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Historic AME Congregations

by Dennis C. Dickerson

The African Methodist Episcopal Church emerged out of innumerable historic congregations that have sustained the denomination for over two centuries. “Mother” Bethel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania grew out of the Free African Society which Richard Allen founded in 1787. A blacksmith shop was hauled to land that Allen donated at Sixth and Lombard Streets and became the first worship site. The second of the four structures to occupy this ground was dedicated in 1794. On its premises in 1816 Allen was elected and consecrated as the first bishop of the denomination. “Mother” Bethel, the venue for the Centennial General Conference in 1916 also housed a station on the underground railroad to aid escaping slaves, a school, mutual aid society, and host to many other denominational and civic events. In Charleston, South Carolina Morris Brown, a free black, tried as early as 1812 to establish a church for local African Americans. Out of this effort Emanuel Church came into being and affiliated with the AME Church in 1818. Denmark Vesey, one of the local preachers, along with Gullah Jack and others, planned a slave insurrection in 1822. When the plot was discovered, Vesey and his followers were executed, the church was disbanded, and Brown fled to Philadelphia. He was elected and consecrated in 1828 as the second AME bishop.

Daniel Coker, Allen’s Baltimore rival and the denomination’s co-founder, led the city’s Bethel Church whose origins also lay in 1787. Coker, who resigned the bishopric in favor of Allen, resettled in Sierra Leone and founded the West African Methodist Church. A Coker successor at Bethel, Edward Waters, became in 1836 the denomination’s third bishop. Nearly, every major city in the United States and elsewhere within the Atlantic World boasted historic AME congregations. St. Paul in St. Louis and Quinn Chapel in Chicago were launched in 1841 and 1848 respectively. Bethel, San Francisco and St. James in New Orleans started in 1848. Bishop John A. Gregg in 1928 made history in Capetown, South Africa when he dedicated a cathedral structure for Bethel Memorial Church. Whether it was Metropolitan in Washington, D. C., whose forerunner congregation, Union Bethel, was a site for recruiting black soldiers for the Union Army for the Civil War, First Church in Los Angeles, or Big Bethel, Atlanta, these and other historic congregations have hosted U. S. Presidents and other heads of state and prominent leaders in the African and African American struggle for freedom. Woodlawn in Chicago was the venue where the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) had its first headquarters. Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama and Clayborn Temple in Memphis were venues from which major civil rights marches were launched.