In light of the murderous anti-black hatred perpetrated at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, it is important to acknowledge the vital role of the AME Church in the religious founding of the United States of America, and its heritage as a bastion of human rights.
Two of the most revolutionary outcomes during the thirty years following the American Revolution were: 1) the disestablishment of state churches (except in MA, CT and NH), facilitating the “free exercise” of religion; and 2) the much too gradual abolition of slavery in all the states north of MD, creating new free black communities (e.g., “Philadelphia’s free black population grew from about 240 in 1780 to 1,849 in 1790, over 6,000 in 1800, and 8,942 by 1810; an increase from 2.1% of the total population in 1780 to 10% by 1810”). The result was unprecedented religious pluralism, marred by embedded racism.
As noted here and here, “the independent black churches were the most important of the free blacks’ creations, destined to be a center of African American community life to this day. The churches fostered a communal Christianity of freedom, nurtured a variety of self-improvement organizations and promoted racial pride—they were ’African’ churches.” Whenever we talk about “founders,” we should acknowledge Richard Allen (1760–1831) and Absalom Jones (1746–1818) “as founding fathers of the free black community of Philadelphia. Both were born slaves who worked to purchase their freedom.” In 1816, Allen led the formation of the first organized black denomination in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal (A. M. E.) Church.
As Yolanda Pierce, an associate professor of African American Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary, points out, “The African American church, itself born out of a protest movement, is a symbol to African American community and culture.” It is crucial to remember that as Allen noted in his autobiography, these churches “bore much persecution” and “spiritual despotism” from those individuals and groups (Including white churches) that sought to deny the free exercise of religion to African Americans.
Note: In fn 1 of the Allen Autobiography segment, Dr. Benjamin Rush is correctly labeled as an abolitionist, but is misidentified as a Quaker instead of a Universalist.
JMS – 6/20/2015