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The Centennial General Conference of African Methodism opened on May 3, 1916 in Philadelphia at Mother Bethel Church. This towering edifice was situated on the same property on which the congregation built its first structure in 1794. After the traditional singing of Charles Wesley’s “And Are We Yet Alive,” Bishop Joseph S. Flipper delivered an opening prayer to commemorate this historic meeting and to thank God for this “spot where our founder and first Bishop organized this branch of Thy Zion.” He was grateful “for that spirit which Richard Allen manifested to the world, when he with a few others, in 1787, rose from their knees in St. George Church, and marched out to stand up for manhood Christianity, believing that ‘God made out of one blood all men to dwell upon all the face of the earth.’” Flipper also asked the Lord to “bless our brethren from West Africa, South Africa and South America and the isles of the sea, and may they realize as they meet with us here and elsewhere and labor with us, that we are brothers and sisters [from the same] home land.”1
Internal tensions within the ecclesiastical operations of African Methodism coexisted with the broad activism of African Methodist Episcopal members (AMEs) in civil rights, Black Power, and anticolonial insurgencies. The bishops and other clerical and lay leaders whose vocations focused on denominational affairs contrasted with militant ministers and members who defined African Methodism through a praxis that aimed at societal reconstruction in the United States and ending colonialism in Africa. The objectives of denominational governance, however, diverted attention away from energized opposition to hegemonic structures and practices that harmed AME constituencies. Though the maintenance of African Methodism as a proud and independent religious body remained as a worthwhile demonstration of black self-determination and institutional autonomy, this preoccupation caused some leaders to extend only perfunctory support to significant initiatives against white supremacy. Some clergy, however, balanced their immersion in denominational affairs with social activism. Such ministers similarly advocated significant reform within the AME Church to effect fiscal accountability and greater democracy in ecclesiastical governance.
Historian David Hempton correctly describes Methodism as a “transatlantic/transnational religious movement” that rapidly spread from Great Britain to its colonies in the Americas in the mid-eighteenth century. As the British consolidated their hegemony across the globe, particularly among various vulnerable populations, “mobile” Methodist preachers connected with “cultural outsiders” in both British and American society. Their emotional, extemporaneous preaching, their plain appeals to sinners to be saved, and their ecstatic expressions of “enthusiasm” resonated with non-elites in both Britain and the Americas.1 Hence, Scipio Africanus, one of a few hundred blacks in London, regularly attended evangelical services in about 1739 and became, according to one scholar, “the first black Methodist.” The receptivity that Africans experienced among British Methodists continued into the early nineteenth century.
The ongoing growth of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church within multiple constituencies in the black transatlantic required its advocacy and support for issues germane to black freedom. AMEs, for example, became frontline participants in struggles to protect black humanity in the American South, where the civil rights of the ex-slaves were receding, spoke as admirers of Antonio Maceo and other blacks fighting against Spanish colonialism in Cuba, and emerged as defenders of disenfranchised black and colored peoples against white settler hegemony in South Africa. As the denomination matured as an institution with a stable organizational framework and a solid infrastructure of program departments, schools, and transatlantic ministries, its leaders could confidently address black national and international interests and articulate positions, which commanded the attention of powerful whites on both sides of the Atlantic. These developments occurred as the franchise and other civic privileges became more racially restrictive for southern blacks and as various pan-African projects increasingly tied diverse black populations to the AME Church. Despite the breadth of the denomination’s Atlantic consciousness, self-referential attitudes confined their success mainly to creolized peoples in the Caribbean and Africa and even among ex-slaves in the American South.
Brazilians in 1996, conscious that African Methodist Episcopal members (AMEs) were attending the World Methodist Conference in Rio de Janeiro, met and entreated them to establish the denomination in this Portuguese speaking country. The 3,647,000 African slaves transported to Brazil during the Atlantic slave trade vastly outnumbered the 399,000 who survived the Middle Passage and landed in what would become the United States. Slavery lasted longer in Brazil, ending in 1888, but dying earlier in the United States, in 1865, because of a civil war. This historical background and a black Brazilian population, estimated at 97 million, framed interactions between Brazilian Methodists and AME Bishops Carolyn Tyler Guidry and Sarah F. Davis who envisaged denominational possibilities in this part of Latin America. Notwithstanding an abortive attempt by the AME Zion Church to spread to Brazil in the 1920s, mainly in black Bahia, several decades passed before some of Brazil’s black Methodists could wrest themselves from the foundational influences of the white Methodist Episcopal Church, South.1
The antebellum period provided African Methodist Episcopalians (AMEs) with opportunities to tie their institutional development to the church’s emancipationist ethos. Whenever these migrant Methodists settled in hostile areas in the Northeast and Midwest or identified with blacks in various slave settings, AME churches became known as outposts of black freedom and secret stations on the Underground Railroad. Institutional development was itself an assertion of black insurgency against established racial regimes that opposed African American equality. This pattern continued through the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Interpreting the war as an act of God’s judgment against slave owners and black deliverance from bondage presented AMEs as constituting a freedom church. Its mission to evangelize, educate, and protect the political rights of the freed people also linked church expansion to the fulfillment of these emancipationist objectives. These goals were intrinsically aligned and showed African Methodism, despite displays of cultural and class elitism, as the people’s church.
In 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois, hardly a denominational partisan, described “the great African Methodist Church” as “the greatest Negro organization in the world.” Only the National Baptist Convention, recently organized in 1896, exceeded the half million membership that the African Methodist Episcopalians claimed. But the Baptists, an aggregation of autonomous state conventions and local congregations, lacked the hierarchal structure of this black Methodist body. The bishops, presiding elders, pastors, and many other officials of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church forged a cohesive infrastructure that proved to doubtful whites that African Americans were fully capable of effective self-governance. In addition to Du Bois’ praise for the institutional achievements of the AME Church, he was equally impressed with its longevity. Already a century old at the time of Du Bois’ comments, African Methodism had become a venerable religious body with bishops who were “among the most powerful Negro rulers in the world.” In 2004, Gayraud S. Wilmore, a Presbyterian and an African American religious intellectual, confirmed Du Bois’ descriptions of the AME Church and called it “America’s premier … predominantly black denomination.”1
Though the genesis of African Methodism lay in the founding of the Free African Society in 1787, the denomination, organized in 1816, maintained an historical consciousness about its significance as a religious body for the black Atlantic. Since 1848, when Daniel A. Payne was elected as the first historiographer, AMEs have sustained this office as the official guardian of the church’s institutional memory. Additionally, regular commemorations of the birth of Richard Allen, the marking of the chronological milestones of annual and General Conferences, and special ceremonies for succeeding cohorts of centennial congregations routinely highlighted the AME ecclesiastical calendar.
The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church emerged out of the age of democratic revolution in the late eighteenth century. The fledgling religious body drew moral and intellectual energy from anti-slavery and anti-slave trade initiatives that grew out of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions and from British abolitionism. Within this Atlantic context African Methodism defended the rights and freedom of African and Creole peoples in Africa and the Americas as these mobile populations identified shifting areas of safety where they could realize their autonomy and pursue self-determination. The AME Church, itself an African and Creole institution, linked its development to this “mobile laity” of expatriates, ex-slaves, and emigrationists who were pursuing freedom objectives in varying locations within the Atlantic World. This mobility stirred debates within African Methodism about the transnational identities of their constituents and about how they could achieve the full emancipation of the broader black population. Hence, AME authenticity derived from its commitment to the emancipationist objectives of its diverse and mobile membership.
In this book, Dennis C. Dickerson examines the long history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and its intersection with major social movements over more than two centuries. Beginning as a religious movement in the late eighteenth century, the African Methodist Episcopal Church developed as a freedom advocate for blacks in the Atlantic World. Governance of a proud black ecclesia often clashed with its commitment to and resources for fighting slavery, segregation, and colonialism, thus limiting the full realization of the church's emancipationist ethos. Dickerson recounts how this black institution nonetheless weathered the inexorable demands produced by the Civil War, two world wars, the civil rights movement, African decolonization, and women's empowerment, resulting in its global prominence in the contemporary world. His book also integrates the history of African Methodism within the broader historical landscape of American and African-American history.