The Civil War forced an end to slavery. The war tore the nation apart, costing 600,000 lives, more than any other war in U.S. history. With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, slavery was abolished in the South. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 outlawed slavery in the United States.
Before the war, slaveholders, abolitionists, and slaves had all used the Bible to support pro- and anti-slavery positions. Slaveholders clung to "Slaves, be obedient to masters", while slaves and abolitionists interpreted the Exodus story about the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery as a mandate to free American slaves. Although generally prohibited from learning to read and write, and in some states prohibited by law from reading the Bible, slaves heard and interpreted the Scriptures in an immediate, historical and spiritual sense.
Black slaves who converted to Christianity found a unity between the Old and New Testaments in a way that other Christians had not. The themes of Hebrew liberation and the promise of a homeland in the stories of the book of Exodus, the calls for justice by the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus, who ministered to the poor and marginalized, suffered, and died unjustly, all spoke to their experience of bondage and oppression. The message brought to them by black preachers (deacons or exhorters) inspired hope, strengthened community, and often led to action. Spirituals like "Steal Away," "De Gospel Train," "Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho," "We Shall Overcome," "Deep River," "Wade in the Water," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" signaled slave escapes to freedom and an end to African-American enslavement as well as interpreting and teaching the ancient biblical stories of courage and saving liberation. These spirituals have become part of the fabric of global Christianity today.
John Wesley advocated for freedom from slavery to William Wilberforce, who was a member of the English Parliament.
The churches divided over the
issue of slavery. American Methodists at first followed John
Wesleys strong anti-slavery stance, denouncing
participation in the slave trade and slaveholding, but later they
yielded to economic and political pressures.
Early in American Methodism, free blacks and slaves participated in the societies and churches, although they were neither fully accepted nor treated equally. Refusing to accept the discrimination and segregation practices of whites, blacks separated in 1796 from John Street Church in New York City with Bishop Francis Asburys permission. The first independent annual conference in 1821, where clergy and a bishop were ordained, gave birth to a new denomination--the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the largest African-American Methodist denomination, was begun in Philadelphia as Bethel Church in 1793, and was founded in 1816 under the leadership of Richard Allen [left], organizer of the Free African Society, and the AMECs first Bishop (appointed by Francis Asbury). Allen and others refused to accept second-class status in St. Georges M.E. Church.
In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church, South split from the Methodist Episcopal Church finally to reunite as the Methodist Church in 1939. The Colored (now Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church, a third African-American denomination, was founded in 1870 by the last remaining African Americans in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
The heritage of racism from the earliest days, however, still exists in the United States and its churches.
See also: Slavery 'Worse Now Than under Roman Empire' by Ian Burrell, The Independent, December 2, 2000
Kevin Bales, a professor of sociology calculates that 27 million people now live as slaves, more than in the Roman Empire or at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
The graphics of Wesley and Wilberforce and Richard Allen were scanned from A. B. Hyde, The Story of Methodism Throughout the World (Springfield, MA: Willey & Co., 1889) and is in the public domain. See also drawing of John Wesley writing his letter to William Wilberforce.
*An excerpt from The Bible the Book the Bridges the Millennia by Maxine Clarke Beach Copyright © 1998 Maxine Clarke Beach.
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