The rise of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
A few weeks ago, when Pastor Clementa Pinckney and seven members of his congregation were gunned down by a man in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, many people heard of the AME Church for the very first time.
One popular question was: How could it be called African and Methodist at the same time. It certainly did not start in Africa for sure. Nor was the Methodist Church itself.
The Methodist Church has its origin in the Holy Room on the campus of Oxford University. It was started by Anglican Evangelist John Wesley, and his writer brother, Charles. Because of the methodic ways in which the brothers and some other students worship, fellow students jokingly called them the 'methodists'. And thus was born the Methodist Society within the Church of England.
From then on, there were many ideological debates, disagreements and splits among the Methodists themselves, and between the Church of England. There was a revival in 1735, led by the Wesley brothers, and despite the Methodist Society's wish to remain in the Anglican Church, there was much tension.
In 1784, when the Anglican bishop refused to ordain Methodists as ministers, Wesley ordained Thomas Coke as superintendent and two others as presbyters, and by a deed of declaration, he appointed a conference of 100 men to govern the Society of Methodists after his death. He made the transition in 1791, and the Methodist Society broke away from the Anglican Church four years later.
From England, the Methodist doctrine spread across the Atlantic to the United States, where racial segregation was a way of life. Even in Christian institutions whites separated themselves from blacks. In response to being forcible denied access to the Methodist Church because of their black skin, descendants of enslaved African people started the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
It was founded by the Right Reverend Richard Allen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1816. But, the struggle for the right to exist independent of The Methodist Church started in 1878, when Allen, Absalom Jones and some other free black people left the St George's Methodist Episcopal Church and established the Free African Society (FAS) in Philadelphia.
RACISM IN THE METHODIST CHURCH
Allen and Jones could not preach to a white congregation. Moreover, blacks were made to sit in a separate section of the church. But, Allen was adamant in remaining a Methodist, so he and a small group founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793, which was dedicated in 1794 with Allen as pastor. To remain an institution independent of white Methodist congregations Allen brought the matter to court in Pennsylvania in 1807 and 1815.
But black Methodists in other middle-Atlantic communities were also faced with racism. Allen met with them in Philadelphia in 1816 and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African American denomination organised and incorporated in the United States. It is the major religious denomination in the Western Hemisphere developed because of racist and not theological differences.
Its central doctrine is, "God is God all the time and for everybody," while its motto is, "God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family," which is a summary of the beliefs of the Church.
"The mission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is to minister to the social, spiritual, physical development of all people. At every level of the Connection and in every local church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church shall engage in carrying out the spirit of the original Free African Society, out of which the AME Church evolved: that is, to seek out and save the lost, and serve the needy," its website says.
The irony of the shooting in Charleston is that the worshippers were killed in a racist attack in an institution that was set up to avoid racism. "The Church was born in protest against slavery, against dehumanisation of African people, brought to the American continent as labour."
Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has membership in 20 Episcopal districts in 39 countries on five continents. The work of the Church is administered by 21 bishops, and nine general officers who manage the departments of the Church.