in the mid-1700s, white Methodists started to neglect earlier ideals of acceptance in lieu of pursuing respectability and becoming an established church. Among other practices, white Methodists began to deny Black members leadership roles within the denomination and some white Methodist preachers even refused to hold Black babies during infant baptisms, as historian Julius H. Bailey has shown. Separating from St. George's signified Allen’s rejection of the inequitable treatment of African Americans in Methodist spaces, his recovery of early Methodism’s egalitarian ideals and his articulation of a new religious vision that embraced the humanity of Black Americans. After starting a church of his own in 1794 (Mother Bethel AME), Allen and a collective of other Black Methodists established their own denomination in 1816 with Allen as the organization’s first Bishop. Commitments to racial justice and what twentieth-century AME minister and theologian James H. Cone would later name Black liberation theology have served as the cornerstones of the two-hundred-year-old denomination. In the antebellum period, AME churches served as posts for the Underground Railroad. During Reconstruction, Northern AME missionaries travelled southward to teach formerly enslaved people how to read. Today, AME churches provide community programming that, according to their mission statement, aims to “enhance the entire social development of all people.” Furthermore, missionization, particularly in Africa, has been a primary component of the church’s work, leading to the establishment of the denomination in over thirty countries.

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Attribution 4.0 International

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