African-American Methodists

African-American Methodists
   African Americans have played an essential role in American Methodism from its origins. The various independent black Methodist churches and organizations still maintain a significant position in African-American religious life today.
   Methodism emerged in America in the 1760s. From the first classes in Maryland and New York City, African Americans were an integral presence, comprising one-fourth to one-third of its adherents. All-black classes were soon formed, and class leaders and local preachers were drawn from their ranks. However, when the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was formed in 1784, blacks were not admitted to the ordained ministry, though several were licensed to preach.
   Reacting to these discriminatory practices, in the 1790s some members, mostly free blacks in the urban centers, moved to found all-black congregations. Such churches included Bethel and Zoar in Philadelphia, Ezion in New York City, the African Union Church in Wilmington, Delaware, and Sharp Street in Baltimore.
   In the 19th century, some of these same churches became organizational centers for independent black denominations. The African Union Church in Wilmington became the first congregation of the African Union Methodist Protestant Church. Bethel Church under Richard Allen became the center of the African Episcopal Church (AME). Ezion church became the mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ). The strength of these three organizations was found in the free black communities located in most of America's urban centers.
   Many free blacks and most of the slaves who became Methodists continued their membership in the MEC, and congregations such as Zoar and Sharp Street became prominent MEC congregations. In the 1820s, the MEC launched a special mission to slaves living on large plantations. This effort brought many black members into the church, especially in South Carolina, where they became the majority. Most of these members became part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS) when the MEC voted to split in 1844 after northern leaders objected to slave-owning bishops. Black membership continued to grow through the 1850s in all branches of Methodism.
   After the Civil War, the MECS moved to assist its newly freed black members in forming the predominantly Black Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), now the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. However, many MECS members chose instead to join the AME or the AMEZ, both of which attempted to recruit members among former slaves. The MEC also attempted to invite former slaves back, with some success.
   The three major African-American Methodist bodies, the AME, the AMEZ, and the CME all retained the doctrines and practices of their parent bodies. They, together with African-American MEC members, all participated in the Methodist Ecumenical Conferences that began to be held in the 1880s.
   The first African-American Methodist missionary program in Africa was launched in the 1820s as part of the colonization program, an effort in England and America to send free blacks to Africa. In 1827, the AMEs also sent a missionary to work in Haiti. Missions spread to various African nations and around the Caribbean. The AMEZ initiated work in the Caribbean in the 1850s and in Liberia in Africa in 1878. The CMEs began their missionary effort following World War I, but permanent work was not established until the 1940s. As the 21st century begins, all three churches include affiliated conferences in Africa and in the Caribbean.
   In the 1860s, black members in the MEC were organized into all-black conferences (the Methodist equivalent of a diocese). In 1939, when the MEC and MECS united to form the Methodist Church, the predominantly white conferences were organized into five geographical jurisdictions, while the all-black conferences were put together in the nongeographical Central Jurisdiction. Debate focused on whether the benefits (guaranteed black leadership over black programs) outweighed the evils of segregation.
   Four years after the merger of the Methodist Church into the United Methodist Church (UMC) in 1968, the Central Jurisdiction was disbanded, and its black conferences were gradually merged into the geographical conferences. For the first time, black bishops were assigned to predominantly white conferences and black superintendents were assigned to predominantly white districts. The church has subsequently worked to rid itself of racism at all levels of church life.
   Some regret was expressed that the AME, AMEZ, and CME churches did not participate in the 1968 merger. Since that time, several plans have surfaced whose goal is an ultimate merger of the four bodies.
   As the 21st century began, the AME reported 2.3 million members, the AMEZ 1.5 million, and the CME 850,000. There are an estimated 300,000 African American members in the UMC. All four churches hold membership in the World Methodist Council and the World Council of Churches.
   Further reading:
   ■ Lewis V. Baldwin, "Invisible" Strands in African Methodism (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1983)
   ■ Howard D. Gregg, History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Nashville, Tenn.: A.M.E. Church Publishing House, 1980)
   ■ Othal Hawthorne Lakey, The History of the CME Church (Memphis, Tenn.: CME Publishing House, 1985)
   ■ Larry G. Murphy, J. Gordon Melton, and Gary L. Ward, Encyclopedia of African American Religions (New York: Garland, 1993)
   ■ Grant S. Shockley, ed., Heritage and Hope: The African-American Presence in United Methodism (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1991)
   ■ William J. Walls, The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: Reality of the Black Church (Charlotte, N.C.: A.M.E. Zion Publishing House, 1974).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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