Introduction

“The A. M. E. Church is an instrument in this country that has done, and is doing more for the uplift of the Race than any instrument conditioned as it is.” – W.H. Heard

 

In his autobiography From Slavery to the Bishopric in the A.M.E. Church, William H. Heard paints himself to be an inspiration for the black race—a man who, through his own agency, rises up from the lowly depths of servitude and becomes a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He sings the praises of the A.M.E. Church as is demonstrated in his words above. In his autobiography, he includes two pictures which create an interesting juxtaposition—the first being the log cabin in which he was born and the second being his grand home. Clearly the latter is an outward display of the wealth and success he was able to achieve through his own perseverance and the help of the A.M.E Church. By and large, W.H. Heard believes himself to be an educated professional and a fully integrated member of the larger American society—a privilege which he doubtlessly owes to the A.M.E. Church.

In considering the broader issue of the black struggle for freedom in the Reconstruction era, the subject of black religion provides an important lens for investigation. Spurred by a racial dispute in a white Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Richard Allen organized a collection of freed black men to start the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Although the A.M.E. Church was not physically established until 1816, Bishop Richard Allen spearheaded the movement in 1786 when he led an African prayer band in a Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Provoked by segregation in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Allen and his black followers left the white Church to start a Church of their own. In “The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen,” Bishop Allen recounts the formation of the A.M.E. Church, and sheds light on the skirmishes between Methodist leaders that led to the break from the Methodist Episcopal Church. That is not to say he wanted to break away from Methodism entirely. His conviction was that the nature of Methodism was perfectly suited for black people “for the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people, for the unlearned can understand” (Allen, 16). Here, Bishop Allen acknowledges the illiteracy amongst blacks, an issue which will be explored later in this essay.

Due to the A.M.E. Church’s distinct nature as a separate and independent black institution, it played a unique role in the development of black culture. In a sense, the very existence of the A.M.E. Church was a form of silent protest and a way of challenging the white institution which they believed, “stood in stark contrast to divine principles and the dignity and worth of all human beings” (Baldwin, 38). The African Methodist Episcopal Church was also unique insofar as it promoted a sense of black nationalism. The role it played in elevating the black race in a separate sphere was the first step in their integration and acceptance in larger society. As the Church grew in numbers, the larger White society was forced to recognize this group that had historically and systematically been invisible. The formation of the A.M.E. Church signifies the dawn of an era where black people began a rallying effort for their own freedom. Rather than wait for white institutions to change, blacks became self-sufficient and built their own separate institutions such as churches to elevate the race. Consequentially, blacks rose from a state of oppression and dependency to a state of self-sufficiency and freedom. The founding of the A.M.E. Church was not just a victory for black individuals who felt segregated, it was a seminal moment for black solidarity, power, and nationalism.

The objective of the African Methodist Episcopal Church towards freedmen was not only to uplift them spiritually, but to make them faithful and productive citizens. From its inception, the African Methodist Episcopal Church took a strong stance against slavery and racism. To them, the devastation of the Civil War was God’s punishing America for its sin of slavery and God would grant the slaves salvation in the end (Walker, 2). After the abolishment of slavery, the A.M.E. Church believed that the freedmen must play a role in attaining their own autonomy in society—if not, the freedmen would be a product of white charity. Thus, the theology and moral teachings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church were imbued with a sense that they could reconstruct the lives of freedmen and make them productive citizens. Arguably, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was the first institution which elevated and established Blacks so that they could gain acceptance and prominence in white society.