Sheryl D. Vanderstel
The first of the three main black Methodist denominations began in Philadelphia with Rev. Richard Allen. Born into slavery and converted to Methodism at the age of 17, Allen almost immediately knew he was called to preach. His owner allowed Richard and his brother to join a Methodist class meeting, led by Delaware farmer John Gray. Allen's owner was so taken by Allen's sincerity that he next allowed interracial religious gathering on his property. Finally, converted to Methodism himself, Allen's owner arranged for the Allen brother to buy their freedom.
With his freedom gained, Allen, illiterate and penniless, began his remarkable career as a preacher of the gospel. He worked as a teamster hauling supplies for General Washington's army, preaching along his route. After the Revolution, Allen became a popular preacher in the Mid-Atlantic States. In 1784, when the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in Baltimore Allen was one of only two black preachers present. He began preaching in the newly formed Methodist church in Philadelphia where he was licensed as a preacher in St. George's Church. Preaching at separate services to the black members of St. George he brought in more black members than the church could hold. By 1787, suffering abuse and discrimination at the hands of the white members, Allen led his flock out. In 1794, they organized their own congregation, with Bishop Asbury himself preaching the first sermon and Richard Allen was ordained by the Bishop as the Methodist Episcopal Church's first black deacon. However, when the ME church claimed ownership of the church property Allen began a legal battle that lasted until 1816. Similar legal battles for black ownership of church property were raging in other eastern cities.
When Allen won his legal victory he issued an invitation to other black ME congregations to assemble in convention. There were sixteen representatives at the convention in Philadelphia, representing churches in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, which joined together to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church in April 1816. They immediately elected Richard Allen as their first bishop. The group determined to adhere to traditional Methodism and adopted a Discipline almost identical to the ME Discipline.
The Methodist church had a system of licensed elders, deacons, lay ministers and exhorters to assist in the local church work. This system was adopted not only by the AME but also later by the AME Zion and CME denominations. The bishop headed the church body, which was divided into conferences; each led by a bishop. Each conference then was subdivided into districts. Within a district there could be several circuits. A presiding elder directed the work of the conference. Ordained deacons were the senior circuit riders or local congregational ministers.
Because of the restrictions placed on blacks in the South, it was impossible for the new African Methodist Episcopal faith to grow there. But the Mid-Atlantic States and the West were fertile grounds for spreading the gospel. In the West, the AME formed the Western Annual Conference consisting of fifteen ministers and more than 1,000 members west of the Alleghenies. It was to the Western Conference that William Paul Quinn was sent in 1833 as a circuit rider. Quinn's circuit originated in Cincinnati and included a small AME class gathered together in Indianapolis by barber Augustus Turner. When the Indiana Conference was established in 1840, three circuits - Indianapolis, Richmond and Terre Haute - were established to minister to the needs of AME churches and class meetings in the state. Quinn was appointed overseer of the Indiana Circuits as well as another in Illinois. By 1845, ten churches reported more than fifty members each with forty additional AME sites, congregations and classes, in the conference. One of the factors leading to the establishment of a separate Indiana Conference was Quinn's emotional report to the 1844 Convention on the state of the faith in the West. He described the 2,000 AME members living west of Ohio as able farmers and craftsmen. There were 72 congregations, 47 of which were established churches. To serve these faithful were seven circuit riding elders, twenty traveling preachers and 27 local preachers. Fifty Sunday schools with 200 teachers were instructing 2,000 scholars. Quinn and his constituents established forty temperance societies and even conducted 17 camp meetings in 1844. Quinn concluded his report by telling of the more than 18,000 black settlers in Indiana and Illinois. "There is an immense mine of mind, talent and social qualities, all lying measurably in embryo, but by a proper direction of the missionary hammer and chisel, they can be shaped to fit in the new spiritual building of God." After making his report, an enthusiastic General Conference elected Quinn bishop. Quinn accepted the honor but insisted on living in the West. He settled in Richmond, Indiana and lived there until his death in 1873.
Classes mentioned by Quinn in his report had been established in the Methodist Episcopal Church in response to a lack of ordained deacons and elders and were frequently found in the West. The AME found this system most helpful in ministering to scattered black western settlements. The establishment of a class proceeded as follows. When a respected member of the faith was located in the area where a class meeting was needed, he served as the class leader. Then, church members or truly interested and sincere Christians in the neighborhood were gathered together to form the class. The Methodist Episcopal publication Western Christian Advocate suggested twelve as the best number of members for a class. The class leader appointed a time and place for the weekly meeting and conducted the hour-long meeting. The leader began with a short hymn followed by a prayer of confession with the class members kneeling around him. The class members responded to each petition with "Lord have mercy." Then the leader concluded with petitions of thanksgiving and the members responded with "Glory and thanks to God." The rest of the meeting was to be spent with each individual giving a personal faith testimonial, discussing faith weaknesses or needs. The group responded with words of prayer and encouragement to each other. (Conner Prairie: 37)
The circuit was the next level of the evangelism system. A circuit was comprised of several class meetings within a specific boundary, all served by a single circuit rider. The ideal circuit allowed for the preacher to visit with each class meeting for several days within each month. He would conduct worship, perform weddings, baptisms and counsel class members and "hopeful" area residents at each stop. But, it was the preaching that was the mark of the circuit riders. Preaching, "regular, frequent and exciting," was the way converts were brought into the fold. (Rudolph: 16)
Camp meetings were instrumental in triggering church growth in the West. Camp meetings were an especially effective evangelistic tool perfected by the Methodists and Bishop Quinn and other AME circuit riders found them equally effective. Camp meetings, usually held in August or September, gathered together Christians of all denominations as well as unaffiliated "sight-seers" for several days of preaching, exhortations, prayer, bible study and socializing that hopefully ended with converts and baptisms. Families came from miles around to camp in tents and wagons in a shady grove with a central area set-aside for the meetings. As many as two dozen ministers and circuit-riding preachers, with the help of deacons and exhorters, would lead the event. A typical day began at 5 AM with the blowing of a trumpet signaling the time to rise, prayer in family groups and breakfast. By 8:30, the trumpet signaled participants to gather at the central area to begin prayer, exhortations and testimonials. All of this lasted until the main service and sermon of the day at about 11 o'clock. After dinner, the afternoon was filled with hymn singing, small sermons, testimonials, pastoral counseling and prayer. Supper was followed by gatherings around bonfires that lent an emotional and dramatic backdrop to spirited singing and testimonials. These were hoped to bring about awakening and conversions among the sinners present. The drama and emotional aspect of these gatherings could induce weeping, wailing and shouts of joy. By 10 o'clock, visitors were asked to leave and participants retired to their tents and wagons for individual and family prayers. Day's end was signaled by a trumpet blast. This schedule was repeated for a period of four or five days. The meeting culminated with emotional preaching and baptisms. (Conner Prairie: 9-10)
The same General Conference that elected Rev. Quinn bishop was equally excited about creating educational opportunities for their members. The AME founder, Richard Allen, had been illiterate, as were most of the early preachers and elders. By 1844 this situation had altered but not significantly. Daniel A. Payne spent his life dedicated to improving the educational opportunities for blacks. Payne was a schoolteacher in Charleston, South Carolina until new state laws closed his school in 1835. He received a scholarship to Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary where he studied for two years. There his religious convictions were nurtured and he decided to enter the ministry. By the 1844 General Convention he had issued five letters arguing for an educated ministry with an outline of study. After a heated discussion the course was adopted and the AME leadership began their tradition of educational ideals. By 1852, Payne had been elected bishop and from that office continued to strive improved education for all AME members. In Indiana Conference reported 1,484 scholars in both Sunday Schools and day schools in the state. With backing from the Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME founded and ultimately gained full ownership of Wilberforce University in Ohio. Bishop Payne moved to the campus and by sheer willpower guided it to success. Many Hoosier AME members and clergy gained a superior education there. (Rudolph: 563-564)
Bethel Church in Indianapolis was a fine example of a congregation led by able, educated clergy. Founded in 1836 it remained the only AME church in the city for thirty years. In the early years it was part of the Cincinnati circuit. By 1841 the members constructed a small building and in the 1850s they were able to call a full-time pastor. Elisha Weaver was a powerful leader and along with six other AME preachers edited and published the Repository, a periodical designed for use by AME literary societies. In response to the prohibitive laws of Indiana, Weaver established a day school that offered an outstanding academic course of study. Tuition, dues, and donations supported the school. To raise money the young students would give literary recitations and exhibitions. Rev. Weaver and the congregation were deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement and the church was part of the Underground Railroad. When the church mysteriously caught fire, many felt it was in retaliation for their abolition activities. By 1869 the church, now officially Bethel Church moved to Vermont Street. From this location the church has continued to influence and aid the African American community. (Rudolph: 565; Encyclopedia: 318-319)
The 1816 meeting that resulted in the formation of the AME church had no representation from New York. Always independent minded, the black Methodists of Zion church in New York City wanted to be completely independent of affiliation with the Methodist Church. Because none of Zion's clergy was ordained tensions mounted. Finally three Methodist Episcopal elders agreed to ordain the Zion clergy, which allowed Zion to become independent in June 1822. The ordained Zion elders ordained six more independent minded clergy and in July 1822 they gathered in convention and Elder James Varik was elected bishop. More congregations in New York and Pennsylvania joined with Zion and so the AME Zion was born. (Rudolph: 569)
In its early years the church grew in the Mid-Atlantic States and through the 1830s the AME Zion became a vocal and visible champion of emancipation. Frederick Douglass, the nation's great abolitionist, began first as a sexton, then class leader, clerk, exhorter and finally preacher of the AME Zion Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. A brilliant writer, speaker and leader, Douglas grew to national prominence as the editor of the North Star newspaper, and a major figure in the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War the AME Zion aided newly freed slaves and the church began to grow southward. The AME Zion finally expanded into Indiana when newly freed slaves moved into the state. A small congregation began in Indianapolis in 1872 and was named for Bishop Jones of Kentucky. Between 1883 and 1885, led by Rev. Jeremiah Washington, Jones Chapel added 362 adults and 450 Sunday school scholars to the church rolls. Lovely Lane Church, later named St. Mark's, was organized in the city in 1886. Evansville and South Bend also established congregations about the same time. Since the AME faith was slow to spread in Indiana, the state was not added to the conference until 1890; by 1906, there were eight congregations listed in the Indiana religious census. (Rudolph: 569-570)
The AME Zion church grew as the southern migration to northern industrial cities increased. In 1908George Lincoln Blackwell was appointed bishop of the huge Missouri Conference. One of his first accomplishments was to divide the area into smaller conferences. The Indiana Conference was established and the urban areas of Indianapolis, Terre Haute, Gary and South Bend began to experience growth. Foreign mission became an important part of the church and Bishop George Lincoln Blackwell, his wife Annie, W.H. Chambers and John W. Wood both of Indianapolis, ably guided the mission effort and were a driving force in the AME Zion into the 20th century. (Rudolph: 571-572)
The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church had its beginning in the South after the Civil War. In 1870, eight southern black Methodist Episcopal Conferences convened in Jackson, Tennessee to form a new denomination. They called the new church the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, a name that was changed in 1954 to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. (Rudolph: 575)
The CME maintained close ties with the white Methodist Episcopal denomination. The Discipline adopted at the inaugural conference was essentially the Discipline of the ME church. The traditional Methodist church internal structure of bishops, conferences, elders and deacons was also adopted. The ME church also assisted the new CME with money and supplies to help get the denomination started. The new church also forbade the use of church property for any political activity. This cooperation between the southern white Methodist church and the new CME created some ill feeling with the other two black Methodist denominations that hindered several efforts at merger in later years. (Rudolph: 575)
Through the early years of the denomination it was served by strong and able bishops, all former slaves. The CME developed educational institutes and industrial schools throughout the South to help educate those who had been denied education for so long. Some of the institutes, such as Paine and Lane, developed into colleges. This emphasis on education continued and provided the CME with leaders to take the church into the new century. (Rudolph: 576)
The nonpolitical stance of the early CME changed and the denomination became actively involved in all the ethical and social issues of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Education, employment equal opportunities for all, and most especially civil rights became issues for CME involvement.
The first presence of the CME in Indiana came in 1899 with the church's participation in the International Epworth League convention. The thousands of Methodist youth that gathered in Indianapolis had received an invitation that in part stated "Delegates of the two races will not be separated. Every person will have the privilege of sitting where he pleases There will be no color line." Rev. Charles Henry Phillips of the CME was asked to address the convention. Rev. Phillips demonstrated the eloquence on that occasion that was one of the many gifts that helped him become a powerful presence in the early 20th century CME church. By 1902, he was elected bishop and his positive memories of Indianapolis led him to encourage J.F. Taylor to develop a mission site in the city. Bishop Phillips visited the mission in 1907 and the following year was instrumental in purchasing property and building and financing the first CME church in Indiana. The grateful congregation named it Phillips Chapel in his honor. Later Bishop Phillips sent the Rev. G.I. Jackson to Phillips Chapel. Rev. Jackson was a particularly talented congregation builder. As a testament to his skills, the congregation survives today as Phillips Temple and is the largest of ten Indianapolis CME congregations. (Rudolph 576-577; Encyclopedia: 998)
Almost yearly, after 1906, there were attempts to merge the three major black Methodist denominations but each held their own denominational principals and traditions dear and every effort was thwarted throughout the 20th century. Each denomination possessed cherished and honored names, locations, and traditions that they feared would be lost in a merger. Consequently, a merger of these African American Methodist denominations has never occurred. (Rudolph: 577)
Bodenhammer, David J. and Robert G. Barrows, editors. Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Conner Prairie Research. Camp Meeting Training Packet. 1995.
Rudolph, L. C. Hoosier Faiths. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Sweet, William Warren. Circuit-Rider Days in Indiana. Indianapolis: W. K. Stewart Co., 1916.
__________________. Religion on the American Frontier: Volume 4, The Methodists. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1964.