A very dear friend of my family passed last February. He was a handyman who helped us maintain our home and property. Recently, while sorting out papers I had scattered around the house, I picked up his funeral program. Looking at it brought to mind how proud he was of his family’s 100-year association with St. Stephen AME/St. Malachy’s Church. He was also proud of being a member himself. I became curious about how AME (African Methodist Episcopal) came into being. The Internet being a source of so much information, I searched the Web, and the following is what I found.
During the period prior to the Revolutionary War, while American colonists were setting the stage for freedom from England, free black people realized they, too, were entitled to natural and unalienable rights. At that time, most black people attended churches organized and run by white people. After the war, free blacks established organizations and churches to serve themselves. By 1787, those living in Philadelphia established an organization called the Free African Society (FAS) and 29 years later, Richard Allen, an African-American minister, founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church denomination because of sociological differences with FAS.
Richard Allen and Absalom Jones served as lay ministers for the black membership at St. George Methodist Church. Under their leadership, black membership increased significantly, which felt threatening to the white members. In November 1787, white elders attempted to relegate black members to a newly installed upstairs gallery. Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and others refused to sit in segregated seats. As a protest, they began praying at the altar rail. When white trustees of the church attempted to remove them, Allen, Jones, and other members departed St. George.
After the incident, Allen and Jones formed a Free African Society (FAS) branch to serve black people spiritually, socially and economically. Some FAS members continued to attend St. George Methodist Church, and continued to experience the same discrimination. They decided to change their FAS into an African congregation. Two churches were the result of this decision, Bethel African Methodist Church with Richard Allen as minister and the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, pastored by Absalom Jones. Jones and most of his followers leaned more towards Episcopalian ideals (Church of England). They applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Later they were admitted to the Diocese as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Jones was ordained deacon in 1795, and a priest in 1802.
Allen led a withdrawal of members from Saint George Methodist Church who preferred Methodist practices. From that group the Bethel African Methodist Church was formed. Some of the members of St. Thomas Episcopal Church were not happy being admitted to the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania and joined Allen at the Bethel African Methodist Church. As a result, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed. They adopted the doctrines and order of worship of the Methodist Church and the form of government of the Episcopal Church. After the formation of the church, St. Georges Methodist Church wanted them to come under their jurisdiction.
In 1816 Allen went to court to separate Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church from the white church structure. Bethel AME Church won legal recognition and independence.
That year Richard Allen and representatives from four black Methodist congregations held a convention at Bethel AME in Philadelphia and organized the African Methodist Episcopal Church as a denomination.