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.