AME Church History

AME CHURCH HISTORY: FOUNDERS DAY PRONOUNCEMENT by Refiloe Tilo

The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is a Global Methodist Church, which is not affiliated with the United Methodist Church governmentally, and it was formally organized in 1816. It developed from a congregation formed by a group of Philadelphia-area slaves and former slaves who withdrew from St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, in 1787, because of discrimination.

The establishment of this great church was led by a group of brave men and women, who stood up for what is right and had the courage to step out in faith and claim their rightful place in society.

Richard Allen

It was the year 1760, when a son was born into the Allen family and they named him Richard. Richard was born into slavery, his family belonging to the slave master, the honourable Benjamin Chew, Chief Justice of the Common Wealth of Pennsylvania, during that time, and he later sold them to Mr Stokely Sturgis, a plantation owner in Delaware.

When Mr Sturgis experienced financial woes, as life would have it, he sold Richard's mother and three of his five siblings. Richard and his older brother and sister who remained slaves to Mr Sturgis, began to attend meetings of the local Methodist Society which was welcoming to slaves and free blacks. At the tender age of17, inspired by Rev. Freeborn Garrettson, who encouraged slave owners to emancipate their people, Richard began to evangelise, however this attracted criticism from local slave owners.

He later bought his freedom for two thousand dollars in Continental money, after which he decided to travel. Along his travels he found himself returning to Philadelphia, his birth place, and joined the white congregation at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church. Soon after, Richard became a preacher but he was restricted to the 5am early morning services. As he attracted more black congregants and the attendance of coloured people at St. George's increased, the hostile attitudes of the officers and members also increased, and on a Sabbath morning in 1787, the church vestry met them at the door of the church and ordered them to be in a separate area for worship, sending them to the gallery. When officials at St. George's pulled blacks off their knees while praying, coloured members discovered just how far white members would go to enforce racial discrimination against them.

Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, also a Methodist preacher, resented the white congregants' segregating the blacks for worship and prayer and they decided to leave St. George's to create independent worship for African Americans. In the same year, Allen and Jones led the black members out of St. George's Methodist Church. Theyformed the Free African Society, a non-denominational mutual aid society, which assisted fugitive slaves and new migrants to the city.

Over time, most of the Free African Society members chose to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, however, Allen led a small group who resolved to remain Methodists. Allen called their congregation the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Converting a blacksmith shop on Sixth Street, and opened the doors of Bethel AME Church on July 29th, 1794. A decade after its founding, the AME Church had 457 members and in 1813, it had 1,272 members.

In 1816, Richard Allen united four African-American congregations of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia; Salem, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Together they founded the independent denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first fully independent black denomination in the United States. And on April 10th 1816, the other ministers elected Allen as their first Bishop. Richard Allen later died in 1831 and was succeeded by other Bishops and among those was Bishop Henry Turner.

The history of the AME Church recognises Richard Allen as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1816. It is because of this short background that the AME Church Worldwide sets the second Sunday in February to celebrate the birthday (14th February) of its illustrious founder, Richard Allen.

Here in South Africa, along with celebrating Bishop Richard Allen, we also commemorate and celebrate those who we consider to be our founding fathers. The Reverend Mangena Maake Mokone as well as Charlotte Mmakgomo Mannya Maxeke, are 2 such stalwarts who's contribution to the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Africa as well as to the Country, cannot be forgotten or undermined.

Mangena Maake Mokone

Mokone was born in Sekhkuniland in 1851, a member of the Bogaga tribe. His father, a secondary chief, was killed in the Swazi War of 1863. The young Mokone and a friend fled to Durban where Mokone found work with a Mrs. Steele who belonged to the Methodist Church. She encouraged him to attend night school and taught him to read. Mokone saw the Bible next to Mrs. Steele's bed and longed to be able to read it, which made him a keen student. Mrs. Steele also encouraged him to attend Sunday School at the Aliwal Street Chapel.

One day Mokone heard a local preacher preaching about the wiles of the Devil and he was converted to Christianity and baptised. Mokone became a local preacher himself and worked as a carpenter during the day while at night he preached at revival meetings. One day his congregation was so moved that they were noisy and tearful. A white neighbour told them to "vuka" ("get up") and asked that Mokone be replaced by a more moderate preacher.

When the Methodist Church decided to appoint probationer ministers, Mokone was among those selected. He became a "native assistant missionary." After spending a further two years in Natal, he was sent to Pretoria where he established a congregation and started a school that produced people like Sefako Makgatho, former president of the African National Congress. After serving his probation he was ordained in 1887.He next went to Johannesburg, where he met people such as J. Z. Tantsi who would later join him in the Ethiopian Church.

During the years that Mokone worked in the Transvaal, racially segregated district meetings had become the accepted form of church government. Mokone resented this and gave racial segregation as one of his reasons for leaving the Methodist Church. At the so-called "Native meetings" the work of the evangelists and "native assistant missionaries" was discussed and tuition given to those "on trial." Mokone felt that some of the evangelists had been judged unfairly. One of these was Samuel Mathabathe who was told, after Mokone had resigned, that he was not intellectually astute enough to be ordained and had to continue to work as an evangelist. At the time of his resignation Mokone was working as a tutor at Kilnerton College.

In 1892 he wrote to the District Superintendent, George Weavind, and said: "I hereby give you notice that at the end of the month I will leave the Wesleyan Church and serve God in my own way." He gave a number of reasons for his decision. Among them were the separate district meetings, lack of understanding from white ministers, no family allowances for African ministers and poor wages.

In November of the same year, Mokone and twenty others held the founding service of the Ethiopian Church. Among those who joined him was Samuel Brander. He was later joined by a number of men such as J. Z. Tantsi, J. G. Xaba and Marcus Gabashane. Later Dwane and Goduka also became members of the Ethiopian Church.

Having learned from the letters of Charlotte Mannya how the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America had black leadership and enough money to help educate their members, Mokone and the other Ethiopians decided to invite them to amalgamate and form a South African branch. Dwane was sent to America and returned to "reobligate" or ordain the ministers of the Ethiopian Church.

In 1898 Bishop Henry Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church visited South Africa. He was welcomed by the Ethiopians and ordained a number of ministers. Mokone became an elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and continued to serve the Church that he helped found in South Africa until his death in 1931. His long-term service in the church has earned him the honorary title of 'father figure'.

Charlotte Makgomo Mannya-Maxeke

Charlotte Makgomo Mannya - Maxeke was born in Ramokgopa in the Polokwane District in 1874. As a dedicated churchgoer, Charlotte and her sister, Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir and toured England for two years. With hopes of pursuing an education, Charlotte went on a second tour to the United States of America with her church choir. When the tour collapsed, she stayed in the United States and studied at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, which was controlled by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. At the university, she was taught under Pan-Africanist, W.E.B Du Bois, and received an education that was focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa.

She graduated with a Bachelore of Science degree from Wilberforce University, where she also met her husband, Marshall Maxeke. They were engaged when they both returned to South Africa in 1901, Charlotte as South Africa's first Black woman graduate.

Charlotte was greatly influenced by the African Methodist Episcopal Church and through her connections with the Ethiopian Church the African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in South Africa. She became the organizer of the Women's Mite Missionary Society in Johannesburg. After this Charlotte and her husband established a school at Evaton on the Witwatersrand. The Maxekes went on to teach and evangelise in other places, including Thembuland in the Transkei under King Sabata Dalindyebo. It was here that Charlotte participated in the king's court, a privilege unheard of for a woman.

The Maxekes finally settled in Johannesburg, where they became involved in political movements. Both her and her husband attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), today known as the African National Congress and although her main concerns were church-linked social issues, Charlotte also wrote on the social and political situation occupied by women. As an early opponent of passes for black women, Maxeke was politically active throughout her adult life. She helped organized the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913 and founded the Bantu Women's League of the SANNC (today known as the ANC Women's League). As the leader of this organization, she led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women, and this was followed up by a protest the following year.

Maxeke was also involved in multiracial movements. She addressed the Women's Reform Club in Pretoria, which was an organization for the voting rights of women, and joined the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus. Maxeke was also elected as president of the Women's Missionary Society.

In 1928, she attended a conference in the USA, and became increasingly concerned about the welfare of Africans. She set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg and was the first black woman to become a parole officer for juvenile delinquents.

Maxeke was often honoured as 'Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa', and had an ANC nursery school named after her in Tanzania. Maxeke's name has also been given to the former "Johannesburg General Hospital" which is now known as the "Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital". She died in Johannesburg in 1939.