Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

views updated

Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America (CME) was organized December 16, 1870, in Jackson, Tennessee, by former slaves who had been members of the Methodist Episcopal (ME) ChurchSouth. After their emancipation, however, they realized that continued membership in the church of their former masters was neither desirable nor practical and requested their own separate and independent church "regularly established," as Isaac Lane said, "after our own ideas and notions." With careful attention to what was pointed to as the "desires of our colored members," the ME ChurchSouth, provided the basic ecclesiastical, legal, and practical means that enabled them, in the words of Lucius H. Holsey, to establish their "own separate and distinct ecclesiasticism."

From 1866 to 1870 several hundred black preachers were ordained, an official periodical, The Christian Index, began publication, five black annual conferences were established, delegates empowered to set up their "separate ecclesiastical jurisdiction" were called to meet, the ordination of bishops was authorized, and transfer to the new church of all properties that had been used by slave congregations was sanctioned. On December 21, 1870, William H. Miles and Richard H. Vanderhorsttwo black preachers elected bishops and ordained by Robert Paine, senior bishop of the ME ChurchSouthassumed the Episcopal oversight of the new jurisdiction, and an independent church of African Americans became a reality.

The CME Church soon emerged as one of the more influential churches in African-American communities throughout the South. Beginning with approximately seventy-eight thousand members, competent leaders, several hundred congregations, and title to hundreds of pieces of church property, it had, by the turn of the century, expanded beyond the Mason-Dixon Line following the migrations of African Americans to the North, Midwest, and the Pacific Coast. At the close of World War I, the CME Church was established wherever significant numbers of African Americans were located. After World War II, as CMEs found themselves in more racially inclusive communities and the civil rights struggle intensified, the term "colored" took on the stigma of discrimination and Jim Crowism. Consequently, in 1954 the name was changed to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. By 1990 it had more than 812,000 communicant members, congregations throughout the United States, and conferences in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Haiti, and Jamaica.

The CME Church is the ecclesiastical outgrowth of the grafting of nineteenth-century Protestantism, as practiced by American Methodists, and African slave religion, as found in the peculiar institution of slavery. In confronting slavery, Protestant denominations endeavored to "save" the souls of slaves rather than free them from their bondage. Preaching the gospel to the slaves was the means to this end. The Methodists were highly effective in slave evangelism. Methodism, begun by John Wesley in England and established on the American continent in 1784 as the Methodist Episcopal Church, was appealing to slaves. Methodists preached a plain and simple gospel that gave meaning and hope to the desperate conditions of the slave experience, practiced styles of preaching and worship that encouraged the expression of deep feelings and strong emotions, and provided a system of licenses and ordination that enhanced the status of slave preachers.

Early American Methodists had opposed slavery, but as more southerners and slaves joined the church, irreconcilable conflicts developed, and in 1844 Methodism split over the slavery issue. The southern branch of Methodism promoted such an extensive program of slave evangelism that by the beginning of the Civil War more than 207,000 slavesalmost 50 percent of all slaves who embraced Christianitywere members of the ME ChurchSouth. Among them were those who would organize the CME Church in 1870.

The Christianity that the slaves embraced, however, was reshaped in accordance with the realities of their slave experiences and the remnants of their African heritage. Residual elements of African religion such as belief in one Supreme Being, the union of the spiritual and the material, a strong affirmation of the present life, and certitude of life after death, molded the gospel preached to the slaves into African-American religion, the most powerful force of African-American life. Although the scion of African-American religion would flourish from the sap of orthodox Christian faith, it would nonetheless have a shape all its own. And it would sprout the varied branches of African-American religion, such as the CME Church, as former slaves, finally set free, established their separate churches, giving institutional meaning to the religion that had sustained them in the darkest days of slavery.

The CME Church perceived the social concerns of African Americans to be a significant part of its mission. CMEs have been in the vanguard of black America's "stride toward freedom" in demanding their own church, sharing in Reconstruction governments, protesting the enactment of Jim Crow laws, helping establish and support civil rights organizations, and participating fully in the civil rights struggle. It has been a leader in the education of black youth as many of its early church buildings were used as schools. Twenty-one educational institutions have been under its auspices, and four colleges and a school of theology are presently under its sponsorship. CME churches helped to meet the needs of African Americans through ministries such as low-income housing projects, credit unions, senior citizens' homes, child care centers, Project Head Start, and antipoverty and drug prevention programs. The CME Church has been a pioneer participant in the ecumenical movement through the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the National Congress of Black Churches.

Influential African Americans of the CME Church include William H. Miles, its first bishop; Lucius H. Holsey, the leader in establishing CME schools; Charles H. Phillips, the major influence in expanding the church; Helena B. Cobb, founder of an institute for black girls and an early proponent of women's rights; Channing H. Tobias, chairman of the board of the NAACP; John Hope Franklin, historian of African Americans; William Y. Bell, who served as dean of the School of Religion of Howard University; B. Julian Smith, a leader in the ecumenical movement; Joseph A. Johnson, Jr., a black theologian; and Alex Haley, author.

See also Franklin, John Hope; Haley, Alex; Slavery


Lakey, Othal Hawthorne, The History of the CME Church. Memphis, Tenn.: CME Publishing House, 1985.

Phillips, C. H. The History of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Jackson, Miss.: CME Publishing House, 1900.

othal hawthorne lakey (1996)

About this article

Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Updated About content Print Article