To escape racial discrimination in Philadelphia’s Methodist Church, Richard Allen, a former slave, organized the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church there in 1787. It is the oldest African American religious denomination and existed mainly in the North before the Civil War. The denomination’s origins in South Carolina date to 1818. In 1817 the attempt of white Methodists in Charleston to control the activities of black church members precipitated a mass exodus of 4,367 from the church. The following year many went on to establish the African Church, which was affiliated with the AME denomination. At this time Charleston’s membership was second only to that of Philadelphia, and it was the southernmost branch of the denomination. Suspicious of its northern connections and the autonomy the church represented, white authorities routinely harassed its members. Church leaders’ involvement in the 1822 Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy led to destruction of the church and dispersal of its membership.
In 1863 the church was reestablished in South Carolina when the first AME missionaries, the Reverends James Lynch and James Hall, began their operations in and around Port Royal, Edisto, and Beaufort. On May 15, 1865, in Charleston, Bishop Daniel Payne organized the South Carolina Conference, which originally also included North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. African Methodism grew rapidly and was black Carolinians’ second largest denomination at the end of the century. In 1880 with 300,000 primarily southern members, the first bishops for the South were elected. All had important ties to South Carolina. Henry McNeal Turner was from Newberry; Richard Cain was the quintessential preacher politician in Reconstruction South Carolina; and the Sixth Episcopal District, which included South Carolina, was William Dickerson’s first appointment.
African Methodism promoted education, and churches frequently housed secular and Sunday schools. To raise the educational level of ministers, Payne Institute was established in Cokesbury in 1870. Relocating to Columbia in 1880, the school was renamed Allen University and was the first college controlled by African Americans in the state. South Carolinians were also in the forefront of the denomination’s missionary efforts. In 1878 the AME Liberian Mission Church headed by the Reverend Santania Flegler departed Charleston with the Liberian Exodus participants. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner’s efforts organized the denomination in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 1891 and southern Africa in 1896. In 2004 one third of the denomination’s 3.5 million members were Africans and the church was growing most rapidly in western and southern Africa. South Carolina, which constitutes the Seventh Episcopal District, had the third largest membership of the church’s nineteen districts.
Advocating “the Gospel of Freedom,” African Methodist ministers have played important roles as secular leaders. Between 1868 and 1876 seven AME ministers were elected to the South Carolina state legislature. Church leaders used their offices to articulate community grievances and to protest against lynching and racial discrimination. In 1948 the Reverend Joseph DeLaine organized black parents against racial discrimination in Clarendon County’s public schools. The resulting litigation was one of the cases decided in the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. The mission of the church has always been broadly based, and its resources have been deployed to address a range of social problems, including HIV-AIDS, healthcare disparities, affordable housing, and foster care.
Angell, Stephen W. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
Hildebrand, Reginald. The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.
James, Frederick C. African Methodism in South Carolina: A Bicentennial Focus. N.p.: Seventh Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1987.
Tindall, George. South Carolina Negroes: 1877–1900. 1952. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.