The African Methodist Episcopal Church grew out of the Free African Society, a mutual aid organization that Richard Allen founded in 1787. Allen, a Philadelphia-born slave who had purchased his freedom in Delaware, had experience as an itinerant Methodist preacher and associate of the famed Francis Asbury. An ugly racial incident at St. George Methodist Church in Philadelphia convinced Allen to start another branch of Methodism which affirmed in practice the equality of all human beings. Though he led his followers in building Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1794, white Methodists tried to assert authority over its congregational affairs. In 1801, however, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania confirmed Bethel’s autonomy. In 1816 Allen convened black Methodists from other middle Atlantic communities to form the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. He was consecrated the first bishop of the church.
The A.M.E. Church rapidly spread during the antebellum period to every section of the United States and into Canada and Haiti. On the slave soil of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, the District of Columbia, and for a time South Carolina were numerous A.M.E. congregations. During the Civil War A.M.E. ministers recruited soldiers into the Union Army and served themselves as military chaplains. Even before the war ended A.M.E. missionaries traveled into the former Confederacy to draw freedmen into the denomination. As membership swelled to 400,000 by 1880, A.M.E. leaders, both clergy and lay, sat in Reconstruction legislatures, held seats in Congress, and served in scores of other political offices.
Formal entry into West Africa in 1891 and South Africa in 1896 made the denomination a significant black institution beyond the western hemisphere. Reunification in 1884 with the previously dissident British Methodist Episcopal Church brought the denomination back into Canada, and added the Maritime Provinces, Bermuda, and parts of South America. Missionaries also pushed the boundaries of the A.M.E. Church to embrace most areas of the Caribbean including significant attention to Cuba.
Further expansion in Africa culminated in the 1990s. At the 1996 General Conference Bishop McKinley Young of South Africa and Namibia successfully petitioned for recognition of the Angola Annual Conference. Similarly, Bishop Robert V. Webster of Central Africa gained acceptance for a fellowship of congregations in Uganda to become A.M.E.s.
Also by the turn of the 20th century nearly every southern and border state and some in the north and west contained within them A.M.E. supported schools. They ranged from the secondary to the college, university, and seminary levels. Wilberforce University in Ohio, founded in 1856 and A.M.E. sponsored since 1863, was the denomination’s most prominent educational institution. In the Caribbean and Africa the A.M.E. Church similarly started schools with Monrovia College and Industrial Institute in Liberia and Wilberforce Institute in South Africa as the best known.
The two world wars which inaugurated a massive movement of the blacks from the American South to northern and western cities spearheaded another period of A.M.E. development. Numerous churches in Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia and other areas developed a social gospel which redefined the thrust of A.M.E. ministry. Such southern and border state clergy as Joseph DeLaine in Clarendon County, South Carolina and Oliver Brown in Topeka, Kansas, moved to end legalized segregation with court suits they initiated in their respective locales. Culminating with the famous Brown case of 1854 A.M.E. leaders like their predecessors during the Civil War helped to spearhead important changes in American society.
Women have pressed the denomination continuously to recognize their spiritual gifts. Hence, Bishop Richard Allen authorized Jarena Lee to preach in 1817. Bishop Henry M. Turner ordained Sarah A. Hughes as an itinerant deacon in the North Carolina Annual Conference in 1885. Although his successor rescinded this
action, women continued to function as evangelists, even pastoring congregations starting in the late 19th century. The marathon efforts of Martha Jayne Keys and others caused the General Conference of 1960 to authorize the full ordination of women as itinerant elders. Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who leads the 18th Episcopal District, and lived in Lesotho, South Africa, was the first woman bishop elected in the A.M.E. Church. The Woman’s Missionary Society and the Lay Organization serve the church through notable voter education, HIV/AIDS programs, and employment programs and projects.
With more than 2.5 million members in 8,000 congregations on four continents, the A.M.E. Church plays a pivotal role in sustaining the Allen tradition in numerous nations in the Americas, Africa and Europe.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is an independent denomination that grew out of the original Methodist Episcopal Church. The formal organization of the A.M.E. Zion church was recognized in 1796 in New York City. James Varick was the first Bishop. The A.M.E. Zion Church shares a common heritage with Christians of every age and nation according to the witness and teachings of the Apostles of Jesus Christ.
Zion Methodism grew out of the merciless enslavement of our African forebears. They were kidnapped from their native land, chained and shackled, shipped as beasts in deplorable conditions to a strange and distant land, having no family, no culture and no language. Yet, our fathers and mothers were confronted by the Lord Jesus Christ, in the cotton fields and every place of the humiliation and degradation revealing to them that He would always be with them as He had been with them in the past. When Jesus, upon whom the Spirit of the Lord had descended was preached at John Street Methodist Church, they united with that fellowship. However, bigotry and oppressively cruel barriers confronted them. The spirit of the Lord led them in the establishment of Zion Chapel (which later became the Mother Church of Zion Methodism) where the gospel of His redeeming grace could be purely preached and His vindicating and liberating influences could be experienced. Taking with them the doctrines, discipline, and polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church, they proceeded in the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. They believed that God had called them out of their bondage and had chosen them to be His people and a channel of His redeeming love for all people.
We believe and understand today that, in the Divine economy, Zion Methodism is to make disciples of all persons throughout the earth, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
In 1996 we observed our Bicentennial Celebration marking 200 years of our existence. The celebration took place in New York City where we had our beginning. During this celebration, we were invited back to the John Street Methodist Church for a special service. It was indeed a moving moment. To God be the Glory!