AME Church History: A Struggle Against Bigotry

Richard Allen Fought to Make the AME Church Independent

AME Church History
Illustration of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Kean Collection / Getty Images

The AME Church not only faced the obstacle that all new churches encounter -- lack of funds -- but a second barrier that proved a constant threat: racial discrimination.

That's because the AME Church, or African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded by black people for black people, in a time when slavery was the norm in the young United States.

Richard Allen, the founding pastor of the AME Church, was himself a former Delaware slave.

He worked in his free time cutting firewood and doing odd jobs, finally saving $2,000 to buy his freedom in 1780. Allen was 20 years old at the time. Three years earlier, his mother and three siblings had been sold to another slaveholder. Allen never saw them again.

Allen cherished his independence but found that work was scarce for free blacks. He got a job in a brickyard, and during the American Revolution, ​he worked as a teamster.

Forerunners of AME Church

After the Revolution, Allen preached the gospel in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. When he returned to Philadelphia, he was invited to preach at St. George's, the first Methodist church in America. Allen was drawn to the simple, straightforward message of Methodism, and to the anti-slavery stance of its founder, John Wesley.

Allen's regular preaching drew more and more blacks to St. George's. Allen asked the white elders for permission to start an independent black church but was twice refused.

To sidestep this bigotry, he and Absalom Jones began the Free African Society (FAS), a secular group that addressed the moral, financial, and educational needs of blacks.

A split over segregated seating at St. George's resulted in the black members turning to the FAS for support. Absalom Jones founded St.

Thomas African Episcopal Church in 1804, but Richard Allen believed Methodist beliefs were more suited to the needs of free blacks and slaves.

Eventually, Allen was given permission to start a church, in a former blacksmith shop. He had the building moved by a team of horses to a new location in Philadelphia and it was called Bethel, meaning "house of God."

AME Church Emerges from Struggle

Whites at St. George's continued to interfere with Bethel Church. One trustee deceived Allen into signing over Bethel's land in the incorporation process. Despite this constant meddling, Bethel continued to grow.

In 1815, elders from St. George's schemed to put Bethel up for auction. Allen had to buy his own church back for $10,125, but in 1816, Bethel won a court ruling that it could exist as an independent church. Allen had had enough.

He called a convention of black Methodist Episcopal members, and the AME Church was formed. Bethel became Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen continued to minister to blacks and oppose slavery up to his death in 1831.

AME Church Spreads Nationwide

Prior to the Civil War, the AME denomination spread to major cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Detroit.

A half dozen southern states had AME congregations before the war, and California hosted AME churches in the 1850s.

After the war, the Union Army encouraged the spread of the AME Church in the South, to serve the needs of newly freed slaves. By the 1890s, the AME Church had expanded to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and South Africa.

AME ministers and members were active in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. Rosa Parks, who triggered civil rights demonstrations and boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama by refusing to go to the back of a city bus, was a lifelong member and deaconess in the AME Church.

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