The White Methodist Episcopal Church
To understand the role of religion in the lives of African Americans during the Reconstruction era, it is important to take a step back and discuss the role of religion in the lives of slaves in the Antebellum period. This approach will illuminate the reasons behind the African American’s break with the white Christian Church. The messages espoused in the white Christian Church revolved around obedience to God, one’s master. Clearly, the theoretical underpinning of this message was for slaves to obey their white masters. This conspicuous message of intolerance was anachronistic during the Reconstruction era. The Methodist Church was founded on a different premise with regard to its treatment of black congregants. African Americans played an integral role in Methodism from its inception. Early in its founding, Methodism was unique in that it held firmly to the notion that members and clergy of the church should not own slaves. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was staunchly against slavery. Notwithstanding, this anti-slavery position generated much conflict when slavery became the foundation for society’s economic success. In short, Methodism was inevitably impacted by the pervasive influence of racism and segregation.
Segregation in the Methodist Church became prevalent as the number of blacks participants increased. Black members were constricted to segregated galleries and pews of the church as a stark symbol of their segregation. In “Freed, But Not Free: The Grievances of the Afro-American,” the author D.E. Tobias illustrates the demoralizing aspect of the “color line” within the white Christian church. He condemns this “color line” as the physical demarcation of black inferiority which forced them to sit in separate galleries or behind the organ. Blacks were seen as categorically unequal in the Methodist Church. Baldwin writes that white Methodists blatantly denied the notion that segregating black worshippers was “terribly immoral and unchristian,” however to black Methodists, it was clear “that segregation in worship was contrary to divine principles as set forth in the Bible” (Baldwin, 26). Race was at the epicenter of the A.M.E. Church as Bishop Woodie White asserts that the religion came to be “defined more by race than theological or doctrinal difference” (Melton, ix).
By the 19th century, it had become apparent that while black leaders in the Methodist Episcopal Church had a sufficient degree of autonomy, ultimately their power was vested in the hands of white church leaders. White leaders lay at the top of the hierarchy within the Methodist Episcopal Church and blacks leaders were forced to look to white authorities to legitimate their leadership. As such, black ministers could not become fully ordained. The schism between blacks and whites in the church became readily apparent and the African Methodist Episcopal Church was established as a direct consequence of this challenge to white superiority in the church. At the end of the Civil War, independent black churches were essentially the only institutions entirely owned and controlled by black people. The African Methodist Church recognized the significant role it played in terms of assimilating the freed slaves who were previously members of white churches.