Almost immediately after emancipation, African American and white members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS) began working to form African American Methodist organizations along with a Plan of Separation that would lead to the new denominations. In 1870, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) was formed in Jackson, Tennessee.
The founders sought to adhere to the traditions of Methodism and made few changes to the MECS organizational structure beyond lowering the educational standards for preachers, deleting all racial designations for preachers and members, and adding rules against using church buildings for political purposes. CME leaders for years argued that they, rather than the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion, were the proper heirs to the Methodist tradition. In return, some leaders of those groups criticized the CME for its close relationships to whites in the MECS.
Mississippians were especially important during the CME’s formative years. The MECS had two Colored Conferences in the state. The first, in North Mississippi, was organized in 1867 and had district offices in Grenada, Verona, Iuka, Courtland, and Holly Springs. The other, the Mississippi Conference, was organized in 1869 and covered the rest of the state, with district offices in Sunflower, Starkville, Blackhawk, Vicksburg, Fayette, Jackson, Crystal Springs, Brookhaven, Summit, Paulding, and Burtenton. The two conferences sent five representatives, Frank Ambrose, Frank Funchess, William Jones, Nat Harris, and M. Mitchell, to the founding meeting in 1870. One early CME bishop, Elias Cottrell, a native of Old Hudsonville in Marshall County, served as a pastor in several Tennessee locations before returning to Mississippi with a particular interest in education. Another Mississippi native, John Scurlock, was the first assistant editor for the denomination’s journal, the Christian Index.
By 1900 the CME had two Mississippi conferences, roughly continuing the geographic division the MECS had established. The state was home to about 340 CME churches with about twenty-two thousand members, second only to Georgia. Those numbers stayed roughly the same for several decades. The 1936 Religious Census counted 332 CME churches and more than twenty-six thousand members.
One of the CME’s most aggressive efforts to transform the South lay in its effort to operate schools and eventually colleges throughout the region. CME leaders tried unsuccessfully to start a CME school in Sardis in 1874 but had better results in Holly Springs with Mississippi Theological and Industrial Academy (soon renamed Mississippi Industrial College), chartered in 1906 and initially headed by F. H. Rogers. Within a few years, the school had become with largest CME school in the country, with more than four hundred students from first grade through college. Construction of a large auditorium with the help of a donation from Andrew Carnegie dramatized CME leaders’ great ambitions for the school, which emphasized the training of teachers until it closed in 1982.
The CME changed its name to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in May 1954. Membership has declined with the migration of African Americans away from Mississippi, but the denomination continues to play an important role in the state. Numerous current and former CME bishops have roots, educations, and churches in Mississippi.
- Christian Methodist Episcopal Church website, thecmechurch.org
- Census of Religious Bodies, 1906, 1936; Alicia Jackson, “The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church and Their Struggle for Reform in the New South” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2004)
- Othal H. Lakey, The History of the CME Church, Revised (1996)
- William E. Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865–1900 (1994)