The AME Church’s Place in Early Black Print Culture
by Eric Gardner
Over the pasts few decades, scholars—led in many ways by Frances Smith Foster—have begin to recognize just how important the African Methodist Episcopal Church was to nineteenth-century African American print culture. Some of the Church’s centrals contributions were its various periodicals, but scholars are also beginning to consider a range of other publications. (And this doesn’t even begin to tally the contributions of individual AME authors working outside AME publishing venues—from Richard Allen’s early work to Daniel A. Payne’s collection of poems The Pleasures and Other Miscellaneous Poems  and Benjamin Tucker Tanner’s Apology for African Methodism .)
Perhaps most important among those periodicals, the ChristianRecorder , founded as the Christian Herald in 1848 and taking its better-known current name in 1852, became one of the most important Black newspapers of the nineteenth century after editor Elisha Weaver resuscitated it in 1861. Its contributions to African American print culture were massive and diverse. In addition to sharing what may well be the first novel published by an African American woman (Julia Collins’s Curse of Caste, serialized in 1865), it printed three serialized novels by one of the most important Black writers of the nineteenth century, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Minnie’s Sacrifice in 1869, Sowing and Reaping in 1876 and 1877, and Trial and Triumph in 1888 and 1889), as well as novels and extended fiction by writers like William Steward (whose John Blye appeared in 1878). It published, as well, poetry, essays, and letters by both well-known figures (like Harper and George Boyer Vashon) and writers just now being rediscovered (like Sallie Daffin, Edmonia Highgate, and Lizzie Hart).
But all of these powerful and valuable literary contributions were only a small part of the paper’s contributions to Black print culture. As the “official organ” of the church, the paper was dependably published almost every week for decades, and circulated—a concrete, material example of Black print—throughout the nation, from Maine to California and, as Union troops recovered Southern territory, across the American South. It used print to share reports of community events, marriage announcements, obituaries, discussions of political developments and debates, sermons, prayers, and an amazing range of other texts written by both clergy and laity and by both well-known and now-forgotten folks. In short, it was like no other Black newspaper before it.
Still, while the Recorder was the crown jewel of the Church’s periodical contributions, it was neither the first nor the only such vehicle. The Church’s first periodical venture was the African Methodist Episcopal Church Magazine, which was published out of Brooklyn in the 1840s; while the Recorder was on one of its many early hiatuses, a group of AME literary societies working with Payne set up another magazine, The Repository of Religion and Literature and of Science and Art, initially a quarterly published out of Indianapolis in 1858. Both magazines folded fairly quickly: the Magazine managed twenty-four issues between 1841 and 1847, and the Repository, after moving to Philadelphia and then Baltimore and trying to change into a monthly, published perhaps twenty-six issues before closing in 1863. Both were key contributions to Black print, and the Repository featured early work by Harper and by antebellum activist Maria Stewart, among others. The Recorder had a number of more direct spin-offs: a youth paper called the Child’s Recorder, and, later, the Southern Christian Recorder, the Western Christian Recorder, and the Southwestern Christian Recorder.
Most important among the periodicals growing from the Christian Recorder, though, was the AME Church Review, which Recorder editor Benjamin Tucker Tanner moved to found, with the blessing of the General Conference, in 1884. Tanner and his successors at the Review (especially Levi Jenkins Coppin, editor from 1888 to 1896, and Hightower T. Kealing, editor from 1896 to 1912) made this quarterly an anchor of the AME Book Concern and, later, the AME Sunday School Union. The Review allowed for longer pieces than a weekly newspaper and, in some ways, for more literary diversity. It featured work by stand-by Recorder contributors like Harper but also texts by figures ranging from Frederick Douglass to T. Thomas Fortune, William S. Scarborough to Fanny Jackson Coppin, and Paul Laurence Dunbar to Ida B. Wells Barnett. Like the Recorder , the Review lived long past its nineteenth-century beginnings, and it grew to be of massive importance for both Black writers and Black readers.
But before the Church even contemplated periodicals, it was thinking about print culture. In establishing the AME Book Concern only a year after the Church’s founding, it recognized the need to record and share Church beliefs, concerns, practices, events, and history. Central among the Book Concern’s first publications were the Doctrines and Discipline, which was initially published for Richard Allen in 1817 and then regularly updated in new editions following General Conference meetings, and the Pocket Hymn Book, published in 1818, setting the stage for several later AME hymnals. These books allowed Black worship services to use texts, processes, and songs selected by Black folks for Black folks—another “first” in American print culture.
While the Book Concern focused its efforts on editions of these kinds texts during its early years, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw it publish a flurry of important book-length works, with emphasis on history, autobiography, and biography including Alexander Wayman’s My Recollection of the AME Ministers; or Forty Years in the AME Church (1881), Daniel Seaton’s Land of Promise (1895), James Handy’s Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History (1902), Levi Coppin’s Fifty-Two Suggestive Sermons (1912), and Richard R. Wright’s Centennial Encyclopedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1916). It also broadened to produce a handful of more secular literary texts, including Katherine Davis Tillman’s play Fifty Years of Freedom (1909) and William Pickens’s short story collection Vengeance of the Gods (1922).
In the 1880s, the AME Sunday School also began an exciting publishing program, led by Charles Spencer Smith, including a rejuvenated Child’s Recorder and a Sunday School Review. It would also publish book-length works like Daniel A. Payne’s Recollections of Seventy Years (1888) and his History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1891) as well as Lucretia Newman Coleman’s Poor Ben: A Story of Real Life (1891), Henry McNeal Turner’s African Letters (1893), Smith’s Glimpses of Africa (1895), Isaiah Welch’s The Heroism of Richard Allen (1910), and an array of educational texts, again with some emphasis on history, autobiography, and biography.
Some of these books may initially seem dry and cumbersome to contemporary readers, but they all contain exciting nuggets. Taken as a whole, they are massively important in both their content and their simple existence. In recording Black stories—ministers’ lives, church activity, theological debates—books like those listed above challenged both the kinds of narratives being promulgated by Booker T. Washington and his surrogates on the one hand and by white writers of Southern “redemption” on the other.
As important as this content, though, was the simple presence and visibility of AME print. Consider, for a moment, Black hands holding books written, edited, and printed by other Black hands—in locations across and beyond the United States and in the midst of a larger culture of racism, imperialism, and colonialism that dismissed even the possibility of Black art, history, philosophy, or theology. In creating these kinds of broad, deep, and long-lasting Black print presences, the AME Church made a massive difference to early Black print culture and to American print culture at large.