Racializing the Church

Richard Allen
Richard Allen

By 1810, African American Methodists constituted roughly half the membership in South Carolina, more than 40 percent in Maryland, and close to 40 percent in Delaware. In the latter two states those numbers included both free and slave, and the church had played no small part in the fight against slavery.

In the beginning, American Methodism had committed itself constitutionally, legislatively, and programmatically to antislavery. Methodists conveyed their resolve in their preaching and on the circuit life. They also took public stands. But increasingly Methodism found itself facing greater resistance and opposition to its commitment from within and beyond its own ranks, the consequence of its growth and evangelistic outreach in slaveholding areas and of the waning of the societal antislavery sentiments bred during the Revolutionary epoch.

Even where the antislavery commitment remained strong, Methodists found it extraordinarily difficult to translate idealism into practice, to turn preaching into inclusive fellowship, and antislavery into inter-racial community. So segregated classes, virtually from the start, continued to evolve toward segregated ecclesial structure, sometimes with white leadership support, often in the face of white efforts at control, as African Methodist Episcopal (AME) narratives indicate, Richard Allen’s biography charts, and letters to Bishop Asbury attest.

In 1794 Bethel Church, Philadelphia, issued a “Public Statement” of some 2,200 words explaining why its members needed separate accommodations. The 1804 General Conference, conceding that the church’s official stance caused offense in the South, published a version of the Discipline without the section on slavery. It made that self-censorship a policy in 1808. That General Conference also authorized “each annual conference to form their own regulations relative to buying and selling slaves.”

By 1816, General Conference conceded that “little can be done to abolish a practice so contrary to the principles of moral justice” and was “sorry to say that the evil appears to be past remedy.” By that time, some Black Methodists decided that the MEC would simply not accommodate their needs and gathered to form the AME. For some, Methodism’s biracialism died with that General Conference in 1816.

Next time, we will officially wrap up our look at early American Methodist with the death of Francis Asbury.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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