The United Nations has designated the year 2011 as International year FOR (not of) People of African Descent. As the group most affected by racism the year seeks to strengthen the commitment to eradicating discrimination against people of African descent and, among other things, help in “the promotion of a greater knowledge of and respect for their diverse heritage.” Undoubtedly, the residual discrimination and inequalities still faced by people of African descent are some of the legacies of the centuries of enslavement and even after freedom the inferior status with which all things African/ black were and still are associated most often, sadly, by people of African descent. At the top of the list of inferior things were African religious practices which were regarded as “barbaric” and “uncivilized.” In the last years of slavery and after emancipation, throughout the Americas, the mission was to “civilize” the Blacks by making them Christians. This article looks at the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) and the way in which the negative associations with things African can colour perceptions even about the Christian church.
A church sister reported that on her way to church one Sunday, she was asked by an acquaintance which church she attended. When she responded that she attended one of the African Methodist Episcopal Churches (AMEC) the response was “girl you going to dem Black People Chuch, you must go like me to Anglican Chuch.” The implication was clear. If you wanted to improve your social status you had to shun the inferior “Black People Chuch .” My own experience was more interesting. A friend whose church, one of the Pentecostal churches, I visited on several occasions asked me which church I attended. when I told her St Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, she looked at me in horror and said, ”you mean you does go to one a dem Spiritual chuch like them Jordanites.” I was quite disconcerted but not particularly surprised at her lack of knowledge. Her look and tone implied how could someone like me associate with such an organization. I told her the history of my church and about its similarities with hers.
The African Methodist Episcopal church came into being in reaction to the thoughtless and deliberate acts of humiliation of the black congregants of the St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Their leaders were Rev. Richard and Absalom Jones, former slaves, who actually preached to both black and white congregants of the church. One Sunday morning in 1787, the Sexton asked the black congregants to vacate the seats they had formerly occupied and stand around the Sanctuary. Then on a Sunday in November 1787, they were met by the Sexton at the door and instructed to go to the gallery which they had helped to construct and see where to sit. This they did and proceeded to occupy the seats over the ones they had occupied below but this did not sit well with the white congregants below. Prayers were just about to begin when one of the trustees came and started pulling the Rev. Absalom Jones off his knees insisting that he could not kneel there. The Reverend in turn asked if he could wait until prayers were over but the trustee insisted that unless he got off his knees immediately he would call for help and force him to do so. The Reverend again asked that he wait until the end of prayers and “I will get up and trouble you no more.” The trustee then beckoned to another to come to his assistance. He did and attempted to pull another black congregant off his knees. By this time prayers were over and all the black congregants exited in a body and never returned.
This incident, like a pebble in a pond, set in motion wide ripples of protest. As one author put it “without concert, without conscious planning, Negroes in the cities in the North and in the South walked out of white churches, and established their own institutions.” The establishment of one such institution came about after acts of discrimination by elders of the John Street Methodist Church in New York which led the black congregants to walk out. In 1796, Peter Williams formed the basic structure of the AME Zion Church in New York and in 1801 Zion Chapel began.
In Philadelphia, with Richard Allen as the leader, the group immediately commenced the formation of an independent church whose main objective was “to provide a centre of worship, in which any person, regardless of colour, could enjoy the worship of God with freedom from restriction and segregation.” From the beginning, the movement met with significant opposition mainly from the white leadership of the parent church. This was the beginning of a legal battle which only subsided in 1791 when the Supreme Court handed down a decision which gave the group the legal right to separate from the parent body to form an independent church. In that same year, the name “African Methodist Episcopal Church” was assumed. It came to be known as the Bethel Church.
The creation of the
All of this was taking place against the background of the fight for the abolition of the trade in captive Africans in Britain. Abolition took place in 1807 and its impact was felt in the USA. That year the United States Congress passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves. In 1808, an anti- slavery society was established by blacks in New York. All of these activities awakened a growing racial consciousness which led to the establishment of African congregations in New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. In April 1816, a General Convention was called by this separatist church movement which included delegates from the dissenting religious sects from several states. One of the most significant acts of the Philadelphia Convention was a resolution that formally organized the AME church into a denomination. A second act was the election and the consecration of Richard Allen as the first bishop of the denomination.
A third major act was the adoption of the Doctrine and Policy of the Methodist Episcopal Church with minor changes. For example, it is governed by the Methodist 25 articles and elements of its worship service also follow practices of Methodism. Like the Anglican Church, it is ruled by Bishops. Its governance practices have evolved over the years and at present, the General Conference is the highest decision-making body in the AME church. It meets every four years and is attended by four members, including the Bishop, from each of the twenty Episcopal districts in the church. Each Episcopal district is governed by the decisions taken at its Annual Conference which is spearheaded by its Bishop and Presiding Elder(s).The Guyana Suriname Annual Conference which has about a dozen churches, is one of seven Annual Conferences in the 16th district. The district also has Annual Conferences in England, France, Holland and most CARICOM countries.
There are 20 Episcopal districts. This is as the result of the vigorous pursuit by Richard Allen’s successors of his international vision of a worldwide parish. Before his death, the denomination expanded from the Middle Atlantic States N. E. to New England and Westward to Missouri. About a decade after Allen’s death churches were established in the slave states of Kentucky and Louisiana. By the 1840’s, in addition to Haiti, the denomination spread to Canada and African Methodism was seen as “a religious refuge for persons of color within the Western hemisphere.” The Dominican Republic, Barbados and Cuba became part of the denomination in 1874, 1893, and 1898 respectively. As early as 1856, the church was extended to Bermuda and British Guiana. In 1891, the energy and vision of Bishop McNeal Turner led to the organization of the church in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In the 1950’s AME churches were started in Ethiopia. In the 1960’s the church was started in India, in 1966 in Britain and from there it spread to Holland. In the 1990’s the church was established in Angola, the Ivory Coast, Togo, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya and the Republic of South Africa. In 2004, the 20th Episcopal district composed of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, was established. In 2010, the current Presiding Bishop of the 16th Episcopal district, the Rt. Rev. Sarah Frances Davis is pursuing the setting up of the church in Brazil.
The AMEC church is therefore not a “Black people chuch” but a Christian denomination whose originators were Africans in America. It’s a Christian denomination like the Catholics, Anglicans, Methodist and other Pentecostal churches. The word African was also used to differentiate this separate organization from the parent body. Finally, unlike other churches, it came into existence “not because of doctrinal differences, but it was the black man’s attempt to satisfy his basic needs to worship his Creator freely, to be truly human, and to achieve a sense of worth and dignity.”