2009-02-13 / Community

Celebrating The Black Church And Black Religious Leaders

Compiled by Timothy Aaron-Styles

Richard Allen February 14, 1760 - March 26, 1831 Richard Allen February 14, 1760 - March 26, 1831 The Black Church and its leaders have always played integral roles in the survival of African- Americans through slavery, sharecropping, segregation, Jim Crow, KKK terrorist campaigns, unemployment, discrimination and personal challenges - individually, collectively and in terms of family. The Black Church served as the political center, the social nucleus, the spiritual fount, the educational core and the economic safety net. The Black Church was all things - a universal panacea - for a people who had survived the most horrific event ever reigned upon a people throughout the Americas. These are some of the individuals we honor and commemorate and remember with respect and reverence.

Bishop Richard Allen founded the first African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Born into slavery in Pennsylvania along with his three siblings, he taught himself to read and write. He became a member of the Methodist Society of preachers, and later began to direct their meetings. His enslavers were so impressed by his activity that he and his brothers were permitted to purchase their freedom.

William Joseph Seymour May 2, 1870 - September 28, 1922 William Joseph Seymour May 2, 1870 - September 28, 1922 Upon relocating to Philadelphia, he established himself as a minister and attended the initial organizing conference of American Methodism where he would first meet Absalom Jones. Both shared a common desire to establish a place of worship for newly freed Africans.

In 1787, while kneeling in prayer at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, St. George's incensed church officials pulled Allen, Jones, and other African worshipers from the church. This was the impetus for Allen and Jones to organize the independent Free African Society on April 12, 1787.

The Free African Society denounced slavery and was devoted to serving all humanity. Allen was a Methodist, and Jones, an Episcopalian. On April 9, 1816, Allen unified the two factions by forming the first African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At some point, many members affiliated with Jones when he established an Episcopal congregation, which they named the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Jones was ordained as the first Black priest in the Episcopal Church, as well as the first African-American priest in America, period.

Henry McNeal Turner February 1, 1834 - 1915 Henry McNeal Turner February 1, 1834 - 1915 Allen led a small group who resolved to remain Methodists as they formed the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793. In general, they adopted the doctrines and form of government of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated with Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel's independence, Allen successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an institution independent of white congregations. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia in 1816 to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the African Methodist Episcopial Church.

William Joseph Seymour was the revival leader at Azusa Street and is considered the father of the Pentecostal religious movement. His contribution to American Protestantism is seen not only through this achievement but also in his vision of racial and gender equality in the church.

Absalom Jones November 6, 1746 - 1818 Absalom Jones November 6, 1746 - 1818 Born the son of freed slaves in Centerville, Louisiana, Seymour was a grown man when he became a student at a new Bible school founded by Charles Parham in Houston, Texas in 1905.

It was here that he learned the major tenets of the Holiness Movement and would later further develop the belief in glossolalia ("speaking in tongues") as a confirmation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In 1906, he found a run-down building in downtown Los Angeles located on Azusa Street, and preached his doctrinal beliefs there. The result was the historic Azusa Street Revival. The revival was characterized by estatic spiritual experiences accompanied by "glossolalia," dramatic worship services, and inter-racial mingling. The participants were criticized by secular media and Christian theologians for behaviors considered, at that time, to be outrageous and unorthodox.

Today, the revival is considered by historians to be the catalyst for the spread of Pentecostalism in the 20th century. Most of the current charismatic groups, no matter what their ethnic make-up, can claim some lineage to the Azusa Street Revival.

Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, a Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was free-born in Newberry Courthouse, South Carolina to Sarah Greer and Hardy Turner, who was never enslaved. His paternal grandmother was a white plantation owner, while his maternal grandfather, David Greer, arrived in North America aboard a slave ship but, according to family history, had a tattoo with the Mandingo coat of arms, signifying his royal status. It was decided not to sell Greer into slavery and, instead, he was sent to live with a Quaker family. While it was against the law for Black people to learn how to read and write English, while working as a caretaker at a law firm he taught himself. The firm's lawyers, appreciating his intelligence, aided him in securing a well-rounded education.

A year earlier, Turner had converted during a Methodist revival and decided he would one day become a preacher. After receiving his preacher's license in 1853, he traveled the South as an evangelist, going as far as New Orleans, Louisiana. Much of his time was spent in Georgia, where he preached at revivals in Macon, Athens and Atlanta. In 1856 he wed Eliza Peacher, the daughter of an affluent African American house builder in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1858 he and his family journeyed north to St. Louis, Missouri, where he was accepted as a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was also the publisher of the AME church's weekly newspaper, "Christian Recorder."

One of the most influential African American leaders in late-nineteenth-century Georgia, Turner was a pioneering church organizer and missionary for the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Georgia, eventually achieving the rank of Bishop. Also an active politician and Reconstruction-era state legislator from Macon, he would become an outspoken advocate of back-to-Africa emigration. To further the emigrationist cause, he published his own newspapers: The Voice of Missions (editor, 1893-1900) and later The Voice of the People (editor, 1901-4). In 1872, he was awarded a Doctorate of Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and in 1873 Wilberforce University awarded him the title of Doctor of Divinity. Turner was against American involvement in the Spanish American War. Turner died on May 8, 1915, in Windsor, Canada, while traveling on church business. Buried in Atlanta, a portrait of Turner proudly hangs in the state capitol.

Born enslaved in Sussex County, Delaware, Absalom Jones was destined to become a significant figure in African-American religious, fraternal and civic life.

Having educated himself in English at an early age, when 16 years old his "owner" took him to Philadelphia, to work as a clerk and handyman in a retail establishment. For his work performed during the evening hours, Jones was permitted to retain his earnings with which he would later buy his freedom. He married in 1770. At the age of 38, he purchased his wife's freedom as well as a home for them. Quite the entrepreneurial man, they would later purchase two homes and rent them for income.

In 1786, when Richard Allen was a preacher at St. George's United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Jones, also a Methodist minister at this time, resented and protested against the white congregants' forcing them to a segregated section of the church. They decided to conduct separate worship service for African-American members. White and African- American members were in opposition. In 1787 Allen and Jones shephered the Black members out of St. George's Methodist Church.

They founded the Free African Society, a nondenominational mutual aid and relief society which helped widows, orphans, the sick, the distressed and offered burial expenses to those in need. Additionally, they aided those newly freed African- Americans into Northern urban life.

In 1792, under the leadership of Absalom Jones, "The African Church" was organized as a direct outgrowth of the Free African Society. In 1793, he and Richard Allen organized the Black community to serve as nurses and attendants during Philadelphia's severe Yellow Fever epidemic. In 1794, "The African Church" building was completed and dedicated on July 17 of that year. Absalom Jones led his African Church in applying to Bishop William White for membership in the Episcopal Church. On Sunday, September 14, 1794, the congregation was received into the fellowship and communion of the diocese of Pennsylvania. The following year the Diocesan Convention approved the affiliation with the stipulation that the Church could not participate in the Diocesan Convention. This was not resolved until 1864. So "The African Church" became The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Absalom Jones was ordained Deacon. Some nine years later he was ordained Priest, becoming the first priest in America of African descent.

In 1797, when the first African Lodge # 459 of Philadelphia, Prince Hall Freemasons, was warranted, Absalom Jones became its first Worshipful Master and in 1815 he was elected its first Grand Master of the First African Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.

During his ministry, Absalom Jones never changed or faltered on his conviction that religious and social action are synonymous.

He founded schools for African-Americans, assisted them during times of distress and assisted them in their opposition to slavery and oppression.

Jones co-founded an insurance company, and a society which fought vice and immorality. Absalom Jones died on February 13, 1818 and in 1973, the 64th General Convention of the Episcopal Church added his name to the Church calendar as an elective feast to be commemorated and observed.

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