Clergyman. Brown, a free mulatto, was born in Charleston on January 8, 1770. He had little or no formal education and, although he learned to read the Bible, depended on others to write letters for him. A deeply religious man, Brown was serving in Charleston as a Methodist lay preacher by the early nineteenth century. He received a license to preach and organized an African congregation in Charleston in the early 1810s. The parish became popular among African Americans, both slave and free, and initially drew fourteen hundred members. Brown benefited from the encouragement of Bishop Francis Asbury, who considered him as one of the most effective “colored missionaries” in the lowcountry. However, after white church officials in Charleston reduced the control that black Methodists heretofore exercised over their church affairs, Brown led most of them from the denomination in 1817 in protest. They formed an African church, and Brown traveled to Philadelphia, where in 1818 he was admitted as an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. His Charleston church, which had grown to more than three thousand members, affiliated with this northern black denomination.
Among the members of Brown’s AME congregation in Charleston was Denmark Vesey. When Vesey’s plot to lead a slave uprising was uncovered in 1822, accusations surfaced that sought to connect Brown to the conspiracy. Fearing implication, he fled to Philadelphia, and his church in Charleston was closed. Richard Allen, the founder of the AME Church and its first bishop, gave Brown refuge and made him his assistant. In 1828 Brown was elected as the second bishop of the growing African Methodist Episcopal Church. After Allen’s death in 1831, Brown became the church’s sole bishop.
Although largely illiterate, Brown promoted education among church members, whom he encouraged to attend schools where available. When his fellow Charlestonian Daniel Payne joined the AME ministry in 1842, Brown encouraged his efforts to improve clerical education. Brown was actively involved in secular reforms. He was a leader in Philadelphia’s American Moral Reform Society, an African American organization advocating antislavery, racial integration, and myriad other social reforms. He traveled extensively, expanding the church from its northeastern base westward. By 1840 he added the Ohio Conference along with the Upper Canada and Indiana Conferences to the denomination. His authority also extended southward to the church’s missionary station on Haiti. During Brown’s bishopric, the denominational membership doubled to more than seventeen thousand.
Brown suffered a serious stroke in 1844 that left him partially paralyzed. He died in Philadelphia on May 9, 1849, and was survived by his wife, Maria, and six children. Morris Brown College in Atlanta and churches in Charleston and Philadelphia are named in his memory.
Handy, James A. Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History. Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Concern, 1902.
Wikramanayake, Marina. A World in Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973. Wright, Richard R. The Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Nashville: A.M.E. Sunday School Union, 1963.