This was my column in the SC United Methodist Advocate for August 2015.
The murder of nine worshipers at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church has dominated the news in South Carolina this summer, and we Methodists have shared in sorrow and outrage with our fellow Carolinians.
A. M. E. stands for African Methodist Episcopal, which should suggest to Methodists that the two denominations are related. In fact, when it was founded, the American Methodist denomination was called the Methodist Episcopal Church. So it isn’t hard to see that our brothers and sisters in the A. M. E. Church share the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition with United Methodists.
But how did the A. M. E. Church come to be, and what connection do we share? Answering that question requires looking into the early history of Methodism, and especially into Charleston Methodism. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, black and white Methodists worshiped together. By 1815, Charleston’s quarterly conference reported fewer than 300 white members and over 3,800 African-American members, including slaves and free persons. In its earliest years, Methodism took a strong anti-slavery position, though this brought Bishop Francis Asbury and the clergy into increasing conflict with the state’s political leadership and planter class. Mobs threatened and even assaulted clergy, particularly when they believed them to be preaching or distributing anti-slavery literature. In 1800, the General Assembly moved to limit assemblies of African-Americans, slave or free. The law, noted one white clergyman, was really directed at the Methodists. Ultimately, when forced to decide between the Wesleyan position against slavery or spreading the gospel, the church abandoned its anti-slavery position.
In Charleston, most black Methodists worshiped at Bethel and two other churches, with separate classes, leaders, and stewards. They even reported to a separate quarterly conference (what we now call a charge conference). Around 1815, white leaders moved to take control of financial and disciplinary matters. Many of the earlier histories, such as Francis Asbury Mood’s Methodism in Charleston, claimed that the finances showed evidence of corruption, though it’s more than a little possible that the coffers of the black quarterly conference simply were deeper as their numbers were larger. Along with their relegation to the balconies of the churches, this loss of influence and leadership in the church angered Charleston’s black Methodists. Such was their disappointment that they began making plans both to leave the denomination and to attempt to gain legal control over Bethel’s property. Two free black Methodist local pastors traveled secretly to Philadelphia and were ordained deacons in the A. M. E. church.
In Philadelphia, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church had been founded by Rev. Richard Allen under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church by 1794. At this point, they were still Methodist, and relied on white elders to serve communion. Allen, who had been born into slavery in Delaware, had purchased his freedom in 1780 and was present at the 1784 Christmas Conference, though the conference denied him a vote. He served in the free black community of Philadelphia, but again finding Methodism’s treatment of its African-American members unequal, began planning to leave. Some congregants followed Allen in 1816 into the A. M. E. Church, the first fully independent black denomination in the United States, with Allen as their bishop. The A. M. E.’s church structure is remarkably similar to that of the United Methodist Church, with General and Annual conferences, bishops, and a judicial council.
After the trustees of Bethel in 1818 decided to build a structure on the part of the church cemetery reserved for black members, and ignored their protests, the black members withdrew. Some 4,300 members in the three churches left to form the African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Charleston, led by Rev. Morris Brown, who had been ordained by Allen. Their absence from Charleston’s Methodist churches was obvious to everyone. Within a matter of years, the “African Church” in Charleston became implicated in Denmark Vesey’s abortive insurrection, as he had been a class leader at Bethel and then at the new church. The church was destroyed by angry whites, largely forcing the congregation underground until the end of the Civil War. But they could not extinguish its flame.