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Digital History ID 2999

 

In November 1787, white elders of Philadelphia's St. George's Methodist Church ordered black Methodists to sit in a newly built gallery. Several free blacks refused, including Richard Allen (1760-1831), a former slave, who had supported himself as a brickyard laborer, shoemaker, wagon driver, and wood chopper.

Shaken by this experience, Allen founded the Free African Society of Philadelphia, which is usually considered the first autonomous black organization in the United States. Seven years later, in 1794, Allen founded a separate black Methodist church. That same year, Absalom Jones (1746-1818), also a former slave and a former Methodist preacher, formed the African Church of Philadelphia as a racially separate non-denominational church. Discriminatory treatment in white-controlled churches led free black communities across the North to establish separate black congregations.

Between 1804 and 1815, separate black Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches were founded in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, Delaware. In 1816, Richard Allen formed the first autonomous black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal church. Five years later, a separate denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, was established in New York.

By 1820, there may have been 700 African American congregations. Black churches served as centers of political life, communal self-help, and social reform, and black ministers were community leaders.

African American ministers played a crucial role in shaping a distinctive, vernacular American preaching style. During the 1790s, a black evangelist named Harry Hoosier drew thousands of converts across the South with his dramatic retellings of Biblical stories. A black Virginia Baptist preacher named John Jasper became legendary for his ability to string "together picture after picture." Black preachers' use of repetition, humor, striking metaphors, and a stress on the human Jesus transformed American preaching styles.

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