Christian Denominations, Independent

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Christian Denominations, Independent

Independent black denominations are Protestant communions controlled entirely by blacks. The seven largest Independent black denominations are Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal and include the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (NBC), the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated (NBCA), the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).

Independent black denominations of the nineteenth century formed as black members of predominantly white churches sought freedom from white governance and control, with racism being the initial catalyst for their formation. Thus from their inception African-American Protestant denominations acted as agents for the educational, political, economic, and social welfare of their black constituencies.

Independence took on two additional connotations from the late nineteenth century onward. First, independent inferred the differences in doctrine, decorum, and governance that fostered subsequent black religious independence movements. This is evidenced by splits occurring within Black Baptist and Methodist denominations and the eventual birth of autonomous black denominations such as the Church of God in Christ, whose history is traced uniquely to black religious leaders.

Independent also refers to the growth of loose inter- and nondenominational fellowships, whose founders and member churches trade doctrinal positions in favor of a more general emphasis on Bible-based sermons and attempts to overcome racial division. The media and Internet have provided denominations, fellowships, and individual churches with global access and worshippers of every persuasion with countless opportunities to observe, examine, or emulate the practices of others at home without censure or obligation.

Nondenominational ministries, especially those headed by popular ministers with television ministries, often bring together members from various traditions by providing safe space for adherents to participate in activities that individual churches may not sponsor. Despite the doctrinal competition that remains among independent black denominations, history affirms the growth of interfaith initiatives, where member churches attempt to find common ground.

Black Baptists: Founders of the First Independent Black Churches

Black Baptists in the U.S. South are credited with establishing the first black congregations. Given slavery throughout the South and the fear of insurrection among slaveholders, Black Baptist congregations remained under white control until Emancipation. Thereafter, Black Baptists formed the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (NBC), the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated (NBCA), and the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC).

The first known Black Baptist, identified only as Quassey, was listed as one of fifty-one members of the Newton, Rhode Island, church in 1743. The Baptist congregation in Providence, Rhode Island, had nineteen black members in 1762, and blacks were first received into the First Baptist Church of Boston in 1772. Most Black Baptists were nonetheless in the South.

Black Methodists: Founders of the First Independent Black Denomination

Black Methodists are credited with institutionalizing black religious independence. Free blacks in the North formed early Methodist churches, conferences, and denominations after growing weary of restrictions on their level of participation in church governance and proceedings.

Black Methodists generally refers to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ), and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME). Five smaller communions exist as well, including the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church (UAME), the oldest of all Black Methodist denominations. Additional groups resulted from splits within the AME and AMEZ churches.

The Black Methodist Church emerged from the Methodist movement, which began in Oxford University in the 1720s and was named for its distinct "methods" of organization and spiritual discipline. The denomination's antislavery position enhanced the appeal of Methodism to African Americans, free and enslaved. The church later retreated from its position after 1785, but the number of black members continued to increase as African Americans embraced the church's earlier position and experienced the fervor of the Second Great Awakening at the turn of the century.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church

Richard Allen, a former slave, initiated the separation of blacks from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1787. Allen, Absalom Jones, and other black worshippers withdrew their membership from St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia after being pulled from their knees while worshipping in a gallery that was off limits to blacks.

Allen also organized the Free African Society the same year for religious and secular purposes. Allen and Jones raised funds to build a church and intended to remain under the jurisdiction of the Methodist church. But when the edifice was completed, St. George's refused to send a minister there. Allen then moved to an old blacksmith shop that he owned. The structure was transformed into the mother church of the soon-to-be-founded AME denomination.

The Free African Society, the birthplace of Episcopal and Bethel AME churches, was duplicated by several like organizations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. After communicating with each other over a period of years and discussing their racial struggles within the Methodist church, representatives from five of the congregations came together at Bethel Church in 1816 to officially organize the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen, ordained a deacon by Bishop As-bury in 1799, was then ordained an elder. At the same gathering he was elected bishop of the AME after Daniel Coker declined the office.

The Free African Society focused specifically on racial solidarity and abolitionist activity. Education was an equally important issue. Although early church leaders were not educated, they understood the positive impact education would have on the livelihood of the church and the progress of African people.

The organization focused on missions as well, increasing from a thousand members to approximately seven thousand within two years of its founding. It attracted thousands of new members in the South, where membership grew from 20,000 at the beginning of the Civil War to nearly 400,000 by 1884 and over 450,000 by 1896. The pattern of growth and expansion returned north and westward as African Americans migrated from the South in the early twentieth century. The AME has been the most effective of all black denominations in its overseas missionary efforts. The denomination claims one million members and over 22,000 churches in Africa and the Caribbean.

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

The AME Zion Church originated in the late eighteenth century when a delegation of black members separated from the white-controlled John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. In 1796, at the behest of Peter Williams, a former slave, one of the classes organized an African chapel in a cabinetmaker's shop that William Miller, another member, owned. Services were held there until a new edifice was built in 1800. In 1801 the chapel was incorporated as the "African Methodist Episcopal Church of the City of New York." It was required that church property be owned by the board of trustees and that only trustees of African descent act for the corporation. Membership was restricted to Africans, and voting on church matters was restricted to men.

The conference separated in 1816 and included Zion Church and Asbury African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. In October 1820 the two black churches adopted their own discipline and the name African Methodist Episcopal Zion. However, they opted not to join the conference over which Bishop Richard Allen presided.

Because of internal conflict and competition with "Allenites," the growth of the AME Zion Church was stunted prior to the Civil War. It began with 22 preachers and 1,400 members in 1821 and by 1860 numbered 4,600 with 105 preachers. By 1884 the church had grown to 300,000, with membership standing at 250,00 by in 1896. Foreign mission programs were established in South America, Africa, and the Caribbean. The church experienced a third wave of growth in the twentieth century as African Americans migrated northward and from rural to urban areas. Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion is the second largest black Methodist denomination. In 1989 it counted 1.2 million members in the United States, with an additional 100,000 in Africa and the Caribbean.

Known as "The Freedom Church," AME Zion claimed as members such abolitionists as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass, who was licensed as an AME Zion preacher. Many members, pastors, and church officials were abolitionists and greatly involved with the Underground Railroad. Their commitment to social justice remains a characteristic of the church. The AME Zion Church was the first of all Methodist denominations, including the Methodist Episcopal Church, to ordain women. While whites have been admitted to membership and may hold any church office, their numbers remain small.

The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

The CME Church, unlike the AME or AME Zion, was born in the postslavery South with a different experience than its northern predecessors, as demonstrated in the name it selected. Initially called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America, the name was changed in 1954 to Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Although the AME Church in 1876 rejected a proposal to change its name from African to American, the CME changed the word "Colored" to "Christian" during the integrationist era.

The CME was affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church, South, the branch of white Methodism that emerged when the Methodist Episcopal church split over the issue of slavery. Their departure from the ME Church, South, was a protest of the segregated conditions and degrading treatment to which northern and southern blacks were subjected, as well as a declaration of self-determination. Their departure was particularly significant given that almost all of its members had been enslaved.

The separation from the ME church came with restrictions. As a condition of transferring ownership of properties to the new denomination, political activity was prohibited. Notwithstanding the criticism of many northern blacks, many recently emancipated southern blacks acquiesced to the restrictions. As the CME began under such limitations and lacked the tradition of the African societies and abolitionist movement, its early development appeared ultraconservative on political and social fronts.

Although the CME grew more slowly than the African churches, by 1890 its membership exceeded 103,000, 77 percent of whom were in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. By 1945 it had expanded to eighteen states in the North and West, a process amplified by the emigration of blacks from the South during the two world wars and the Great Depression. The CME remains the smallest of the three black Methodist denominations. By 1989 membership stood at 900,000 in the United States and 75,000 overseas.

Black Pentecostals: A New Kind of Independence

With roots in the Holiness movement, an offshoot of Wesleyan Methodism, the Pentecostal movement is exceptional for the unprecedented level of interracial cooperation that occurred in its wake. White minister Charles Parham of Topeka, Kansas, began holding seminars on speaking in tongues in Topeka, where Lucy Farrow, Frederick Douglass's niece, served as Parham's governess and became a missionary for the Pentecostal Movement, and in Houston, Texas, where William J. Seymour, a black Baptist preacher from Louisiana, listened in on messages from outside the classroom. Social customs of the time forbade his sitting in the same classroom with whites.

Influenced by Parham's teaching, Seymour journeyed to California and established the Azusa Street Mission, where he began to hold prayer meetings. Christians from throughout the world flocked to Los Angeles to witness the Azusa outpouring when participants began speaking in tongues. Among those attending the meeting was Charles Harrison Mason, cofounder with C. P. Jones of the Church of God in Christ. When Mason and Jones parted company over the question of tongues, Mason established a reorganized Church of God in Christ in 1907. The COGIC, therefore, did not evolve from racial division but rather theological interpretation, a characteristic that sets it apart from independent black churches of the nineteenth century. Pentecostals will celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the movement in 2006.

The Church of God in Christ (COGIC)

Under Mason's charismatic leadership, the COGIC became the fastest growing independent black religious organization in the country in the early twentieth century, although the organization was interracial at the outset. White ministers received ordination papers from Bishop Mason and worshipped among the COGIC for approximately ten years. Racial division prompted their egress and led to the formation of the Assemblies of God, a predominantly white Pentecostal body.

The COGIC has always been an urban movement with an affinity for attracting and affirming small and rural congregations. But it was a southern organization until the 1940s, when postwar and social changes sent black southerners to the Midwest, West, and Northeast. Early COGIC leaders placed great emphasis on land acquisition for church work. Property records affirm the steady rate of COGIC growth and expansion in the early twentieth century as southern and rural blacks migrated out of the South and into urban areas.

Independent Black Churches and the Sustained Quest for Civil Rights and Cultural Autonomy

Independent black churches have always emphasized the civil rights movement, with different denominations taking the lead on various political, social, and cultural fronts. In the antebellum period, the AME and AMEZ led the charge for social justice, focusing on abolition and the proposed colonization of Sierra Leone by American-born blacks. Independent black churches of the Reconstruction period focused on educating millions of former slaves and helping them navigate their political, social, and economic transition from bondage to freedom.

The AME had a track record of supporting black progress. But Black Baptists, particularly those affiliated with the Progressive Baptist Movement, became the dominant figures of resistance during the civil rights era, with Martin Luther King's ascendancy representing the zenith of Baptist participation in the quest for justice.

The COGIC denomination did not take an institutional position on the civil rights movement, but select COGIC members participated in key moments. Robert's Temple COGIC in New York City hosted Malcolm X's eulogy. Mamie Till Mobley, a COGIC adherent and the mother of Emmett Till, galvanized the movement by allowing photographs of her son's remains to be published in Jet magazine. Mason Temple COGIC, the headquarter church for the COGIC named for founder C. H. Mason, hosted rallies and musicals to support workers participating in the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis, Tennesseethe strike Martin Luther King was in town to support when he was assassinated. And Mason Temple was also the place King delivered his "mountaintop" speech, the last public address given before his assassination.

New Changes and Challenges

Although independent black denominations and fellowships continue to play a significant role in the African-American community, classic divides remain over the status of women and sexuality. Since the 1970s the black church has also been challenged by the appeal of the Nation of Islam to African-American men, a development underscoring the complex chasm between the black church and the contemporary struggles of black men. Despite new challenges, the black church remains a premier institution within the African-American community.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; African Orthodox Church; African Union Methodism; Allen, Richard; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Nation of Islam; National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.; National Black Evangelical Association; Pentecostalism in North America; Protestantism in the Americas


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karen kossie-chernyshev (2005)

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