The African Methodist Episcopal
(A.M.E.) Church grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard
Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia
in 1787. When officials at St. George’s MEC pulled blacks
off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far
American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against
African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made
plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation.
Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal
Church, Allen led a small
group who resolved to remain Methodists.
The "Africans" who started
the A.M.E. Church were very poor and most of them could neither read nor
write. Yet, under the leadership of
Richard Allen, they managed to buy
an old blacksmith shop and to move
it to a lot at the corner of Sixth
and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia,
In 1794 Bethel A.M.E. was
dedicated with Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel’s independence
from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave,
successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for
the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution.
Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered
racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet
in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the A.M.E.
geographical spread of the A.M.E.
Church prior to the Civil War was mainly
restricted to the Northeast and Midwest. Major congregations were
established in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore,
Washington, DC, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, and other large Blacksmith's
Shop cities. Numerous northern communities also gained a substantial
A.M.E. presence. Remarkably, the slave states of Maryland, Kentucky,
Missouri, Louisiana, and, for a few years, South Carolina, became
additional locations for A.M.E. congregations. The
denomination reached the Pacific Coast in the early 1850’s
with churches in Stockton, Sacramento, San
Francisco, and other places in California. Moreover, Bishop Morris
Brown established the Canada Annual Conference.
The most significant era of denominational development
occurred during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oftentimes, with
the permission of Union army officials A.M.E. clergy moved into the
states of the collapsing Confederacy to pull newly freed slaves
into their denomination. “I Seek My Brethren,” the title
of an often repeated sermon that Theophilus G. Steward preached
in South Carolina, became a clarion call to evangelize fellow blacks
in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Texas, and many other parts of the
south. Hence, in 1880 A.M.E. membership reached 400,000 because of
its rapid spread below the Mason-Dixon line. When Bishop Henry
M. Turner pushed African Methodism across the Atlantic into Liberia
and Sierra Leone in 1891 and into South Africa in 1896, the A.M.E.
now laid claim to adherents on two continents.
While the A.M.E. is doctrinally Methodist, clergy,
scholars, and lay persons have written important works which demonstrate
the distinctive theology and praxis which have defined this Wesleyan
body. Bishop Benjamin W. Arnett, in an address to the 1893 World’s
Parliament of Religions, reminded the audience of the presence of
blacks in the formation of Christianity. Bishop Benjamin T. Tanner
wrote in 1895 in The Color of Solomon – What? that biblical
scholars wrongly portrayed the son of David as a white man. In the
post civil rights era theologians James H. Cone, Cecil W. Cone,
and Jacqueline Grant who came out of the A.M.E. tradition critiqued
Euro-centric Christianity and African American churches for their
shortcomings in fully impacting the plight of those oppressed by
racism, sexism, and economic disadvantage.
Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has membership in twenty Episcopal Districts in thirty-nine countries on five continents. The work of the Church is administered by twenty-one active bishops, and nine General Officers who manage the departments of the Church.