Guide A Will to Choose: The Origins of African American Methodism

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The horrors of the Middle Passage in which more than 10 million Africans were transported to the Americas and consigned to chattel slavery made it impossible to perpetuate language, culture, and religion as they had existed in African contexts. The cultural and religious resources they brought with them proved resilient and adaptable, however, and would contribute to the worldviews and practices that emerged under American slavery. Change over time, regional differences, and religious context are important considerations for understanding how African American religious cultures took shape in antebellum America and why they differ in significant ways from other parts of the African diaspora.

The large number of Africans transported to the Caribbean and Latin America and the longer duration of the trade in some regions meant that cultural and religious ties here were more vibrant than in the North American colonies, where only 5 percent of those transported from Africa arrived, primarily in the period from to In addition, the predominance of Catholicism in the French and Spanish colonies created a context in which enslaved Africans were able to combine their ritual work to maintain connections to gods and spirits with veneration of the Catholic saints. Africans in the North American colonies were most likely to be enslaved by Protestant Europeans, who were more resistant to such blended religious practices.

Although enslaved Africans in North America did not reproduce the varied religious systems of West and West Central Africa, these worldviews were among the many resources on which they drew to produce distinctive African American cultures, identity, and forms of resistance. Invested economically in the institution of slavery and committed to the notion of the inferiority of Africans, many slaveholders worried that conversion would require manumission and disrupt racial hierarchy. Even with assurance from church and political leaders that conversion to Christianity did not mandate freedom for the enslaved, resistance among slaveholders remained strong, as white Anglican cleric Francis Le Jau found in his mission work in earlyth-century South Carolina, where the brutality of the slave system shocked him.

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Le Jau also faced discomfort in a range of forms by slaveholders to shared religious commitment with blacks, including the refusal of one man to take Communion when enslaved Africans were at the Holy Table and queries from a woman about whether she would be forced to see her slaves in heaven. Many European Americans could not imagine African Americans having the capacity to understand Christianity and also feared that extending baptism and Christian fellowship would convince the enslaved of their equality to whites.

Consequently, the substance of Christian teaching that most missionaries and slaveholders conveyed focused not on liberation and equality but on divinely ordained racial hierarchy. It is not surprising that this sort of theological framework did not appeal to the majority of enslaved African Americans in colonial America. The evangelical revivals of the Great Awakening beginning in the s set the context for the conversion of enslaved African Americans and provided theological resources for the development of African American Christianity.

The ranks of the evangelical Baptists and Methodists grew through the spread of the revivals and, motivated by a commitment to spiritual equality, some white Baptists and Methodists questioned the moral grounds of slavery. Ultimately, the opposition to abolition of most southern white Christian slaveholders motivated these denominations to step back from their antislavery positions. Despite the turn away from an explicitly antislavery Christian posture, Baptists and Methodists supported the development of black Christian leadership, licensing African American men to preach and helping to foster the beginnings of institutional life among black Christians.

The revivals of the Second Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th centuries extended the geographic reach of evangelicalism as the nation expanded into new territory and also drew increasing numbers of African Americans to Christianity. Antebellum African Americans developed independent arenas in which to interpret, experience, and express their religious commitments.

In enthusiastic and embodied communal worship they also sang spirituals that spoke of sorrow, joy, justice, salvation, and liberation, and they danced the ring shout in a counterclockwise circular movement meant to make the Holy Spirit present. Slave religion, then, served as a source of individual and communal comfort and the means to endure the brutality of slavery.

Religion also provided resources for forceful public critique of the institution that enslaved and sought to dehumanize African Americans in the new republic. Black abolitionists, such as lecturer and journalist Maria W.

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Stewart — , who grounded her claims for social justice in biblical exegesis, and David Walker — , whose Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World warned of divine punishment on America for the sins of oppression, exemplified this approach. In other instances, religion fostered open rebellion against slavery, as with the planned revolt in in Richmond, Virginia, that participants organized in religious meetings led by Gabriel Prosser — , the appeal to scripture and use of religious meetings to plan the aborted revolt of Denmark Vesey — in South Carolina in , and the rebellion in Northampton, Virginia, organized by religious visionary and preacher Nat Turner — Even as the influence of religion on the men who led these rebellions against slavery is clear, evidence also exists that Christianity served to accommodate some enslaved African Americans to their status, as demonstrated in the address of enslaved poet and preacher Jupiter Hammon — in which he enjoined enslaved blacks to be the obedient servants he felt Christ called them to be and await their reward in heaven.

Enslaved African Americans also turned to religious resources outside of Christianity. Conjure, derived from West Central African ritual work to harness the power of the natural and spiritual world to protect, heal, and sometimes harm, was a feature of African American culture, as were other folk healing practices using roots and herbs.

Islam was also part of the religious world of enslaved Africans in the antebellum American South, with the relatively small number of Muslims struggling to maintain their religious practices, create community, and preserve the Arabic language across generations. Muslims such as Omar ibn Said c. Taken together, this range of religious expressions provided resources for the development of culture in common, a sense of collective identity as African Americans, and affirmation of black humanity.

In addition to the often hidden and covert religious activities in the invisible institution of slave religion, antebellum African American Christians developed churches that provided arenas for independent interpretation of Christian teaching and practice as well as a platform for political organizing.

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Early independent black Baptist churches include the Silver Bluff, Georgia, church led in the s by David George c. The Baptist framework appealed to those in bondage because its structure of congregational autonomy supported local leadership and independence. Although these formerly enslaved men and their largely enslaved congregants faced monitoring and restrictions on religious practice, the institutions they founded became important sites promoting African American interpretations of Christianity that affirmed the humanity of black people.

Free black Baptists in northern states, where slavery was abolished gradually following the American Revolution, also established important congregations. Significant independent black church organizing during the early national period took place under the umbrella of Methodism and, by the early 19th century, individual congregations joined together to form denominations.

In many cases, black Methodists founded independent congregations in response to the racism they experienced in the predominantly white congregations to which they belonged.

In Philadelphia, Richard Allen — , a former slave and licensed Methodist preacher, belonged to the predominantly white St. Allen, along with Absalom Jones — , another former slave and lay preacher, and other black congregants objected to the increasing discrimination they suffered in their home church, marked most clearly by the new policy relegating black members to the church balcony.

Two congregations emerged from this movement, reflecting the varied theological and institutional interests among the former members of St. One contingent founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in with Absalom Jones, the first African American to be ordained an Episcopal priest, as its first rector, and the other formed Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in with Allen as its pastor.

In Allen called together the leaders of a number of other black Methodist congregations in the region and they formed the African Methodist Episcopal AME Church, the first black denomination in America, with Allen as the first bishop. Conflicts between leaders of various contingents of African Methodists led Varick and Zion Church to organize a small group of independent black Methodist congregations in under the denominational umbrella of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. These new institutions became vitally important arenas for antebellum African American organizing and public discussion of a range of issues, including the abolition of slavery and the status of free blacks, as well as campaigns to create colonies for free blacks outside the United States.

Clergy and members of the AME and AME Zion Churches often became public voices on pressing issues, a role that highlights the significance of churches in fostering black leadership throughout African American history. African American denominations also contributed to black public life and culture throughout the 19th century by creating and supporting a range of economic enterprises, including publishing houses that produced journals and newspapers, including the AME Church Review , the Christian Recorder , and the Star of Zion , that covered religious and secular issues.

By the end of the 19th century, black denominations also established a range of educational institutions. From their founding moments, then, independent African American denominations served as more than spiritual homes for black Christians; they also offered education, opportunity for economic development, a platform for political advocacy, and an environment that supported a collective sense of peoplehood.

Black women preachers such as Jarena Lee b. Grounding their insistence on a right to leadership in both biblical interpretation and the claim to have experienced a direct call from God, Lee and other 19th-century preaching women in the AME and AME Zion Churches called their denominations to live up to their stated missions of proclaiming the equality of all under God. Facing resistance from the male leadership of their churches and from many male and female members, these women persisted in their work as itinerant evangelists and some published spiritual narratives to recount their experiences and promote their claims.

Zion became the first black denomination to ordain women when Julia Foote — was ordained a deacon in , a status women in the AME Church gained in Despite the limited access to formal leadership roles, women within these independent black church denominations, who constituted the majority of members, were active contributors to the life of the church, serving as fundraisers, evangelists, and missionaries, for example. The number of black churches grew rapidly following the Civil War as many of the millions of African Americans emerging from slavery established their own congregations.

Culture and class differences sometimes led to conflict, however, as AME Church leaders sought to restrain the enthusiasm of southern black worship and impose their own standards of respectability. The Reconstruction period also saw the founding of the Colored now Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in in Jackson, Tennessee, by former enslaved members of the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

The founding of the National Baptist Convention NBC was perhaps the most significant institutional development in post-Reconstruction black religious life. Drawing together independent black Baptist congregations and mission and educational societies, the NBC emerged at its founding moment in Atlanta under the leadership of former slave Elias C.

In addition, black Baptist women in the 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to the life of the church as individual evangelists or as licensed preachers. Although the women of the WC and the NBC at large did not organize to press for ordination, black Baptist women nevertheless initiated significant public discussions within their denomination about religion, gender, and equality. Not all black Christians located their religious lives in black denominations. Some African Americans found spiritual homes in predominantly white churches, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Episcopal denominations, drawn by family ties, theological appeal, or style of worship.

For many who had been enslaved in regions with large Roman Catholic populations, Catholicism was the dominant culture that shaped their religious lives. As with other predominantly white denominations, access to leadership in Roman Catholicism was often restricted and African American men found it difficult to gain admission to the priesthood. A few prominent black priests made their mark on 19th-century black Catholic life, however, including former Missouri slave August Tolton — , who was ordained in Rome in , and Charles Randolph Uncles — of Baltimore, who became the first African American ordained in the United States.

In a number of important instances, black women were successful in founding religious orders through which they could pursue their religious vocations.

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Although the orders remained small, black Catholic sisters were visible figures in 19th-century African American Catholic life. African American lay Catholics organized at the end of the 19th century to represent their interests as a group to the church at large and, despite experiences of racism and exclusion, to promote Catholicism among black Protestants as a universal and inclusive tradition.

Former slave and Ohio journalist Daniel A. Rudd — founded The American Catholic Tribune in to promote black Catholic interests, and he stood at the forefront of the Colored Catholic Congress movement that called black Catholics together from to to discuss their status within the church and to strategize to oppose racism in church and society.

In the late 19th century, African American denominations turned their attention to Africa as a mission site and, in some instances, as a place to settle and pursue black self-governance. While black missionaries had worked through white mission societies earlier in the century, the support of black-led denominational structures made additional connections to Africa possible and allowed African Americans to frame their work in ways that spoke directly to their concerns.


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Where the biblical story of the Exodus had provided a map of meaning and a ground for hope for many enslaved and free African Americans in the antebellum period, after the end of slavery African American Christians looked to the Bible for other sources of inspiration and knowledge about their future. Earlyth-century AME mission work took place in the context of debates among free blacks about the colonization movement.

The American Colonization Society ACS , founded in by northern and southern whites concerned about growing numbers of free people of color in the United States, advocated transporting free blacks to Africa and, to achieve that goal, established a settlement that would eventually become part of Liberia. The ACS encouraged free blacks to emigrate and secured funds to purchase the freedom of enslaved people on the condition that they agree to be transported to Africa.

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Some individuals, such as founding member Daniel Coker — , argued that prospects for free blacks would be better in Africa given restricted opportunities in the United States. Most AME leaders opposed colonization, however, holding that as Americans they should not have to leave the country of their birth to secure liberty and rights. Moreover, many argued, it would be devastating to the cause of abolition for free blacks, who could serve as advocates for the enslaved to leave.

The denomination formally condemned the colonization scheme; nevertheless, some members continued to find the idea appealing. In Coker joined with the ACS to embark on missionary work in Sierra Leone, traveling aboard the Elizabeth with eighty-five other colonists in a largely unsuccessful venture. In the s AME clergy and church members constituted part of the Liberian Exodus movement in which a number of groups, most famously the company of people aboard the Azor that sailed from Charleston to Monrovia in , gave up on the possibility of safety and prosperity in America and sought to build lives and communities elsewhere.

Black Methodists, such as internationally recognized traveling evangelist Amanda Berry Smith — , also engaged in independent missionary work, largely without institutional support. In AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner — traveled to West Africa and southern Africa to incorporate into the denomination the churches that earlier missionaries had established. In Levi J. Small c. In Carey traveled to Sierra Leone as a missionary, accompanied by his wife, two children, and twenty members of his congregation. The group settled in Liberia the following year and Carey founded Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, which he pastored until his death in Later black Baptists saw Carey as a model for their work, establishing the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention in , which, along with state mission boards, supported Baptist missions.

African American members of predominantly white denominations also engaged in missionary work in Africa, including Virginia native and ordained Presbyterian minister William H. African American missionaries and emigrationists generally framed their projects in terms of their own history, present concerns, and hopes for the future. Incorporating Africans into their biblical interpretations of the divine plan for black Christianity to lead the way to human redemption, missionaries and colonists rejected African traditional religions and worked to transform African societies according to the standards of Western Christian civilization.

Even many of those who learned indigenous languages and attended to the social, economic, and medical needs of Africans in the regions of their missionary work still viewed indigenous religious and cultural systems as heathen and in need of reform. Episcopal priest Alexander Crummell — and Presbyterian minister Edward Wilmot Blyden — represent the complex religious perspectives of African diaspora blacks in this era with respect to their relationship to Africa. A New York native, Crummell was ordained to the priesthood in and became a vocal anti-slavery activist before embarking on missionary work in Liberia in Blyden, an immigrant to the United States from St.

Thomas, Virgin Islands, also devoted himself to missionary work in Liberia, where he settled in and began a career in ministry, education, and politics. In his writings, Blyden advocated the preservation of African cultural traditions, which he argued had contributed to world cultures, and he also contended that Islam offered greater dignity to people of African descent than did Christianity, a perspective that led him to sever his connection with the Presbyterian Church.

An ardent advocate of immigration of diaspora blacks to West Africa, Blyden lived out the remainder of his life there, dying in Sierra Leone in Although the number of missionaries and colonists remained small over the course of the 19th century, their work was located in larger discussions about religious interpretations of black racial identity, history, and future destiny.