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The AME Christian Recorder in the Nineteenth Century

by Eric Gardner

The African Methodist Episcopal Church was committed to print from its beginnings: only a year after the Church’s founding in 1816, it established the AME Book Concern, and Richard Allen was not only the Church’s first Bishop but its first Book Steward. The Church’s specific turn to periodicals—in part, to aid communication across a growing geographical range—came early, too. In 1841, Brooklyn-based Book Steward George Hogarth started the African Methodist Episcopal Church Magazine. While the Magazine struggled to publish two dozen issues before folding in 1847, AME interest in periodicals continued.

Under the direction of the AME General Conference of 1848, new Book Steward Augustus R. Green settled in Pittsburgh, where he bought the equipment of the recently-shuttered Mystery, a Black newspaper earlier associated with Martin Delany. Soon after, Green began publishing the first AME newspaper, the Christian Herald. While no copies of this weekly have been located, Green later wrote that he published it regularly until mid-1852. In that year, the General Conference voted to move the Book Concern and the paper to Philadelphia, selected Madison Molliston Clark as the new Book Steward, and gave the paper the title it continues to bear, the Christian Recorder.

Finances were always a problem, however, and Clark resigned from the Book Concern in 1854, noting that he had managed to publish only fifteen issues of the new Recorder and arguing that without stronger financial support, success would be impossible. Jabez Pitt Campbell, the next Book Steward, faired little better, publishing only another two dozen issues before suspending the paper in early 1856. That said, Campbell’s love of the paper was crucial to its survival in more ways that one: the run of the paper that he gathered over his life—and that is now housed at Mother Bethel in Philadelphia and presented digitally here—is the only substantial collection of the pre-1880 Recorder known to be extant.

During the Recorder’s hiatus, a group of church literary societies, with the approval of Bishop Daniel Payne, started an Indianapolis-based church magazine, The Repository of Religion and Literature, in 1858. Some in the Church worried that the Recorder and the hopes of a church newspaper might die, but the General Conference of 1860 appointed Elisha Weaver, who had successfully edited the Repository, as the new Book Steward and charged him with resuscitating the Recorder.

In January 1861, he began publishing a four-page weekly out of Philadelphia. Though he was briefly replaced as editor by Anthony Stanford (later in 1861) and James Lynch (in 1866 and early 1867), Weaver returned to the editor’s chair after both men resigned and maintained his role as Book Steward throughout. By 1868, when he was forced out of the Book Concern, he had had a hand in publishing almost 400 issues of the Recorder.

The paper’s growth during this period was certainly tied to the Church’s expansion, but the constant need for news surrounding the Civil War and the rarity of newspapers produced for African Americans by African Americans may have been a more proximate cause. By the War’s end, though finances remained troubled, the Recorder had a national circulation, an impressive roster of contributors, support from not only the Church but a large number of Black soldiers and activists, and deep connections to teachers of newly-freed African Americans in the South.

Weaver and his successor, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, who edited the paper from 1868 to 1884, made the paper a key point of connection for what was now a massive national church. Tanner eventually expanded the paper’s length to eight pages, and he began having the paper printed in-house by Black employees—rather than using, as Weaver had, local white printers. Tanner also worked actively, in part alongside the fiery Henry McNeal Turner (the paper’s Business Manager from 1876 to 1880), to expand and professionalize the paper’s staff. When Tanner left the paper to found a new magazine, the AME Church Review, the paper’s importance was such that the new editor, Benjamin Franklin Lee, was called from the presidency of Wilberforce to supervise the Recorder. When he left in 1892, it was because he, like Turner and Tanner had been, was elected to a Bishopric; Henry Theodore Johnson edited the paper for the rest of the run presented here—stepping down in 1909.

While the paper continued to struggle financially, with only a few significant gaps and changes in publication schedule (most notably, moving to a bi-weekly schedule), the Recorder has continued to be published to this day, making it the longest-running Black newspaper in the nation.

From its beginnings, the Recorder was designed to be a Black-owned, Black-run, and primarily Black-authored paper for Black readers, and it took this mission seriously. Early on, it set up an innovative system in which AME ministers served as the paper’s primary agents, selling copies and soliciting subscriptions. Study of subscription acknowledgements published between 1861 and 1868 suggests that over 98% of traceable subscribers were African American, and this base included both men and women from a wide range of economic positions, backgrounds, locations, and ages. The Book Concern tried hard to keep the paper affordable; in 1865, for example, a single issue sold for six cents and a year’s subscription, for $2.50—significant but manageable outlays for a growing number of African Americans.

While the nineteenth-century Recorder always maintained a deep commitment to its denominational function, its editors consistently wanted to offer AME people access to rich textual worlds. Its editorial voice was consistently strong and engaged, be it in arguing for equal rights and equal pay for Black soldiers, for Black suffrage, for broad civil rights in the wake of the end of Reconstruction and the rise of segregation, or against the scourge of lynching.

The paper’s regular letters and reports from various clergy were supplemented by letters from AME laypeople, Black soldiers, teachers (like Sallie Daffin and Edmonia Goodelle Highgate), and diverse other Black activists and artists. Some letters debated Church policy and practice, and the Recorder quickly recognized that it could supplement the conversations held at the General Conferences (held every four years) and regional annual conferences considerably. Many letters went beyond providing simple news into the realm of essays, both personal and public. Some of this work also branched into education, and so the paper included essays on history, biography, theology, and a host of scientific topics as well as travel-writing and sermons. In this spirit, editors from Weaver onward also regularly printed a variety of texts for children and families. (In the four-page paper of the 1860s, the final page was often reserved for such work; in the later longer paper, page six often held such texts.)

The paper seems to have included poetry from its beginnings, and, beyond the regular brief verse it printed for young folks, the paper published several original poems by figures from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to Mary E. Ashe Lee and George Boyer Vashon as well as works by lesser-known poets including elegies to both well-known figures like Abraham Lincoln and locally-known AME Church members. Prior to 1865, the paper’s fiction offerings were mainly limited to children’s texts, but its serialization that year of Julia Collins’s The Curse of Caste, perhaps the first novel published by an African American woman, opened the door to longer texts. Under Tanner, the paper serialized three of Harper’s novels as well as lesser-known work by figures like William Steward. As the names of contributors included here suggest, while the editorial staff was long composed of male ministers, select women writers did find homes in the Recorder’s pages, and several editors recognized women as crucial to the paper’s existence.

The amazing range of material in the nineteenth-century Recorder explains the birth of a variety of related publications—not only the AME Church Review but also newspapers like the Western Christian Recorder and the Southern Christian Recorder as well as a short-lived children’s paper called the Child’s Recorder. It also explains why a growing number of scholars have begun to recognize the Christian Recorder as one of the most important Black publications of the nineteenth century.