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Recovering the African American Heritage of The United Methodist Church

by Elliott Wright

 
Richard Allen (1760-1831) was a minister and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1816.
Richard Allen (1760-1831) was a minister and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1816. Frontispiece of 'History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church' (1891)
Image by: Daniel A. Payne
Source: GBGM Mission News

Persons of African descent were numerous and visible in American Methodism when the church was formally established 225 years ago. But these facts were often glossed over in ensuing years, especially in the early 19th century as slavery became a major issue of conflict in politics and religion.

Fortunately, the interracial origins are now being rediscovered and celebrated as a fitting reminder of the original Methodist proclamation of God's inclusive love.

The participation of persons often described as "poor blacks" in Methodist worship was reported by the first preachers sent by founder John Wesley to the American colonies. "African Americans were among the first to respond to the Methodist message in large numbers," writes historian John H. Wigger.

Using the journals of those early preachers, historian Will Gravely also notes the impact Wesleyan theology and spiritual discipline had on individuals, slave and free. He points to a letter from Richard Boardman to Wesley in 1769, recounting the experience of an African woman:

[She] came to me to tell me she could neither eat nor sleep, because her master would not suffer her to come to hear the word. She wept exceedingly.

Gravely is among the historians committed to a more thorough investigation of the "spiritual power" of the black converts to Methodism. This task is complicated by a shortage of first-hand accounts. Many of the "poor blacks" were illiterate or, as slaves, had no way to document their life stories. Also, there are few documents directly from the African preachers, exhorters, and evangelists who helped to spread Methodism locally and through circuit riders and camp meetings.

Discovery and retention of records showing the black experience are the goals of scholars such as Dr. Gravely, retired from the University of Denver, and the African American Methodist Heritage Center that was launched in 2003 by Black Methodists for Church Renewal (see below under "Resources.").

Statistics/Regional Implications

Statistics on black involvement in early Methodism are easier to come by. Church membership figures were first published in 1786, two years after the Christmas Conference in Baltimore set up the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) as an entity separate from the Anglican Church out of which it emerged.

In that year, African Americans constituted nine percent of the Methodists reported by the annual conferences. By 1790, the number was 20 percent, with the largest concentrations in the Mid-Atlantic states.

"By 1800 African Americans represented 45 percent of Maryland's Methodists," Wigger states. "White Methodists simply could not ignore this response and its implications for the church, especially in the Chesapeake region."

In the very early years, it appeared that whites and blacks often blended in preaching services and to some degree in "class meetings," so significant in the daily life and spiritual discipline of Methodists.

A growing consensus among historians recognizes the Chesapeake region (notably Delmarva--Delaware, Maryland, and parts of Virginia) as the center not only of Methodist growth among African Americans but also as the proving ground for the future of the movement in the new country. Delmarva is celebrated by "the garden of American Methodism." It was home for many years to Francis Asbury, the "father of American Methodism" and fostered perhaps the strongest sectional opposition to slavery in the early US church.

Slavery

The reality of slavery could not be ignored in American Methodism or the US as a new nation 225 years ago. Despite the declaration that all are "created equal," the framers of the US Constitution permitted slavery. Many believed that the young Methodist movement would follow through with a counter to this compromise.

John Wesley was a strong opponent of slavery, advancing the belief that there are no differences in God's sight between blacks and whites and expecting that this self-evident truth would be observed in the church. Asbury agreed with Wesley, as did many of the preachers who made up the 1784 Christmas Conference.

That conference condemned slavery in no uncertain terms, but there was a backlash, notably in the deep South, and gradually the action of 1784 would grow dim in the memory of subsequent General Conferences. Accommodations were made to the economic interests of southern planters, and American Methodism would fall headlong into the sin of silence on slavery as a moral affront to the righteousness of God.

Delmarva held out longer and story after story tell of Methodists in the region who freed their slaves. The rise in free African Americans in Delaware shows a significant parallel to the manumission (emancipation) of slaves by Methodists.

Reaching Toward Equality and Independence

Even in Delmarva, opposition to slavery did not produce equality for African Americans in the Methodist family. The black preachers and exhorters were not afforded annual conference membership or ordained as elders (full clergy). Harry Hosier, Peter Spencer, and the young Richard Allen might have traveled with white preachers, drawing large, interracial crowds, but it would be decades before a black preacher received full ordination in the MEC.

Furthermore, black members, even in Delmarva, were often relegated to segregated sections, sometimes balconies, for worship. A video shown to visitors at Barrett's Chapel, the oldest United Methodist Church structure in the US, documents how early interracial worship gave way over the years to "balcony only seating" for blacks.

Treatment as second-class members did not sit well with prominent black preachers. Some began to think of separate church structures where blacks would make the decisions and sit where they pleased in a house of God. One of the first withdrawals of blacks from the Methodist Episcopal Church--but not from Methodism--to form an independent black church came in Dover, Delaware, in 1813, with the formation of what is today the African Union Methodist Protestant Church (AUMP). Peter Spencer and William Anderson were its leaders and first bishops.

Today, this denomination has some 30 congregations, mostly in the Chesapeake area. (The Union American Methodist Episcopal Church {UAME} was formed in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1805 by blacks who left Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church. It was incorporated in 1813.)

Better known in the annals of Methodism is the 1816 action of Richard Allen and a group of blacks originally from St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) as a distinct denomination. This was not an overnight decision but was born of many efforts by Allen and his colleagues to remain within the MEC fold and be allowed to express their African American identity.

Born into slavery, Allen and a brother bought their freedom. He was converted to Methodism and began to preach at age 17, while still a slave. Once free, he moved to Philadelphia, where he joined St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was granted a preacher's license in 1784 and allowed to hold services--at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning!

Black attendance at St. George's increased, but the trustees did not praise God. They sent the blacks to the balcony and imposed other restrictions. In 1787, Allen and a group of blacks left St. George's and set out to establish their own church within the MEC structure, a measure Asbury sanctioned. In 1799 Allen was ordained as a local deacon, but with no annual conference affiliation.

The absence of equality within the MEC structure would lead to the formation of the AME Church. Within a few years, James Varick and others in New York City would follow a similar course, leading to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

A third major independent black Methodist denomination emerged in the South following the Civil War when, by mutual agreement, the African American members of the MEC, South, established what was originally named the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, renamed the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1954.

The AME, AME ZION, AUMP, UAME, and United Methodist Church today form the Pan-Methodist Commission, which seeks pathways to cooperative and effective witness in the world today.

Methodism's Appeal

In the early 19th century, most African American Methodists stayed within the Methodist Episcopal Church, making significant contributions to spiritual enrichment, organizing congregations, writing hymns, and bearing witness to faith, despite barriers and unequal treatment within the structures.

Historians often ask why any people of African descent stayed in the MEC. They usually answer by citing the reasons African Americans were initially attracted to Methodism. In a collection of essays on the African American presence in The United Methodist Church, Lewis V. Baldwin cites five reasons why both slaves and free blacks flocked to early American Methodism:

  • The revival style and ethos of the movement allowed for freedom of expression and resembled African religious traditions.
  • The message was simple and clear, with an emphasis on love and hope.
  • Methodism, despite its failure to effectively oppose slavery, had an egalitarian impulse, and it was accessible, even to those held in slavery.
  • Methodist preachers actively evangelized among African Americans.
  • Blacks themselves were a "dynamic force" in attracting others.

Numerically, the Methodists would lose out to the Baptists among African Americans in the deep Southern States. The Mid-Atlantic and Northern states would also accommodate segregation. Yet, many African Americans continued in both northern and southern branches of US Methodism following the split over slavery in 1845. Reunion in 1939 would see the introduction of the all-black, non-geographical Central Jurisdiction, which would not be abolished until The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968.

With regard to race, the Methodist Episcopal and United Methodist roadway from the Christmas Conference of 1784/85 to 2010 has been filled with intentions unfulfilled, dreams shattered and reborn, disappointments multiplied, and new horizons projected--a perilous route for African Americans.

But for 225 years, persons of African descent have helped to shape, expand, treasure, and bear witness to the Methodist vision of God's universal love embodied in Christ's inclusive church. The United Methodist Church is interracial and interethnic in its history, heritage, and hope.

Resources

Major Works Consulted for this Article

  • Baldwin, Lewis V. "Early African American Methodists," Grant S. Shockley, gen. ed., Heritage and Hope: The African American Presence in United Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.
  • Gravely, Will: "…many of the poor Affricans are obedient to the faith: Reassessing the African American Presence in Early Methodism in the United States, 1769-1809." Hatch, Nathan O., and Wigger, John H., editors, Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture. Nashville: Kingswood Press, 2001.
  • Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Church in the African American Religious Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.
  • Shockley, Grant S. et al, general editors. Heritage & Hope: The African American Presence in United Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.
  • Wigger, John H. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
  • _____________. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists. New York: Oxford University Pres, 2009.
  • Williams, William Henry. The Garden of American Methodism: The Delmarva Peninsula, 1769-1820. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, Inc. 1984.

(This is the third in a series of articles on the founding and missionary push of Methodism in the United States.)

Elliott Wright is an author and consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries.


 
 
 

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Date posted: Mar 02, 2010