The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church has its roots in adversity. Absalom Jones was the first black priest in the Episcopal church in America. Jones and Richard Allen had both been raised in slavery, purchasing their freedom as adults in Philadelphia. Jones purchased his wife’s freedom first so that she would not have any children while in slavery (the law of the land said that children’s freedom was based on their mother’s). Jones and Richards These two men were such excellent preachers and evangelists that the congregation of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philly started to grow fast…with African Americans. The white constituency relegated the blacks to the upstairs galley, and when Allen was forcefully removed from the church for pausing to pray in the white section of the building, he and Jones decided it was time to start a new church. After several years of success with the Free African Society (designed to aid the African members of St. George’s), the AME was born, and Mother Bethel AME was founded in Philadelphia (1794), making it the oldest church property in America own by African-Americans.
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC became the first black congregation south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1816 after the white members of the Methodist Episcopal congregation allowed for a building to be placed on the black burial grounds. South Carolina state laws prevented blacks to worship without whites present, made black literacy illegal, and outlawed blacks to worship in the dark. One of Emanuel’s founders, Denmark Vesey, was accused of leading a slave revolt. White supremacists executed Vesey and several others during a secret trial and then burned the original church building to the ground in 1822. The state outlawed all black churches in 1834, so the congregation had to meet in secret until the end of the Civil War. Rev. Richard Cain reestablished the church with the name Emanuel AME, completing its rebuilding in 1872. Much history has happened since, but the congregation became infamous last week when a young white man (with a Confederate flag painted on his vehicle) came into a bible study and murdered 9 members of the congregation, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
But this will not be the end of this history. This congregation, and many others before them, have been reborn out of the ashes of violence and hatred. The seeds of the kingdom of God have deep, pervasive roots that are not quickly destroyed. We have faith in a God of reconciliation, who put sin and injustice to death on the cross of Jesus Christ. Today, everyone who has faith in THAT God stands beside their brothers and sisters in Christ at Emanuel AME, Charleston. Today, all of us with faith in the God of Jesus Christ have a charge to keep. The beauty of an eternity with God means we have a responsibility here and now to glorify God with the lives we’ve been given.
Charles Wesley’s hymn, A Charge to Keep I Have, challenges us to the task at hand, to rebuild the church through tenacious love for God and neighbor. It is the hymn sung after AME pastors are ordained:
A charge to keep I have / A God to glorify, A never-dying soul to save / And fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age / My calling to fulfill: O may it all my powers engage / To do my Master’s will!
Arm me with jealous care / As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare / A strict account to give!
Help me to watch and pray/ And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray / I shall for ever die.