African American Studies AME Church
by
Jualynne Elizabeth Dodson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0080

Introduction

Organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the last decade of the 18th century by free African Americans, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is one of the oldest, centrally organized, Christian communions in the world founded and led by US African descendants. Independent-minded free Blacks chose separate Christian worship rather than suffer discriminating racist restrictions to their chosen worship practices. The entire number of African American members “walked out,” of Philadelphia’s white St. George Methodist Episcopal congregation, including the several women members. Richard Allen is the declared “iconic founder” of the denomination, though an original female member provided space for the earliest organizing meetings of what would become the AME Church. In 1816 the Pennsylvania court authorized the emerging group’s legal social status as a denomination. Earlier, a large congregation of African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, had joined the evolving AME Church, and the denomination continued to grow and expand for more than 200 years, almost equal the age of the United States of America itself. In the first half of the 19th century, a considerable number of AME congregations served as way-stations for self-liberated enslaved persons on the Underground Railroad, and the Church participated in conversations with and about “African Colonization of Free People of Color.” The denomination declined colonization and kept “African” in its name. During the US Civil War, as the Northern military freed Confederate territories, AME Church leaders were allowed to accept recently freed African descendants into the denomination. This brought into the Church the largest numbers of new members and resources ever seen. Currently, there are some 2,510,000 AME members; 3,817 pastors, and 7,000 congregations, and the denomination has belonged to the World Council of Churches since that body organized in 1948. The AME Church is an integral and essential component of US society and has a presence in nineteen African nations, in many countries of the Caribbean islands, and in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Guyana in South America. For more than two centuries, it has published hymnals, Sunday School literature, newspapers, periodical journals, histories of individuals, places and events, a wide variety of local memorabilia, and much more. The keeping of AME records has continued throughout its history and can serve as a great reservoir for future scholarship.

General Histories

Most “authorized” histories of the AME Church in the 19th century are by bishops (Payne 1969, Smith 1968, Wright 1947). The volumes provide important summations of denominational decisions, but the Church seriously needs a critical history of AME personalities and events that probes and reexamines that century and includes some of the strong, indispensable supplements to the authorized works (Wayman 1882, Jenifer 1912). Gregg 1980 is a general history of 20th-century issues that begins the critical review process, Walker 1982 is a single author’s review of the denomination in the Civil War era, and Williams 1996 is an exploration of the AME Christian Recorder newspaper that embarks on contextual understandings of the denomination. The Church also appears in works that examine US sociopolitical context in which African Methodism religious ideology develops, such as Melton 2007, but these are far from providing a holistic understanding of the Church. At the same time, too many AME publications labeled as “history” are chiefly laudatory reviews of select topics and individuals with little critical exploration, even as abundant documentary materials exist with which to produce a critical scholarly probing. A plethora of issues that could each warrant a full volume of scholarly attention continue to be untouched, such as how the denomination was affected by economic depressions, the impact of modern era industrialization, the world wars, the suffragette feminist movements, the impunity of lynching African descendant people, Marcus Garvey and other Pan-African movements, and many other 20th-century contextual concerns. Still to be engaged as well are general AME histories that begin to incorporate the 21st century. For example, how has the AME Church’s 19th-century foundation weathered the growth of the “gospel of prosperity,” the ordination of women, drug epidemics in US African American communities, the high visibility of popular culture, digital technology, the #MeToo movement, and a host of other modern and postmodern topics. All told, we have “scratches” of an AME general history, but scholars have a heavy agenda that needs attention.

  • Gregg, Howard D. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nashville, TN: AMEC Sunday School Union, 1980.

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    Covers three 20th-century conflicts that most other histories avoid, provides some additional 20th-century history, is exceptionally laudatory, paraphrases earlier historical works, and is riddled with errors. Discussion of conflicts is significant.

  • Jenifer, John T. Centennial Retrospect History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nashville, TN: Sunday School Union, 1912.

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    This volume provides an important perspective about the denomination’s history, written by an elected historiographer and a first graduate of the AME Church’s Wilberforce University. However, it does contain several questionable interpretations of historical events.

  • Melton, J. Gordon. A Will to Choose: The Origins of African American Methodism. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

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    The AME Church is not the central concern of this important and scholarly volume. It discusses the origins of the denomination within the context of sociopolitical developments of US African Methodists, and their growth in general.

  • Payne, Daniel A. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Vol. 1. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

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    Daniel Payne was a first and seminal bishop and organizer of the Church, and he wrote this premier history. First published in 1891, it records details of people, places, events, and tensions encountered in the early years. The linguist style and analytical perspective is grounded in 19th-century European American cultural ethos.

  • Smith, Charles Spencer. A History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Vol 2. Philadelphia: Book Concern of the A.M.E., 1968.

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    “A follow-up” to Payne’s Volume 1 that contains much of the nearly lost recording of the Church’s development from 1851 to 1922. Smith does not overcome Payne’s unquestioning cultural and political alignment with European America, but does provide summations of most the denomination’s official decisions. First published in 1922.

  • Walker, Clarence E. A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

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    An invaluable presentation of an overlooked period of AME contributions to the United States. It provides exceptionally strong citations although the poignant analytical perspective could have been exchanged for a more critically descriptive one.

  • Wayman, Alexander W. My Recollections of African Methodist Episcopal Minutes, or Forty Years’ Experience in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Philadelphia: AME Book Rooms, 1882.

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    These “recollections” are truly valuable to add context and nuance to many Church events. Between 1848 and 1864, Wayman was secretariat to major Annual Conferences and the General Conference. He was elected bishop in 1864.

  • Williams, Gilbert Anthony. The Christian Recorder, Newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: History of a Forum for Ideas, 1854–1902. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.

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    This is a historical review of the Church’s first newspaper, examining its central place in such issues as civil rights, education, emigration, and the role of women. A number of significant images are included and the strong index can help researchers use other resources.

  • Wright, Richard Robert, Jr. The Encyclopaedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Book Concern of the AME Church, 1947.

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    An updated edition of the 1916 original, this volume provides improved images and expanded biographies on “prominent” local and national Church members and locations. Information is not always as accurate as it could be.

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