The process took place on two levels: As a social group, Philadelphia blacks embraced their ancestral heritage by forming “African” churches and benevolent societies. As individuals, however, they affirmed their American identity by taking English names (although virtually never those of their former owners). This dual strategy brought pride but not significant gains in wealth and status. Nonetheless, Philadelphia’s African-Americans rejected colonization when the issue was raised again just after 1800: only four people signed up for emigration to Sierra Leone.
Instead, the city’s black community petitioned the state and national governments to end slavery and the slave trade and repeal the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed slaveowners to seize blacks without a warrant. As if to underline the importance of these political initiatives, Allen was temporarily seized in 1806 as a fugitive slave, showing that even the most prominent northern blacks could not be sure of their freedom. This experience may account for Allen’s initial support for the American Colonization Society, a predominantly white organization founded in 1817 to promote the settlement of free blacks in Africa. This scheme was immediately condemned at a mass meeting of nearly 3,000 Philadelphia blacks, who set forth a different vision of the African-American future: “Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful cultivators of the wilds of America, we their descendants feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant soil.”
Philadelphia’s black community, including Allen, was more favorably inclined toward the Haitian Emigration Society, which was founded in 1824 to help African-Americans settle in that island republic. But when that venture failed, Allen forcefully urged blacks to remain in the United States. In November 1827 he made a compelling argument in Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first black newspaper: “This land which we have watered with our tears and our blood is now our mother country.”
Born a slave of African ancestry, Allen learned to live as a free man in white America, rejecting emigration and preserving his cultural identity by creating separate African-American institutions. But it meant that he cast his lot, and that of his descendants, with a society pervaded by racism. It was a brave decision, both characteristic of the man who made it and indicative of the limited choices available to those freed from the bonds of slavery.
(Reprinted from James A. Henretta, Elliot Brownlee, David Brody, Susan Ware, and Marilynn Johnson, America’s History, Third Edition, Worth Publishers Inc., 1997 Copyright: Worth Publishers Inc. For the personal use of subscribers of the Early America Review; for permission to reprint or duplicate, contact Paul Shensa, Worth Pub. 1-212-475-6000)
SUMMARY – HISTORY
The word African means that the church was organized by people of African descent and heritage. It does not mean that the church was founded in Africa, or that it was for persons of African descent only.
RICHARD ALLEN, FOUNDER
AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Richard Allen was a success. Born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760, he died in 1831 not only free but influential, a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and its first bishop. Allen’s rise has much of the classic American success story about it, but he bears a larger significance: Allen, as one of the first African-Americans to be emancipated during the Revolutionary Era, had to forge an identity for his people as well as for himself.
In 1787, while kneeling in prayer at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Allen, Jones and other black worshipers were pulled from the church by St. George’s church officials. As a result of this action, Allen and Jones organized, on April 12, 1787, the independent Free African Society. An organization dedicated to serving all humanity which denounced slavery, and spearheaded the establishment of an “African Church”. On July 17, 1794. Allen, a Methodist, and Jones, an Episcopalian, opened Bethel Church. Later, on April 9, 1816, Richard Allen unified the two factions by forming the first African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the first major religious denomination in the Western World that had its origin over sociological and theological beliefs and differences. It rejected the negative theological interpretations which rendered persons of African descent second class citizens. Theirs was a theological declaration that God is God all the time and for every body. The church was born in protest against slavery – against dehumanization of African people, brought to the American continent as laborers.
The church’s roots are of the family of Methodist churches. Methodism provides an orderly system of rules and regulations and places emphasis on a plain and simple gospel.
Episcopal refers to the form of government under which the church operates. The chief executive and administrative officers of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination are the Bishops of the church.
The Mission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is to minister to the spiritual, intellectual, physical, emotional, and environmental needs of all people by spreading Christ’s liberating gospel through word and deed. At every level of the Connection and in every local church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church shall engage in carrying out the spirit of the original Free African Society, out of which the AME Church evolved: that is, to seek out and save the lost, and serve the needy.