Previously this week, I posted a link to an interview held by a former slave that dealt with slave religion, one of the aspects of slave life that seems to get quite a bit of interest. Today, when looking at "This Week in Christian History" I found another nugget of historical information regarding the early African American Church.
It was actually on this date in 1801 (February 16) that the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church officially got its start. African members of the New York City John's Street Methodist Episcopal Zion Church left five years prior because of Racism. Francis Asbury, the famous Methodist Bishop, allowed their organization.
One of the leading figures in AME was Richard Allen, himself a former slave. Allen grew up with his family in bondage to a man named Stokely Sturgis. After Sturgis sold some of Allen's family, Sturgis converted to Methodism and became convinced of the evils of slavery. Richard Allen and his siblings were permitted to buy their freedom (an interesting concept considering Sturgis' apparent change of heart--why not just let them go free without compensation?). Allen became a Methodist preacher after coming into contact with Francis Asbury, who was the founder of American Methodism. Allen founded the African Methodist Church and was an outspoken critic of slavery.
One of the interesting things that Gordon Wood points out in his work on the early national period, Empire of Liberty, is the fact that in their early days in America, both Methodists and Baptists condemned slavery. He points out that 1 in 3 Methodists in 1800 were black. Integrated churches were not uncommon at the time. (Wood, 2009, p. 599-600) The sad point that can be made about this later assertion is that both the Methodists and Baptists took a huge step back in regard to race relations in the early 19th century. By the time of the Civil War, both groups split over the issue of slavery, as the nation itself would. Today, sadly, in parts of the country, integrated churches are still a bit of an anomaly. This is definitely one of the more unique situations in American church history.
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