The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church) originated as the Free African Society, established by Rev. Richard Allen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1787. Formally reorganized into the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, the church sought to provide persons of African descent the opportunity to worship without the racial discrimination that had become common in the white-dominated Methodist Church.
The name African Methodist Episcopal represents both the history and the functioning of the church, but membership is not and never has been restricted solely to those of African descent; rather, the AME Church has always welcomed all people, regardless of their racial background. Methodist refers to the church’s roots in and connection to the original Methodist Church, while Episcopal refers to the church’s internal governing system.
The AME Church motto is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Man Our Brother,” acknowledging not only the belief in the Holy Trinity but also the idea that the church’s mission is to spread the Gospel and to minister to the needs of fellow humans. The bedrock of the church’s beliefs is the Apostles’ Creed, which lists the key fundamentals of church doctrine.
In the first decades after its formal organization, the AME Church spread over a wide geographic area confined largely but not entirely to the North. During the 1850s congregations formed in the slave states of Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, and South Carolina as a consequence of the work of Theophilus G. Steward, an AME minister in South Carolina who issued the message, “I Seek My Brethren,” which urged his parishioners to reach out to free blacks. This missionary effort eventually extended beyond the United States into Africa, South America, and Europe.
During the Civil War, AME Church missionaries began to penetrate the Deep South in the wake of the Union Army. In 1864 Bishop James A. Shorter led a group of missionaries—A. H. Dixon, James C. Embry, Adam Jackson, Henry A. Jackson, John Miller, Edward A. Scott, and Thomas W. Stringer—into Mississippi to establish congregations. Shorter also oversaw the establishment of the first AME congregations in Tennessee and Texas.
Establishing AME congregations in the former Confederacy proved difficult, particularly in Mississippi. Missionaries sent there endured extreme ridicule, not only from whites who resented their presence but also from many newly freed slaves who saw these outsiders as promoting foreign religious and educational ideas. Nevertheless, the missionaries had some success, and in May 1868 Mississippi’s AME congregations were represented at the denomination’s Thirteenth General Conference in Washington, D.C. Some AME ministers, most notably US senator Hiram Rhoades Revels, became leaders in postemancipation Mississippi. By 1916 the AME Church had 498 congregations and more than 26,000 members in the state. It was especially popular in the Mississippi Delta, with the largest number of members in Washington, Sunflower, and Yazoo Counties.
Today the AME Church has an estimated worldwide membership of about 2.5 million, with congregations in more than thirty nations. It publishes the Christian Recorder, which features church news and events. The church also operates various universities and theological seminaries throughout the southern United States.
- James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa (1995)
- Bishop Cornal Garnett Henning Sr., The Doctrine and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2000–2004 (2001)
- Charles Spencer Smith, A History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1856–1922 (1922)
- Richard R. Wright Jr., Centennial Encyclopedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1816–1916 (1916)