The African-American Religious Experience
Born into slavery in 1760, Richard Allen underwent a powerful conversion to Christianity when he was 20. He purchased his own freedom and that of his brother in 1783.
In 1787, Allen and a number of fellow African-American Christians were told that they were not welcome with the white worshippers at Philadelphia's St. George Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen led a tactful departure from the church and subsequently launched a religious movement that eventually became the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Allen was a persuasive, intuitive preacher of his faith, and he was comfortable spreading the gospel to people of all colors and religious backgrounds. He placed a special emphasis, though, on his ministry to people of African descent, believing their salvation to be closely connected to the social organization that would allow them to overcome persecution. Allen was, in fact, the first in a long line of African-American Christian religious leaders who blended his message of salvation with a message of self-determination, social activism, and community action. In his footsteps would follow such figures as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
It's not at all surprising that Allen became known as the moral leader of a huge number of free Northern African-Americans in the early nineteenth century, or that he assumed a pseudo-political role despite the fact that he was never elected to any public office. Religion was, for many years, the only above-board social institution (outside the family) permitted to most African-Americans. As a result, the social agenda merged with the religious agenda in a distinctive way that continues to this day. Allen, the original bishop within his new denomination, was also an important pioneer in his country's public life: the first national organizer, spokesman for, and moral leader of a community of otherwise unrepresented Americans.
On the March
For many African-Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, participation in religious services at established white churches came at a steep cost: segregation and white control of all ceremonies and missions. The rise of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church are early examples of African-American parishioners deciding to take control of their own religious institutions by founding entirely new denominations.
Peter Williams Sr.
Peter Williams was the most important early figure in the New York-based movement that eventually became the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (not to be confused with the similarly named African Methodist Episcopal Church). Williams was a sexton at a traditional Methodist church when the Loyalist who claimed him as a slave made his way to England in 1783, following the victory of American forces in the war for independence. The trustees of the church Williams served raised the necessary funds to purchase Williams's freedom.
On the March
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was the first Christian denomination—of any color, anywhere in the world—to extend clerical ordination and full voting rights on church matters to women. It did so in 1898.
It was a sign of their respect for Williams's great faith. Yet the trustees, like so many other white Christians of the day, did not want to worship in proximity with people of color; they left in place the segregated worship arrangements that relegated African-American believers to pews at the rear of the church. This state of affairs did not sit well with Williams, who finally led a group of African-American believers to form an independent church where they would be able to pursue their religious beliefs without cowering in the rear of the building. The movement included outspoken proponents of “spiritual, social, and economic emancipation” such as James Varick, Abraham Thompson, and William Miller; it was ultimately chartered as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and was the first African-American church in New York.
The organization Williams helped to found came to be known as the Freedom Church, and was a key institution in the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century. AME Zion facilities were used as havens for escaped slaves using the Underground Railroad, and the church claimed as members such extraordinary figures as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman.
Today, the church boasts 3,000 churches on five continents and claims a million and a half active members.