African Methodist Episcopal Church

views updated Jun 27 2018

African Methodist Episcopal Church

Richard Allen (17601831), the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, was born a slave in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1760. The slaveholder Benjamin Chew sold Allen, his parents, and his three siblings to Stokley Sturgis of Kent County, Delaware, around 1768. Methodist Church circuit riders frequently preached in the area, and Allen responded to their evangelismperhaps also to their antislavery reputationand joined the Wesleyan movement. His piety deepened because Sturgis permitted him to attend Methodist services regularly and to hold religious gatherings in the slave owner's own home. Sturgis also allowed Allen and his brother to buy their freedom, a task that was accomplished in 1783. For three years, Allen traveled through the Middle Atlantic states as an itinerant Methodist preacher, finally settling in Philadelphia to preach to blacks at the St. George Methodist Episcopal Church.

The founding of the Free African Society of Philadelphia in 1787, and a racial altercation, caused him to leave St. George, which in turn led to the building of Philadelphia's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (often known as the Mother Bethel Church) in 1794. In 1807, efforts by several pastors at St. George to control the congregation moved Allen to gain judicial recognition of Bethel's independence. A final attempt in 1815 by a St. George pastor to assert authority at Bethel Church induced Daniel Coker (17801846), the leader of Baltimore's black Methodists, to preach a sermon the following year commending Allen for his successful stand. Not long after, Allen drew Coker and other blacks from Baltimore, Salem, New Jersey, and Attleborough, Pennsylvania, to meet with his Philadelphia followers to form the AME Church.

At the AME's 1816 conference in Philadelphia, Coker was elected bishop, but he declined the offer, perhaps because of his light skin color. Allen was then chosen bishop, and under his leadership the denomination rapidly expanded. African Methodism spread north to New York and New England; south through Maryland, the District of Columbia, and (for a time) South Carolina; and west to the Ohio Valley and the old Northwest Territory. During the antebellum period, the denomination included congregations in the slave states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Louisiana. Missionaries such as William Paul Quinn (17881873), an AME bishop after 1844, founded scores of congregations in the Midwest in the 1830s and 1840s. Along the Pacific Coast, the AME church spread from Sacramento and San Francisco in the early 1850s to other locations in California and adjoining territories. AME loyalists also had success in Canada and made some inroads into Haiti. In 1864, thirty-three years after Allen's death, the AME Church had a membership of 50,000 in 1,600 congregations.

During the antebellum period, while the AME Church was largely restricted to the northern states, numerous clergy and congregations gave direct aid to the abolition movement. Morris Brown, who became the second bishop of the church after Allen's death, had been implicated in Denmark Vesey's abortive slave insurrection in South Carolina in 1822. Vesey himself was an AME preacher who, according to white authorities, planned the slave revolt during AME church services. The abolitionist stances of Allen, Quinn, and Brown were reaffirmed at the 1840 Pittsburgh Annual Conference. Stating that "slavery pollutes the character of the church of God, and makes the Bible a sealed book to thousands of immortal beings," the delegates resolved that their denomination should use its "influence and energies" to destroy black bondage.

Daniel A. Payne (18111893), who became a bishop in 1852, greatly influenced the development of the AME church. Freeborn in Charleston, South Carolina, Payne was a schoolteacher in his early adult years, until a South Carolina state law forbade the education of blacks and forced him to close his school. In 1835 he moved north and matriculated at Gettysburg Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. After his ordination into the AME ministry in 1843, Payne pastored in Baltimore and crusaded for an educated clergy. He later served the denomination as historiographer. In 1863 Payne convinced reluctant AME leaders to commit to a daring venture in higher education by founding Wilberforce University, the first black college started by African Americans. Wilberforce was only the first of several colleges founded by the AME. Others include Allen University (1880) in South Carolina, Morris Brown College (1881) in Georgia, Paul Quinn College (1881) in Texas, and Kittrell College (1886) in North Carolina.

The period of the Civil War and Reconstruction proved pivotal to AME Church development. Recruitment of black soldiers occurred on the premises of AME congregations

such as Israel Church in Washington, D.C. Four AME ministersHenry M. Turner, William H. Hunter, David Stevens, and Garland H. Whiteserved with ten other black chaplains in the Union Army. Additional AME clergy, including some who would become bishops, also fought on the Union side.

As northern victories liberated Confederate strongholds in Virginia and North Carolina, the Baltimore Annual Conference dispatched AME preachers in 1864 to those states to attract blacks into African Methodism. In 1865, Bishop Daniel A. Payne sailed from New York City to his hometown, Charleston, South Carolina, to establish the AME mission in the South. The rapid acquisition of members and congregations from Virginia to Texas swelled the denomination in 1880 to 387,566 persons in 2,051 churches.

The development of the AME Church in Alabama is illustrative of the denomination's expansion in the postbellum South. Mobile had the first AME congregation as early as 1820, though it was short-lived. The denomination revived when two AME ministers preached in the state in 1864. Formal organization of an Alabama Annual Conference occurred in Selma in 1868, a year after missionaries arrived from Georgia; it started with 6 churches, 31 missions, and 5,617 members. Preachers such as Winfield Henri Mixon played a large role in spearheading AME Church growth. Born a slave near Selma in 1859, Mixon began a long career in 1882 as a pastor and presiding elder, serving until his death in 1932. As a presiding elder, he reported that between 1892 and 1895 he launched fourteen new congregations. When he started his ministry, the state comprised three annual conferences: the Alabama, the Central Alabama, and the North Alabama. As a result of his efforts and those of other church founders, Mixon mapped out three additional jurisdictions, including the East, South, and West Alabama annual conferences. In 1890 there were 247 AME congregations in the state, with 30,781 total members. Mixon helped to increase these numbers to 525 congregations and 42,658 members in 1916.

These evangelistic efforts paralleled the unprecedented political involvement of the AME clergy in Reconstruction state governments and in the U.S. Congress. Approximately fifty-three AME ministers served as officeholders in the legislatures of South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and other states. Henry McNeal Turner (18341915), a Republican, was elected to the Georgia state legislature in 1868, only to be ousted that same year by triumphant Democrats. Richard H. Cain (18251887), then pastor of Emmanuel Church in Charleston, served in the South Carolina state senate from 1868 through 1870, and then in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1873 through 1875. Turner and Cain became AME bishops in 1880.

Bishop Payne was unhappy about the ascent of Turner and Cain to the AME episcopacy. He and other northern-based bishops were wary of the new generation of denominational leaders whose followers came from the South. Many of these new leaders, among them Turner and Cain, had experiences in elective offices that Payne believed caused an unfortunate politicization of denominational affairs. In the late nineteenth century, regional backgrounds of ministers determined regional alliances and formed the bases of power within the AME Church.

There was also increasing political involvement of AME clergy in the northern branch of the denomination. Ezekiel Gillespie, a lay founder of the St. Mark Church in Milwaukee, for example, initiated a state supreme court case that won suffrage for Wisconsin blacks in 1866. Benjamin W. Arnett, who became a bishop in 1888, won an

election in 1886 to the Ohio legislature, where he became a friend of the future president William McKinley. He successfully pushed a repeal of Ohio's discriminatory Black Laws.

In the late nineteenth century, the denomination expanded outside of the United States. In 1884 the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church, in existence since 1856, united with the AME Church. Thereafter, BME congregations throughout Canada, Bermuda, and South America were part of the AME fold. In 1891, Bishop Turner, who was an influential African emigrationist, established annual conferences in West Africa, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Five years later, Turner formally received the Ethiopian Church of South Africa into the denomination. This church was established in 1892, when dissident Africans led by M. M. Mokone withdrew from the white-dominated Wesleyan Methodist Church after experiencing the same kind of racial discrimination that had brought the AME Church into existence in the United States. Turner invited an Ethiopian delegation to the United States, where they accepted membership. (In 1900, Bishop Levi J. Coppin became the first resident bishop in South Africa.)

Bishop Turner's missionary interests were not confined to Africa. Between 1896 and 1908 he presided as bishop of Georgia, and he mobilized support and manpower from this jurisdiction for expansion into Cuba and Mexico. He commissioned presiding elders from Georgia to establish congregations among black Latinos in both countries, and several successful AME missions were instituted.

Whenever AME advocates for overseas expansion combined this perspective with black nationalism, ideological fissures surfaced in denominational affairs. Turner's espousal of emigration drew vehement opposition from Benjamin T. Tanner (18351923). Tannerwho in 1868 became editor of the Christian Recorder, a weekly founded in 1852started the AME Church Review in 1884, and he edited it until his election to the episcopacy in 1888. Concerning Turner's back-to-Africa efforts, Tanner asserted that those who wished to escape the fight for racial equality in the United States counseled "cowardice." He felt that blacks should remain in the United States to secure their full constitutional privileges. However, while Tanner opposed black emigration to Africa, he and other AME leaders did not fully disagree with all of Turner's nationalist views. Tanner, for example, authored Is the Negro Cursed? (1869) and The Color of Solomon, What? (1895), both of which challenged racist interpretations of scripture and argued that persons of color figured prominently in Biblical history. In 1893, Benjamin Arnett, who served as bishop with Turner and Tanner, told the World's Parliament of Religions (in his speech "Christianity and the Negro") that St. Luke was black and so were other important figures in the early church.

Between 1890 and 1916 the AME Church grew from 494,777 members in 2,481 congregations to 548,355 members in 6,636 congregations. In 1926 the denomination included 545,814 members in 6,708 congregations. There was significant numerical strength in Georgia, where 74,149 members worshipped in 1,173 congregations. Florida had 45,541 members in 694 churches. There was some decline in AME strength by 1936, however, when the church reported 4,578 congregations and 493,357 members.

While the AME Church in the South was growing, so was the church in the industrial North. The massive black migration from southern rural communities to industrial centers in the North, South, and West during the two World Wars caused major growth in AME churches in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Birmingham, Los Angeles, and other major cities. In these settings, clergy fashioned a version of the Social Gospel that required their involvement with numerous issues in housing, social welfare, unionization, and politics. In the 1920s the Reverend Harrison G. Payne, pastor of Park Place Church in Homestead, a mill town near Pittsburgh, initiated an effort to supply housing to blacks newly arrived from the South; during World War II, investigators with the federal Fair Employment Practices Committee found cooperative AME pastors in numerous cities. Many AME pastors worked with labor unions. Dwight V. Kyle of the Avery Chapel Church in Memphis, Tennessee, for example, sided with the efforts of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to unionize black and white mass-production workers in a dangerous antiunion setting.

The burgeoning civil rights movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s found substantive support within the AME clergy. J. A. Delaine, a pastor and school principal in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and Oliver Brown, the pastor of St. Mark Church in Topeka, Kansas, filed suits against public school segregation. Their efforts culminated in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court nullified the "separate but equal" doctrine. Threats against Delaine pushed him out of South Carolina to New York City. Activist AME clergy moved the denomination at the 1960 general conference to establish a social action department; Frederick C. James, a South Carolina pastor and future bishop, became its first director.

When Bishop Richard Allen authorized Jarena Lee in 1819 to function as an exhorter in the AME Church, he opened the door to women in the ministry. For nearly 150 years, unordained female evangelists played important roles as preachers, pastors, and founders of congregations. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Amanda Berry Smith, Sarah Hughes, and Lucy Thurman preached in AME pulpits. Smith, for example, evangelized widely in the United States and then preached abroad in the British Isles, India, and West Africa. Like many, Millie Wolfe, a woman preacher in Waycross, Georgia, focused her efforts on the denomination's Women's Home and Foreign Missionary Society. She published a book of sermons that included "Scriptural Authority for Women's Work in the Christian Church." Female evangelists in the Rocky Mountain states in the early 1900s became crucial to AME Church expansion in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, and Montana. They established congregations and frequently supplied pulpits throughout this large region. While the gifted preaching of Martha Jayne Keys, Mary Watson Stewart, and others sustained the visibility of female ministers in the first half of the twentieth century, it was not until 1960 that the denomination allowed the full ordination of women. (An earlier attempt by Henry M. Turner to ordain women in 1885 had been promptly overturned by a church conference.)

Ecumenical efforts among African-American Christians also drew upon AME church leadership. In 1933, Bishop Reverdy C. Ransom (18611959) called together black denominational leaders to establish the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches. Similarly, in 1978 Bishop John Hurst Adams spearheaded the founding of the Congress of National Black Churches. Subsequently, Bishop Philip R. Cousin became president of the National Council of Churches in 1983, while Bishop Vinton R. Anderson became president of the World Council of Churches in 1991.

The Black Theology movement, which lasted from the late 1960s into the 1980s, drew AME participation through AME-trained theologians Cecil W. Cone (author of The Identity Crisis in Black Theology [1975]) and James H. Cone (author of Black Theology and Black Power

[1969]). Jacqueline Grant, another theologian out of the AME tradition, pioneered the development of feminist theology. Her ideas were explored in White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus (1989).

Throughout its history, the AME Church has embraced congregations that crossed lines of class, culture, and geography. Several elements of Wesleyan worship remain in AME services, regardless of location and demography. A standard order of worship, mainly consisting of hymn singing, remains a staple of AME worship. Baptismal practices and the communion service make the AME Church virtually indistinguishable from white Methodist congregations. However, other practices rooted in African-American traditionsuch as extemporaneous praying, singing of spirituals and gospels, and shoutingwere observed depending on the cultural makeup of the congregation.

Since its formal founding in 1816, the AME Church's quadrennial General Conference has remained the supreme authority in denominational governance. Annual conferences, over which active bishops preside, cover particular geographical areas. During these yearly jurisdictional meetings, ministers receive their pastoral appointments. Within the annual conferences, districts have been established; these are superintended by presiding elders. The AME episcopacy, from Richard Allen's election and consecration in 1816 to the present, has been a lifetime position. General officers who administer such programs as publishing, pensions, Christian education, and evangelism serve for four years, but they can stand for re-election. Bishops and general officers are chosen at the general conference by elected ministerial and lay delegates. By 1993 the denomination had grown to 2,000,000 members in 7,000 congregations in the United States and thirty other countries in the Americas, Africa, and Europe. The AME Church has no central headquarters, although its publishing house is located in Nashville, Tennessee. At the turn of the twenty-first century, twenty-one active bishops and nine general officers made up the AME Church leadership. In 2005, the AME Church listed 2,500,000 adherents in the United States and 300,000 in other countries.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; African Union Methodism; Allen, Richard; Black Codes; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Cain, Richard Harvey; Congress of National Black Churches, Inc.; Payne, Daniel Alexander; Social Gospel; Turner, Henry McNeal


Dickerson, Dennis C. A Liberated Past: Explorations in A.M.E. Church History. Nashville, Tenn.: A.M.E. Church Sunday School Union, 2003.

Gregg, Howard D. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nashville, Tenn.: AME Church, 1980.

Payne, Daniel A. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nashville, Tenn.: AME Church Sunday School Union, 1891. Reprint, 1998.

Walker, Clarence E. Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Wright, Richard R., Jr. The Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nashville, Tenn.: AME Church Sunday School Union, 1963.

dennis c. dickerson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

views updated May 29 2018

African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) was organized in the early 1820s, but its roots go back to the late eighteenth century. A few black congregations in the New York City area in the 1790s sought greater freedom of worship and some measure of autonomy from white-controlled congregations in the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal denomination. With approximately 5,000 members by 1860, the AMEZ Church by the 1990s had a membership in excess of 1.3 million, with 3,000 clergy, 2,900 congregations, and 100,000 members overseas, principally in Africa and the Caribbean. By 1900 the group also had shifted most of its operations from New York to North Carolina and had become a truly national denomination.

The AMEZ has organized agencies and divisions devoted to such matters as youth, Christian education, domestic and overseas missions, and social concerns. Its highest organizational authority is the General Conference, which includes representatives from both clergy and laity. Two other main operational bodies are the Connectional Council, composed of the thirteen bishops as well as other significant ecclesiastical officers, and the Board of Bishops. The denomination has a publishing house located in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it publishes, among other works, the church newspaper, the Star of Zion. It supports four colleges: Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina; Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill, South Carolina; Lomax-Hannon Junior College in Greenville, Alabama; and AME Zion Community College in Monrovia, Liberia.

Like the other black denominations, associations, and conventions founded prior to the Civil War, the AMEZ Church was formed primarily for the sake of greater autonomy in church participation and leadership, and to evangelize and serve in other ways the needs of African Americans in the late 1700s and the 1800s. The evangelical American Christianity that came to its earliest fruition during the Great Awakening (17301750) and the Second Great Awakening (17901825) had a profound impact upon the membership of the Christian churches in the United States. Evangelicalism was most clearly manifested during the Second Great Awakening in groups such as the Methodists, revivalist elements in the Church of England (Protestant Episcopal church), the Baptists, and some Presbyterian and Congregational churches.

Compared with their nonevangelical counterparts, white evangelicals were more receptive to black membership in their societies and churches and even sometimes open to various roles of black leadership. Thus, by the Revolutionary era, evangelicalism was a racially mixed phenomenon, with whites and blacks acting as missionaries, teachers, and preachers, although the preponderance of these activities were still intraracial. By the 1780s and 1790s, evangelical blacks were members of a movement and of churches in which they exercised a considerable degree of freedom of religion, relative to the treatment of blacks in nonevangelical churches.

The Revolutionary age brought with it intense rhetoric about the equality of all men and their inalienable rights. Not surprisingly, therefore, when a number of white-controlled (though not always predominantly white) congregations began to curb religious freedom, to introduce new strictures of racial segregation and discrimination, and to refuse to modify policies and practices of caste, many African Americans, especially those with leadership talents, rebelled.

With these rebellious leadersPeter Spencer in Wilmington, Delaware; Richard Allen in Philadelphia; and William Miller in New York Citylie the origins of the independent black Methodist congregations. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, they joined forces to form three separate black denominations: the Union Church of Africans, in Delaware, in 1813; the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church), based in Philadelphia, in 1816; and the Zion group, based in New York City, in the 18201824 period. For the AMEZ, the focal point seems to have been the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York.

By 1793 the John Street congregation's membership was about 40 percent black. Yet blacks were blocked from the higher orders of the ministry and faced discrimination at the Holy Communion table as well as in seating. In 1796 Peter Williams and William Miller helped start a separate black Methodist congregation. They founded the African Chapel in a shop owned by Miller. By 1800 the group gathered around these two men constructed a church building, and in 1801 their congregation was incorporated. These Methodists emphasized their desire to be free of white domination by restricting trustee membership to those of African descent.

Like their forerunners in the Union Church of Africans and the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, these black Methodists were struggling to establish and maintain a significant degree of autonomy in the midst of clear, overt white opposition to their efforts. By ensuring that control of their church was in the hands of African Americans, these Methodists were guaranteeing that they would not again be relegated to the status of second-class membership in their own church, as they had been in John Street and other Methodist Episcopal congregations. With the assistance of a white preacher, John McClaskey, nine men incorporated the African Chapel church in 1801: Francis Jacobs, Peter Williams, David Bias, George E. Moore, George Collins, George White, Thomas Sipkins, Thomas Cook, and William Brown. The church was incorporated as the African Methodist Episcopal Church of the City of New York.

From 1816 to 1824 this small group of black Methodists moved more decisively toward the establishment of a separate denomination. In 1816 the Zion Church (formerly the African Chapel) joined with the Asbury Church to petition the Methodist Episcopal Conference of New York to establish a separate circuit for African Methodists. In 1820 the beginnings of a split in the white parent body, the Methodist Episcopal Church, had ramifications for African Methodists. William Stillwell, a white minister who had been appointed pastor of the Zion Church, withdrew from the larger body in an attempt to introduce more democratic procedures.

This move of Stillwell's occasioned further reflection on the part of the African Methodists concerning their own organizational relationship with the Methodist Episcopal Church. In August 1820 the African Methodists became a separate black conference within the larger denomination; by October they had established a discipline (a set of church policies, beliefs, and rules) for the two congregations, Zion and Asbury. A pivotal move took place on June 21, 1821, when the African Methodists held their first annual conference and rejected affiliation with the AME Church, also deciding against reaffiliation with the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church. Many scholars date the origins of the AMEZ denomination from this year. It was not until 1824, however, that the African Methodists in New York made it clear they were not under any supervision of the Methodist Episcopal denomination.

The new denomination registered slow but steady growth from 1821 to the advent of the Civil War. At the 1821 conference (their first annual meeting), the Zionites had six churches with fewer than 1,500 members: Zion Church (763) and Asbury Church (150) of New York City, and congregations from Long Island, New York (155); New Haven, Connecticut (24); Easton, Pennsylvania (18); and Philadelphia (Wesleyan Church, with 300). In 1822 the group selected James Varick, the pastor of Zion Church, as its first superintendent. He served until 1828, when he was replaced by Christopher Rush, who had migrated north from eastern North Carolina. Throughout

the nineteenth century there was intense controversy, friction, debate, and rivalry between the Zion denomination and the AME denominationmuch of it fueled by the fact that both, prior to the New Yorkbased group's addition of "Zion" to its title in 1848, termed themselves the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Given their competition for new members and the alliances of black Methodist congregations, this similarity in names caused confusion and charges of misrepresentation. There was also a lively debate as to which was actually the first organized group. Each extended the date of its founding back into the eighteenth century to coincide with the rise of the oldest congregation of the connection. Concomitantly, each tended to overlook or downplay the origins of the first congregation of the rival group. The Zion group, moreover, was beset by schism in the 1850s arising from controversy surrounding the status of one of its bishops.

With the coming of the Civil War, the AMEZ, like other independent black denominations and conventions, embarked upon a new era of opportunity and growth. Whereas the Zionites had only a few more than 1,400 members and 22 ministers in 1821, by 1860 they had grown to 4,600 members with 105 ministers. But this slow growth in membership was outdistanced considerably by the phenomenal rise during and following the Civil War. By 1884 the AMEZ registered 300,000 members; by 1896, the number had increased to 350,000.

Both the AMEZ and the AME experienced rather small growth during the preCivil War years because both were mainly confined to the northern portion of the country, especially the Northeast. Understandably, independent black organizations, religious or secular, mainly comprising free persons committed to an antislavery stance, were not welcomed in the slaveholding South. In addition, most African-American Methodists in New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere elected for a number of reasons to remain with the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal denomination. Much of the black Methodist Episcopal constituency had a degree of autonomy as largely black congregations with black ministers, while maintaining the advantages of continued association with a white organization. With the coming of the Civil War, however, and the emancipation of previously enslaved blacks, the doors for inclusion in northern-based, independent black denominations and conventions were opened much wider.

A substantial number of black southern Christians did remain with the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal ChurchSouth, and the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) gained a considerable number of congregations, ministers, and members from their ranks. The vast majority of black Christians, however, flocked to the independent black ecclesiastical groups that followed Union troops into the old Confederacy. The black Baptist churches secured the most members, followed by the AME. But the AMEZ captured a significant and substantial segment of southern black Christians for its connection.

The Zion denomination has encountered a number of significant challenges. One of the main reasons for its debut was the evangelization and religious training of people of African descent. A number of organizations connected with the denomination were formed over the years to deal with these goals. The denomination not only expanded in the South following the Civil War but entered the Midwest, the Far West, Canada, and the Caribbean. Nova Scotia and the Caribbean areas figured prominently in the AMEZ's outreach efforts during the postbellum years. During the 1870s and 1880s the AMEZ, like its AME

and black Baptist counterparts, joined in the efforts to missionize Africa. Andrew Cartwright, the first Zion missionary in Africa, and Bishop John Bryan Small, who later was the first to have episcopal jurisdiction in Africa, were forerunners in the African mission program. The AMEZ Church, like other black Christian groups, pursued the missionizing of Africa for reasons that connected evangelical interests with practical concerns for the well-being of African people.

The AMEZ has always been intimately involved in efforts to achieve greater citizenship rights for African Americans. Outstanding nineteenth-century AMEZ members such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Jermain Loguen, Catherine Harris, and Frederick Douglass fought to abolish slavery, gain equal rights and justice for black citizens, and expand the freedom of American women. Jermain Loguen's classic address "I Will Not Live a Slave" testifies to the precarious position of many people of color who had escaped bondage in the South and border states, and points out the connections between free people of the North and their enslaved brothers and sisters.

An issue of internal concern in the Zion denomination was the debate over the role and meaning of the terms "superintendent" and "bishop." Zion, like the predominantly white Methodist Protestant Church, envisioned itself originally as a more democratic institution than the mother Methodist Episcopal Church. It selected the name "superintendent" for its episcopal overseers and mandated their election every four years rather than for life, as was the case in the Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Churches. When their AME rivals cast doubts on the episcopal validity of Zion's superintendents, the AMEZ changed its title to bishop and passed a rule stipulating that each was elected for life. This last rule was later modified to require retirement at a certain age. Bishop James Walker Hood was instrumental during the 1800s in defending the validity of Zion's episcopacy and undergirding the "high church" tradition of episcopacy within the Zion church.

The Zion church has been at the forefront within American Methodism in advancing democracy within its membership by expanding representation in its highest councils to laypersons. It also supported the ordination of women to the office of elder, the church's highest ministerial office except for bishop. In 1898 Bishop Charles Calvin Pettey ordained Mary Julia Small, a bishop's wife, as the first woman elder in the Zion church, or any major American Methodist denomination. Julia Foote, an author, evangelist, and supporter of the Holiness Movement, was ordained an elder by Bishop Hood. Although Bishops Pettey and Hood stood by their controversial actions, not until the 1980s and 1990s were a significant number of women ordained to the eldership. At the start of the twenty-first century, none of the major black Methodist groups, including the AMEZ, has appointed a female bishop, unlike the United Methodist Church, which has appointed both black and white women to the episcopacy.

Another area of concern to Zionites has been ecumenism, especially within the family of black Methodist churches. The first serious and hopeful efforts at black Methodist unity came during the Civil War, in 1864, when the AME and the AMEZ nearly agreed upon a document cementing the union of the two churches. The measure failed because conferences within the AME Church, where the matter was submitted for ratification, rejected the proposal. Other discussions since then have included dialogues with the AME, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), and the Methodist Episcopal denominations. The CME and the AMEZ were close to union at one point during the 1980s, but progress stalled. It appeared that independent black denominations are torn between racial solidarity on one hand and transracial unity on the otherbetween the ideal of union across racial lines and the reality of continued racial prejudice and discrimination, even in ecclesiastical circles.

The AMEZ Church, like most other black denominations, however, has been involved in ecumenical efforts at cooperation, such as the Federal Council of Churches (later the National Council of Churches) and the World Council of Churches. It has participated with other black Methodists, as well as other Christians, in interfaith efforts to advance the civil, political, and economic progress of African Americans. Its membership in the National Fraternal Council of Negro Churches, founded in 1933, serves as an example of Zion's work in this regard.

There have been other major figures in AMEZ history. Bishop Joseph J. Clinton commissioned James Hood and other missionaries for work in the South during and following the Civil War; his efforts greatly facilitated the geographical and numerical expansion of Zion's ranks. Rev. Joseph C. Price, popularly esteemed as an orator, was one of the founders and the first president of Livingstone College. Mary Jane Talbert Jones, Meriah G. Harris, and Annie Walker Blackwell were early leaders in the Woman's Home and Foreign Missionary Society, established in 1880.

The historical and theological significance of the AMEZ Church rests in the claims that black people, when their humanity was greatly compromised in the eyes of many whites, were capable of managing and directing enterprises without the governance and supervision of whites, and the theological position that the Christian faith condemns racial discrimination as sin and heresy.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; Allen, Richard; Truth, Sojourner; Tubman, Harriet


Baldwin, Lewis V. "Invisible" Strands in African Methodism: A History of the African Union Methodist Protestant and Union American Methodist Episcopal Churches, 18051980. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Bradley, David Henry, Sr. A History of A. M. E. Zion Church. 2 vols. Nashville, Tenn.: Parthenon Press, 1956, 1971.

Hood, James Walker. One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. New York: A. M. E. Zion Book Concern, 1895.

Johnson, Dorothy Sharpe, and Williams, Lula Goolsby. Pioneering Women of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Charlotte, N.C.: A. M. E. Zion Publishing House, 1996.

McClain, William B. Black People in the Methodist Church: Whither Thou Goest? Cambridge, Mass.: Shenkman Publishing Co., 1984.

Richardson, Harry V. Dark Salvation: The Story of Methodism as It Developed Among Blacks in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976.

Walls, William J. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: Reality of the Black Church. Charlotte, N.C.: A. M. E. Zion Publishing House, 1974.

sandy dwayne martin (1996)

African Methodist Episcopal Church

views updated May 17 2018


AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH (AMEC), the first separatist African American denomination. Many Methodist churches, especially in Philadelphia, had large numbers of black members whose growing hostility to racial discrimination within the church prompted Richard Allen, a licensed Methodist preacher, to lead a mass withdrawal from St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, in 1787. Allen subsequently helped to organize the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Philadelphia. In 1816, five black congregations came together to create the African Methodist Episcopal Church, with Allen as its first bishop.

The AMEC's strength resided in its benevolent associations—the Free African Societies—which concerned themselves with racial solidarity and abolitionism. Bethel Church was a station on the Underground Railroad and many members of First AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were involved in the Denmark Vesey slave uprising of 1822. AME churches sought to provide both social services and education. Bishop Daniel Payne spearheaded the campaign to establish Wilberforce University, the first institution of higher education founded by African Americans, in 1856. The AMEC grew from 20,000 members in 1861 to 400,000 in 1896, a process aided by expansion into the Caribbean and Africa.

Church structures and doctrines were modeled after the original Methodist Episcopal Church. AME bishops tend to have greater power than among the United Methodists, and the Church places a great emphasis on social service, for which congregations have a host of auxiliary organizations to accomplish their objectives. The Church is run by a General Conference that meets every four years, but has no established national headquarters. It supports five colleges and two seminaries and began to ordain women in 1948.

Associated with the AMEC, though a separate denomination, is the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZC). In 1796, Peter Williams led a group of black Methodists out of the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. This group established Zion Church, which was incorporated as an African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1801, with the provision that membership be limited to those of African descent. Zion Church retained a close relationship with the African Methodist Episcopal Church until 1820, when a conflict arose over AMEC preachers sent to New York by Richard Allen. The first bishop of the AMEZC was James Varick, who had helped establish Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States. The AMEZC grew to 350,000 members by 1896. Two of its more prominent members were Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Like the AMEC, the AMEZC is run by a General Conference, but its bishops have considerable autonomy in interpreting Church regulations. There is no court of appeal for episcopal decisions and the traditions of a local church may override aspects of church teaching. The Church maintains one college and one seminary, both in Livingston, North Carolina. In 1891, it became the first black denomination to permit the ordination of women.

In the twentieth century, the AMEC showed an increasing interest in black liberation theology, pentecostalism, and political activism. Floyd Flake, pastor of Allen AME Church in Queens, New York, won several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1999, the African Methodist Episcopal Church had 2,500,000 members and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church had 1,276,000 members.


Gregg, Howard D. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: The Black Church in Action. Nashville, Tenn.: AMEC, 1980.

Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Little, Lawrence S. Disciples of Liberty: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Age of Imperialism, 1884–1916. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000.

Walls, William J. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: Reality of the Black Church. Charlotte, N.C.: A.M.E. Zion Publishing House, 1974.


See alsoAfrican American Religions and Sects ; Denominationalism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation .

African Methodist Episcopal Church

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African Methodist Episcopal Church. The first church in the USA to be made up entirely of African-Americans. It came into being in 1787 when those with black skin refused to be segregated in the seating in St George's church in 4th St, Philadelphia. There was some scuffling, and Richard Allen (elected the first bishop of the ensuing church) led the founding members of the church out of the building.


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African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

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