Rejecting the Negro Pew

The African Methodist Episcopal and other black churches were born partly as a result of revival preaching, partly because of white segregation. Christian History asked Wesley Roberts to give us a glimpse into the beginning of the African-American church, especially the role played by Methodist Richard Allen. Dr. Roberts is pastor of Peoples Baptist Church in Boston, Massachusetts (the oldest African-American church in New England), and member of our advisory board.

“Negro Pews”

The 1740s Great Awakening, with its enthusiastic preaching and emotional meetings, resulted in a great harvest of black converts, most of whom were slaves. The informal services of the Baptists and, later, the Methodists attracted the most blacks—as did early Methodism’s antislavery stance. By 1786, blacks made up about 10 percent of the Methodist church.

Although whites and blacks often worshiped together in the 1700s, blacks enjoyed no real freedom or equality—in the North or South. Segregated seating was typical; the area reserved for blacks was usually called the “Negro Pew” or the “African Corner.”

Such discrimination motivated blacks, where possible, to organize their own churches, though white leaders actively opposed that. On the eve of the American Revolution, the first black congregations appeared.

The First Black Church?

Historians debate the date and place of the first black Baptist congregation in America, but it seems it was established in South Carolina between 1773 and 1775 by a slave named George Liele.

Liele was converted during the revivals that followed the Great Awakening. Licensed as an “exhorter,” he traveled up and down the Savannah River preaching to other slaves. At the Galpin plantation, near Silver Bluff, he and a white itinerant preacher named Elder Palmer ministered to a group of some thirty slaves. A church made up of both slaves and free blacks was soon established, and slave preacher David George was put in charge.

Three types of black Baptist churches developed: 1) the racially mixed church, 2) the separate black church under white leadership, and 3) the separate black church under black leadership. Blacks much preferred the separate, all-black churches, and in these churches slaves constituted the largest group.

Whites, however, regarded unsupervised black meetings as a security risk. Many slaves were permitted to attend only churches pastored by white ministers. Black ministers were often harassed until it was unmistakably clear they posed no threat to the community. Knowing they were watched by whites, black preachers were careful how they taught and conducted their services.

Many slaves, therefore, also held secret religious meetings on their plantations. Here they shouted and sang and encouraged one another without the intimidating presence of whites.

Any independence enjoyed by the black congregations quickly diminished after the aborted slave uprisings of the early 1800s. Whites began imposing increasingly severe restrictions on black religious activities. For example, a black person in Georgia who wanted to preach had to obtain a license from a local court of law and be certified by three white ministers. An Alabama law of 1832 required that five “respectable slave holders” attend any service at which blacks preached.

In spite of such restrictions, the number of black Baptists in the South continued to grow. Nearly all of the independent congregations in the South were Baptist.

Pulled from Their Knees

Racial segregation and discrimination were also the main impetus for Northern blacks’ forming their own denominations, and black Methodists were the first to do so. It happened in Philadelphia, at the initiative of Richard Allen.

Allen was born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760. At age 17, he was converted and began preaching on his plantation and at local Methodist churches. His owner, who was one of his early converts, was so impressed with Allen that he allowed him to purchase his freedom.

In 1781, Allen began traveling the Methodist preaching circuits in Delaware and surrounding states. Prominent Methodist leaders, like Francis Asbury, took care to see Allen had places to preach. In 1786, Allen returned to Philadelphia and joined St. George’s Methodist Church. His leadership at prayer services attracted dozens of blacks into the church, and with them came increased racial tension.

White leaders told blacks they could no longer sit where they were accustomed to but must use the chairs around the walls. Though segregated seating was widespread, it had not been known at St. George’s.

During one service in 1787, a group of blacks sat in some new pews that, unbeknownst to them, had been reserved for whites. As these blacks knelt in prayer, they were pulled from their knees and told to sit in their own area. After prayer, the black group got up and walked out. Allen enacted a plan he had been formulating for some time: to establish an independent church.

Allen did not want to leave Methodism or the local Conference, but he longed for a place where blacks could worship as they saw fit. The local Methodist leaders resisted Allen and his associate, Absalom Jones, threatening them with expulsion from the Methodist Conference. But Allen and Jones persisted, and in 1794, Allen purchased an old frame building, formerly a blacksmith’s shop, and opened it for worship as the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Bishop Francis Asbury dedicated the building and later ordained Allen as a deacon in 1799.

Blacks in Baltimore, Wilmington, Attleboro, and Salem followed Allen’s example and soon established independent African Methodist churches.

In Philadelphia, over the next 15 years, the white Methodist leaders tried to keep Allen’s congregation and property under its jurisdiction. But on the first day of 1816, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the church belonged to Allen and his associates.

Things happened quickly after that. In April, delegates from several black Methodist churches convened in Philadelphia and drew up an “Ecclesiastical Compact” that united them in the independent African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Allen was ordained an elder and consecrated as bishop.

This first black denomination grew rapidly in the North. The South was a different story: when AME layman Denmark Vesey was executed in 1822 for plotting a slave insurrection, AME activity south of Baltimore ceased and wasn’t resumed until after the Civil War.

Dignity and Freedom

Baptists in the South and the AME in the North are only two parts of a multifaceted story of African-American Christianity. But they give a flavor of the obstacles blacks faced and the courage they displayed in opening their own churches. Black churches provided blacks with a sense of dignity and personal freedom—and one of the most hospitable settings for the creation of an African-American culture. CH

By Wesley Roberts

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #45 in 1995]

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