From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: Church must remember African Methodists' contributions

Date 01 Feb 2001 14:51:41

Feb. 1, 2001  News media contact: Tim Tanton·(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: February is Black History Month in the United States. A
head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Reginald E. Lee is available with
this commentary.  

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Reginald E. Lee*

There is a deep historical fog that rests over some Methodists' memories.
Maybe the strength of the Central Jurisdiction (the church's segregated
black jurisdiction that existed from 1939 to 1968) was greater than anyone
anticipated. The contributions of black Methodists are so often forgotten.
Yet, African Americans have a rich and long history in the movement started
by the Rev. John Wesley. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, we who know the contributions of
Africans and African Americans to the Methodist saga owe it to ourselves,
and to others of good will, to tell the story.

The African's romantic attraction to the doctrine of grace can be traced
back to Wesley himself. Wesley's own journals indicate that the first
African conversion occurred late on a November day in 1758. He writes: "I
rode to Wandsworth [near London] and baptized two Negroes belonging to Mr.
Gilbert, a gentleman lately from Antigua. One of these was deeply convinced
of sin; the other is rejoicing in God her savior; and [they are] the first
African Christians I have known."

Many church historians use 1738 as the beginning of the Methodist movement
in England. This means that Methodism was just about 20 years old when
Wesley baptized the two slaves from Antigua. These converted slaves went
home and converted their slave master, Nathaniel Gilbert. The three of them
returned to the West Indies and started the first Methodist chapel on the
North American continent.

The Rev. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones are believed to have been at the
historic Christmas Conference held in 1784 at Baltimore's Lovely Lane
Chapel. Moreover, the presence of African Americans in American Methodism
seems to date from the very beginning of the movement. There doesn't seem to
be a period when Africans were not active in the life of the church. 

 From the very foundations of Methodism in America, the names of African
appeared on the role of Robert Strawbridge's first Methodist society. Slaves
were drawn to Methodism by the thousands.
slaves appear on the class rolls. The name of Anne Sweitzer, a slave,

 From slave plantations to stately stone cathedrals, blacks packed the house
African. It was a message of pure liberation. In a world that systematically
deeply in the black consciousness. Preaching alone can't explain why the
to hear the Good News of grace. It was a message of God's deep and abiding
love for God's entire creation. This love was big enough to include the
denied their human worth and dignity, the message that God cared resonated
masses of blacks flocked to hear the plain Gospel from the Methodist

A Wesleyan "preferential option for the poor" undergirded this message of
love. Wesley strips away the prestige of wealth and chooses to side with the
poor. This was the outgrowth of his understanding of justifying and
sanctifying grace. If you and I are in a right relationship with God, the
proper response is to care for our neighbor. Recently, I attended the
Convocation for Pastors of African-American Churches in Dallas. It was a
powerful time for black Methodists to rekindle the gifts of evangelical
preaching - and a preferential option for the poor. 

If we are going to stem the decline in American Methodism, we must find the
strength and grace to accomplish the noble task of the Uniting Conference of
1968. If the United Methodist Church is ever to regain its momentum amongst
our nation's poor, we must revisit the unique contributions of black
Methodists. We must not forget Richard Allen, who left the Methodist
Episcopal church due to its harsh treatment of African Americans. His love
for Wesleyan theology drove him to start the Free African Society, which
evolved into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen took the Wesleyan
understanding to its logical conclusion: If God loves us all, then we all
deserve to be free.

Allen left the Methodist Episcopal Church as a sociological protest. Yet,
many decided to stay and fight. People like Bishops James S. Thomas,
Leontine Kelly and Woodie W. White pressed the church to reconsider its
stance on race. Their staying was a quiet but forceful protest against
racism. This year again, the church quietly made history as we elected three
well-qualified African-American women to the episcopacy. The church
continues to show that where God's spirit is active and available, all
things are possible. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, let us be reminded that the pages of
American Methodism still have room for all of God's children! 
# # #
*Lee is pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Anderson, Ind., and
serves as adjunct professor at Anderson University School of Theology.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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