African Religion in America

African Religion in AmericaAfricans forced into slavery in America brought with them a diverse range of African polytheistic and Muslim religious traditions. These traditions were often syncretized with one another and with Christianity in America. The diverse American religious traditions that trace their lineage back to the religious traditions of African slaves and African immigrants played an important role in the fight for civil rights in the middle of the 20th century and they continue to inform fights for civil rights and against injustice.

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Having established a constitutional framework for political and religious freedom, America still lived with the disquieting lie of its harshest institution: slavery. There had long been vocal critics of slavery, such as the Quaker Anthony Benezet in 1772, who called for an end to the “barbaric traffic” of the slave trade. But on the whole the spirit of “liberty and justice for all” did not extend to the African captives enslaved in America. The first decades of the 19th century brought to a head the deep contradictions between America’s ideals and its practice of slavery.

From the standpoint of America’s ongoing encounter with religious difference, the institution of slavery played a tremendous role in shaping American religious life. It brought African religious traditions—both West African tribal traditions and Islam—to American shores and created a crucible of oppression out of which rose new African American forms of Christian worship and expression. Slavery forced white Americans to rethink their own religious identity, struggling with the deepest dictates of their conscience and the practices of their churches. Many denominations split over the questions raised.

The West Africans brought to North America carried with them a rich variety of African tradition, belief, and practice, but little is documented of the first hundred years of their religious lives here. Their original religious traditions respected the spiritual power of ancestors, and they often worshipped a diverse pantheon of gods overseeing all aspects of daily life: the passage of seasons, the fertility of the natural world, physical and spiritual health, and the success of the community. Their religious life had included initiation rites and naming rituals, folk tales and healing practices, ecstatic dance and song. This religious life clearly took new forms as Africans were separated from one another and from their roots. Many scholars today would argue that the “ring shout” of early black Christian worship is a development of African ecstatic dance traditions, and that the “call-and-response” rhythm of black preaching, hymnody, and gospel music has its roots in the song styles of the West Africans.

With the African slave trade, the first sizable group of Muslims also came to America. While slave trade statistics are fraught with imprecision and the existence of Islam was frequently not recognized by those keeping data, it has been estimated that somewhere between 10% and 30% of the slaves brought to America between 1711 and 1808 were Muslim. They brought their practice of prayer, their fasting and dietary practices, and their knowledge of the Qur’an with them to American shores. Bilalia Fula, for example, was a slave on the Sea Islands of Georgia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. According to all accounts, Bilalia gave his children Muslim names, wore a fez and long coat, spoke French, English, and Arabic, and was finally buried with his prayer rug and his Qur’an. Other early American Muslims whose accounts have been recorded include Salih Bilali, a slave on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, and Omar Ibn Said, who left behind an autobiographical narrative.

Thus, in the early years of African slavery, the religious traditions of West Africa, often already blended in a syncretic way with Islam, were no doubt part of the American religious landscape. Slave narratives written by the children or grandchildren of African-born slaves sometimes included recollections of traditional African rituals or Islamic prayers. Eventually, these traditions became intertwined with Christianity as it developed among the slaves. There is a lively scholarly debate today as to whether African religious beliefs and practices really survived the pressures of slavery or, instead, were eradicated as slaves converted to Christianity. Many scholars argue that African traditions changed radically but also persisted as what some have called “Africanisms” in African American religion and culture.

The early white resistance to Christian missionary efforts among the African slaves is well known. White colonists feared that slaves’ conversion would require their owners to emancipate them, that the Africans were too brutish to benefit, or that conversion would inspire insubordination and revolt. Moreover, the scarcity of missionaries affected not only blacks but whites as well. Albert J. Raboteau, considered the leading expert on slave religion, concludes, “During the first 120 years of black slavery in British North America, Christianity made little headway in the slave population.” But with the “Great Awakening” of the 1740s, Methodist and Baptist movements made inroads into the slave population of the South.

For many slaves, Christianity—once adapted to their situation—became a deeply held faith and a means of self-preservation. Slaves often identified themselves with both the people of Israel held captive in Egypt and with the poor and downtrodden to whom Christ promised the greatest rewards in heaven. Both in sermon and song, slaves lifted up these themes of hope, freedom, and justice in their expressions of Christianity. They transformed Christian faith and worship into their own distinctive idiom, and in doing so they made a profound and lasting contribution to the shape of American Christianity and American music.

The deep moral dilemmas provoked by the practice of enslaving Africans also fractured Christian America. Several denominations split over the issue: the Methodists in 1844, the Baptists in 1845, and the Presbyterians in 1857. In the decades between the writing of the Constitution and the onset of the Civil War, these conflicts dominated American religious and political life. Some whites continued to argue in support of slave holding, while others insisted that the importation of slaves must be halted. Going one step further, the abolitionists fought for the total and immediate emancipation of the slaves.

Both sides appealed to religion. Defenders of slavery accused abolitionists such as William Ellery Channing, William Lloyd Garrison and Elijah Lovejoy of being religious and political radicals over-influenced by Thomas Jefferson and the European Deists, who were portrayed as un-Christian seekers of the “Abolition of God.” Free black abolitionists cried out against the hypocrisy of so-called Christian slaveholders. David Walker, son of a slave father and a free mother, wrote an “Appeal” in 1829 declaring God’s wrath and judgment on a country which allowed slavery to continue. Frederick Douglass charged that “the church and the slave prison stand next to each other… The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.”

By this time, there were already two predominantly black denominations. Richard Allen, a former slave, had left his Philadelphia church and founded the Bethel Church in 1794. He had previously been a member of a predominantly white Methodist church but was one day assaulted for praying in a part of the church where blacks were not allowed. The church he founded became the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination in 1816. Jarena Lee, one of America’s first women to preach the Gospel, got her start in Richard Allen’s Philadelphia church. The AME Zion denomination began in New York in 1821, when a group seceded from a mixed-race church in which blacks could take the sacrament of communion only after all the whites had been served.

The issues that challenged American Christianity in the 19th century resurfaced in a different form in the 1950s and 1960s, when the struggle for the civil rights of African Americans once again fractured Christian churches. In this period, the liberal religious realignment of those opposing racism included both black and white churches, and both Christians and Jews.

The relation of America’s racial diversity to its religious diversity is a complex and ongoing story. The primary actors in this story have been African Americans who have struggled for racial justice for generations. But the issues raised in this struggle have been of utmost consequence for people of all races and religions coming to America. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese Buddhist railroad workers, Sikh lumbermen, Syrian Muslim pack peddlers, and Japanese Buddhist farmworkers all faced prejudice and discrimination—articulated variously in racial, religious, and economic terms.

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Salih Bilali, African Muslim

This is a brief account of the life of Salih Bilali who was born in 1765, southwest of Timbuktu in what would today be Mali. The account was written by James Hamilton Couper, the owner of the plantation on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia where Salih Bilali served from 1816-1846. It refers to the Muslim practices of Salih Bilali. The bracketed additions were probably made by William Brown Hodgson.

There are about a dozen negroes on this plantation, who speak and understand the Foulah language; but with one exception, they appear not to have been native born Foulahs; and to have acquired the language, by having been for some time in servitude among that nation.

The exception I mention, is a remarkable man for his opportunities; and as his history, country, and the information he possesses, are interesting, I will give you, in detail, the results of the conversations I have had with him; feeling that everything coming from a person, to whom Timbucto, Jenne and Sego, are familiar as household words, cannot fail to be gratifying to one, who has made Soudan a subject of research.

Tom, whose African name was Salibul Ali, was purchased about the year 1800, by my father, from the Bahama islands, to which he had been brought from Anamaboo. His industry, intelligence, and honesty, soon brought him into notice, and he was successively advanced, until he was made head driver of this plantation, in 1816. He has continued in that station ever since, having under him a gang of about four hundred and fifty negroes, which number, he has shown himself fully competent to manage with advantage. I have several times left him for months, in charge of the plantation, without an overseer; and on each occasion, he has conducted the place to my entire satisfaction. He has quickness of apprehension, strong powers of combination and calculation, a sound judgment, a singularly tenacious memory, and what is more rare in a slave, the faculty of forethought. He possesses great veracity and honesty. He is a strict Mahometan; abstains from spirituous liquors, and keeps the various fasts, particularly that of the Rhamadan. He is singularly exempt from all feeling of superstition; and holds in great contempt, the African belief in fetishes and evil spirits. He reads Arabic, and has a Koran (which however, I have not seen) in that language, but does not write it.

So much for his character and history, since his arrival in this country. I will now give you his African reminiscences; and in doing so, I will put down all names as nearly in accordance with his pronunciation, as the difficulty of seizing upon, and expressing the peculiarities of a foreign language, will admit of. You will percieve, that the proper names differ slightly from the received spelling; and that the vocabulary varies somewhat from those given by you, in the Encyclopaedia Americana, and by Pritchard in his Physical Researches. You will, however, readily identify the words as belonging to the Foulah and Fellatah language. You will notice that in the numerals, a part are Foulah and a part Fellatah; and some common to both. A few, such as child, differ from both. He considers himself, as his language proves, a Foulah, and converses freely with the Foulahs, from Timboo and Foulah.

His native town is Kianah, in the district of Temourah, and in the Kingdom of Massina. Kianah is a considerable town, within half a mile of a great river, nearly a mile wide, which is called Maylo [Mayo]; and which runs from the setting to the rising sun, and this, to the north of the town. To the east of Kianah, this river unites with another large river which flows into it from the south. On this southern river, the large towns of Kounah and Jennay [Jenne], are situated; and he believes that the two unite beyond the latter town.

Kounah is situated on the north side of the southern river, immediately on its banks; and is two days’ journey, in a southwest direction, from Kianah. It is a very large town; and an extensive market is held, on stated days, on the opposite bank of the river. Beyond Kianah [Kouna], up the same river, but on the south side of it, is Jennay. It lies southwest from Kianah, and is also about two days’ walk from it. It is a very large town, being a day’s ride in circuit, for a man on horseback. The head priest resides at Jennay, and is called Almami. He has been frequently at Kounah and Jennay; and has heard of a large town on the great river, higher up than Jennay, which is west southwest from Kianah, and which is called Sego, and is the principal town of the Kingdom of Bambara. Another great town, the largest in the country, also lies on the great river, on the north side of it. It lies northeast from Kianah, and is called Tumbootu [Timbuktu]. It is a great distance from Kianah, more than two hundred miles.

Arab traders, who are nearly white, Mahometans in religion, and who speak the languages both of the Koran and the country, trade between Tumbootu, Kounah, Jennay and Sego. They travel in large boats, covered with awnings, and propelled by poles. They are armed, wear turbans, and travel in large parties, having frequently thirty or forty boats together. They bring for sale, salt in large thick slabs, blankets, guns, pistols, cotton cloth, beads, shell money, and sometimes horses. These traders differ from the natives in color, hair and dress, and come from a distant country beyond Tumbootu.

He has never been at Tumbootu. The natives he has seen, from that town and Jennay, speak a different language from his own, which is that of the Kingdom of Massina; but the traders understand both. Mahometanism is the religion of all. . . .

His father and mother, were persons of considerable property. When about twelve years old, as he was returning from Jennay to Ki[a]nah, alone, on horseback, he was seized by a predatory party and carried to Sego, and was transferred from master to master, until he reached the coast, at Anamaboo. During his journey, he passed a high range of mountains, on the slopes of which, he met with a nation of cannibals. After leaving Bambara, to use his own expression, the people had no religion, until he came to this country.

[From William Brown Hodgson, Notes on Northern Africa, the Sahara and Soudan. (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1844), 68-74.]

Omar Ibn Said, African Muslim

The story of Omar Ibn Said has been much embellished by legend, according to historian Allen Austin (African Muslims in Antebellum America). As a literate Muslim enslaved in America, Omar Ibn Said did, however, write his own story. Like Salih Bilali, he was a Fula, born in West Africa in 1770. He arrived in Charleston in 1807 and was sold into slavery. He escaped from Charleston to Fayetteville and was bought by Jim and John Owen, in whose extended household he is said to have become a Christian. He was encouraged to write and wrote both letters and the following autobiographical account, which is dated 1831.

You asked me to write my life. I am not able to do this because I have much forgotten my own, as well as the Arabic language. Neither can I write very grammatically or according to the true idiom. And so, my brother, I beg you, in God’s name, not to blame me, for I am a man of weak eyes, and of a weak body.

My name is Omar ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tur, between the two rivers. I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years, and then returned to my home where I remained six years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language. There they sold me to a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all. Now I am a small man, and unable to do hard work so I fled from the hand of Johnson and after a month came to a place called Faydil [Fayetteville]. There I saw some great houses [churches]. On the new moon I went into a church to pray. A lad saw me and rode off to the place of his father and informed him that he had seen a black man in the church. A man named Handah and another man with him on horseback, came attended by a troop of dogs. They took me and made me go with them twelve miles to a place called Faydil, where they put me into a great house from which I could not go out. I continued in the great house (which, in the Christian language, they called jail) sixteen days and nights. One Friday the jailor came and opened the door of the house and I saw a great many men, all Christians, some of whom called out to me, “What is your name? Is it Omar or Seid?” I did not understand their Christian language. A man called Bob Mumford took me and led me out of the jail, and I was very well pleased to go with them to their place. I stayed at Mumford’s four days and nights, and then a man named Jim Owen, son-in-law of Mumford, having married his daughter Betsey, asked me if I was willing to go to a place called Bladen. I said, Yes, I was willing. I went with them and have remained in the place of Jim Owen until now.

Before [after?] I came into the hand of Gen. Owen a man by the name of Mitchell came to buy me. He asked me if I were willing to go to Charleston City. I said “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, I am not willing to go to Charleston. I stay in the hand of Jim Owen.”

O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of S. Carolina, O ye people of America all of you; have you among you any two such men as Jim Owen and John Owen? These men are good men. What food they eat they give to me to eat. As they clothe themselves they clothe me. They permit me to read the gospel of God, our Lord, and Savior, and King; who regulates all our circumstances, our health and wealth, and who bestows his mercies willingly, not by constraint. According to power I open my heart, as to a great light, to receive the true way, the way of the Lord Jesus the Messiah.

Before I came to the Christian country, my religion was the religion of “Mohammed, the Apostle of God may God have mercy upon him and give him peace.” I walked to the mosque before daybreak, washed my face and head and hands and feet. I prayed at noon, prayed in the afternoon, prayed at sunset, prayed in the evening. I gave alms every year, gold, silver, seeds, cattle, sheep, goats, rice, wheat, and barley. I gave tithes of all the above-named things. I went every year to the holy war against the infidels. I went on pilgrimage to Mecca, as all did who were able. My father had six sons and five daughters, and my mother had three sons and one daughter. When I left my country I was thirty-seven years old; I have been in the country of the Christians twenty-four years. Written A.D. 1831.

O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of South Carolina, O all ye people of America-

The first son of Jim Owen is called Thomas, and his sister is called Masajoin [Martha Jane?]. This is an excellent family.

Tom Owen and Nell Owen have two sons and a daughter. The first son is called Jim and the second John. The daughter is named Melissa.

Seid Jim Owen and his wife Betsey have two sons and five daughters. Their names are Tom, and John, and Mercy, Miriam, Sophia, Margaret and Eliza. This family is a very nice family. The wife of John Owen is called Lucy and an excellent wife she is. She had five children. Three of them died and two are still living.

O ye Americans, ye people of North Carolina have you, have you, have you, have you, have you among you a family like this family, having so much love to God as they?

Formerly I, Omar, loved to read the book of the Koran the famous. General Jim Owen and his wife used to read the gospel, and they read it to me very much the gospel of God, our Lord, our Creator, our King, He that orders all our circumstances, health and wealth, willingly, not constrainedly, according to his power. Open thou my heart to the gospel, to the way of uprightness. Thanks to the Lord of all worlds, thanks in abundance. He is plenteous in mercy and abundant in goodness.

For the law was given by Moses but grace and truth were by Jesus the Messiah.

When I was a Mohammedan I prayed thus: “Thanks be to God, Lord of all worlds, the merciful the gracious, Lord of the day of Judgment, thee we serve, on thee we call for help. Direct us in the right way, the way of those on whom thou hast had mercy, with whom thou hast not been angry and who walk not in error. Amen.” But now I pray “Our Father,” etc., in the words of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

I reside in this our country by reason of great necessity. Wicked men took me by violence and sold me to the Christians. We sailed a month and a half on the great sea to the place called Charleston in the Christian land. I fell into the hands of a small, weak and wicked man, who feared not God at all, nor did he read [the gospel] at all nor pray. I was afraid to remain with a man so depraved and who committed so many crimes and I ran away. After a month our Lord God brought me forward to the hand of a good man, who fears God, and loves to do good, and whose name is Jim Owen and whose brother is called Col. John Owen. These are two excellent men. I am residing in Bladen County.

I continue in the hand of Jim Owen who never beats me, nor scolds me. I neither go hungry nor naked, and I have no hard work to do. I am not able to do hard work for I am a small man and feeble. During the last twenty years I have known no want in the hand of Jim Owen.

[From “Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina, 1831,” American Historical Review 30, no. 4 (1925),787-95.]

David Walker’s “Appeal”

Set in religious language of God’s wrath and judgment, this tract gives strong voice to the Christian condemnation of slavery. Walker was born in North Carolina in 1785, his father a slave and his mother a free black. This “Appeal,” published in Boston in 1829, was considered inflammatory, even by some abolitionists. The full title of this tract was “Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America.” These excerpts are from Article III.  Walker died of unknown causes the following year, in 1830.

Have not the Americans the Bible in their hands? Do they believe it? Surely they do not. See how they treat us in open violation of the Bible!! They no doubt will be greatly offended with me, but if God does not awaken them, it will be because they are superior to other men, as they have represented themselves to be. Our divine Lord and Master said “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But an American minister, with the Bible in his hand, holds us and our children in the most abject slavery and wretchedness. Now I ask them, would they like for us to hold them and their children in abject slavery and wretchedness? No says one, that never can be done—you are too abject and ignorant to do it— you are not men—you were made to be slaves to us, to dig up gold and silver for us and our children. Know this, my dear sirs, that although you treat us and our children now, as you do your domestic beasts—yet the final result of all future events are known but to God Almighty alone, who rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and who dethrones one earthly king and sits up another, as it seemeth good in his holy sight.

…[American preachers] have newspapers and monthly periodicals, which they receive in continual succession, but on the pages of which, you will scarcely ever find a paragraph respecting slavery, which is ten thousand times more injurious to this country than all the other evils put together, and which will be the final overthrow of its government, unless something is very speedily done; for their cup is nearly full. Perhaps they will laugh at, or make light of this; but I tell you Americans! that unless you speedily alter your course, you and your Country are gone!!!!!! For God Almighty will tear up the very face of the earth!!!!…Do you think that our blood is hidden from the Lord, because you can hide it from the rest of the world by sending out missionaries, and by your charitable deeds to the Greeks, Irish, etc.? Will he not punish your secret crimes on the house top? Even here in Boston, pride and prejudice have got to such a pitch, that in the very houses erected to the Lord, they have built little places for the reception of colored people, where they must sit during meeting, or keep away from the house of God; and the preachers say nothing about it—much less, go into the hedges and highways seeking the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and try to bring them in, their Lord and Master. There are hardly a more wretched, ignorant, miserable, and abject set of beings in all the world, than the blacks in the Southern and Western sections of this country, under tyrants and devils. The preachers of America cannot see them, but they can send out missionaries to convert the heathens, notwithstanding.

…What can the American preachers and people take God to be? Do they believe his words? If they do, do they believe that he will be mocked? Or do they believe because they are whites and we blacks, that God will have respect to them? Did not God make us as it seemed best to himself? What right, then, has one of us, to despise another and to treat him cruel, on account of his colour, which none but the God who made it can alter? Can there be a greater absurdity in nature, and particularly in a free republican country? But the Americans, having introduced slavery among them, their hearts have become almost seared, as with a hot iron, and God has nearly given them up to believe a lie in preference to the truth!!! and I am awfully afraid that pride, prejudice, avarice, and blood, will, before long, prove the final ruin of this happy republic, or land of liberty!!! Can anything be a greater mockery of religion than the way in which it is conducted by the Americans? It appears as though they are bent only on daring God Almighty to do his best—they chain and handcuff us and our children and drive us around the country like brutes, and go into the house of the God of justice to return Him thanks for having aided him in their infernal cruelties inflicted upon us. Will the Lord suffer this people do go on much longer, taking his holy name in vain? Will he not stop them, PREACHERS and all? O Americans! Americans!! I call God—I call angels—I call men, to witness, that your DESTRUCTION is at hand, and will be speedily consummated unless you REPENT.

[From David Walker, Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America. Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829,  3rd ed., art. 3 (Boston: D. Walker, 1830), 39-49.]

Sojourner Truth, Abolitionist: “What Ails the Constitution?”

An observer in Iowa describes Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) a strong voice against slavery, in 1863, who used her remarkable rhetorical gifts to talk about slavery and the American Constitution.

The graphic sketch of her by the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin has doubtless been read with interest by thousands. No pen, however, can give an adequate idea of Sojourner Truth. This unlearned African woman, with her deep religious and trustful nature burning in her soul like fire, has a magnetic power over an audience perfectly astounding. I was once present in a religious meeting where some speaker had alluded to the government of the United States, and had uttered sentiments in favor of its Constitution. Sojourner stood, erect and tall, with her white turban on her head, and in a low and subdued tone of voice began saying, “Children, I talks to God and God talks to me. I goes out and talks to God in de fields and de woods. [The weevil had destroyed thousands of acres of wheat in the West that year.] Dis morning I was walking out, and I got over de fence. I saw de wheat a holding up its head, looking very big. I goes up and takes holt ob it. You b’lieve it, dere was no wheat dare? I says, God, [speaking the name in a voice of reverence peculiar to herself]; what is de matter wid dis wheat? and he says to me, ‘Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.’ Now I hears talkin’ about de Constitution and de rights of man. I comes up and I takes hold of dis Constitution. It looks mighty big, and I feels for my rights, but der aint any dare. Den I says, God, what ails dis constitution? He says to me, “Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.” The effect upon the multitude was irresistible.

[Excerpt from Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Battle Creek, Michigan, 1878), 146-48.]

On Black Methodism

Richard Allen (1760-1831) was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, America’s first black denomination, which emerged in Philadelphia in 1816. In this excerpt, Allen tells of his roots in Methodism and his struggle to form a separate African American, but still Methodist, church.

We bore much persecution from many of the Methodist connection; but we have reason to be thankful to Almighty God, who was our deliverer. The day was appointed to go and dig the cellar. I arose early in the morning and addressed the throne of grace, praying that the Lord would bless our endeavors. Having by this time two or three teams of my own—as I was the first proposer of the African church, I put the first spade in the ground to dig a cellar for the same. This was the first African Church or meetinghouse that was erected in the United States of America.

We intended it for the African preaching house or church; but finding that the elder stationed in this city was such an opposer to our proceedings of erecting a place of worship, though the principal part of the directors of this church belonged to the Methodist connection, the elder stationed here would neither preach for us, nor have anything to do with us. We then held an election, to know what religious denomination we should unite with. At the election it was determined—there were two in favor of the Methodist, the Rev. Absalom Jones and myself, and a large majority in favor of the Church of England. The majority carried.

Notwithstanding we had been so violently persecuted by the elder, we were in favor of being attached to the Methodist connection, for I was confident that there was no religious sect or denomination would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodist; for the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people; for the unlearned can understand, and the learned are sure to understand; and the reason that the Methodist is so successful in the awakening and conversion of the colored people, the plain doctrine and having a good discipline. But in many cases the preachers would act to please their own fancy, without discipline, till some of them became such tyrants, and more especially to the colored people. They would turn them out of society, giving them no trial, for the smallest offense, perhaps only hearsay. They would frequently, in meeting the class, impeach some of the members of whom they had heard an ill report, and turn them out, saying, “I have heard thus and thus of you, and you are no more a member of society”—without witnesses on either side.  This has been frequently done, notwithstanding in the first rise and progress in Delaware state, and elsewhere, the colored people were their greatest support; for there were but few of us free; but the slaves would toil in their little patches many a night until more than what their masters gave them, but we used often to divide our little support among the white preachers of the Gospel. This was once a quarter.

It was in the time of the old Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States. The Methodists were the first people that brought glad tidings to the colored people. I feel thankful that ever I heard a Methodist preach. We are beholden to the Methodists, under God, for the light of the Gospel we enjoy; for all other denominations preached so high-flown that we were not able to comprehend their doctrine.  Sure am I that reading sermons will never prove so beneficial to the colored people as spiritual or extempore preaching.  I am well convinced that the Methodist has proved beneficial to thousands and ten times thousands.  It is to be awfully feared that the simplicity of the Gospel that was among them fifty years ago, and that they conform more to the world and the fashions thereof, they would fare very little better than the people of the world. The discipline is altered considerably from what it was.  We would ask for the good old way, and desire to walk therein.

In 1793 a committee was appointed from the African Church to solicit me to be their minister, for there was no colored preacher in Philadelphia but myself.  I told them I could not accept their offer, as I was a Methodist. I was indebted to the Methodists, under God, for what little religion I had; being convinced that they were the people of God, I informed them that I could not be anything else but a Methodist, as I was born and awakened under them, and I could go no further with them, for I was a Methodist, and would leave you in peace and love.

[From The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen (New York: F. Ford and M.A. Riply, 1880), 28-30.]

Jarena Lee, Preacher

Jarena Lee, born in 1873, embraced Christianity in Richard Allen’s Philadelphia African American Episcopal Church. In her autobiography, she describes her calling to preach the Gospel, which she did with Bishop Allen’s blessing, in the AME Church. Though in her day she could not be an ordained minister, she preached at revival and prayer meetings.

My Call to Preach the Gospel

Between four and five years after my sanctification, on a certain time, an impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if someone was about to speak to me, yet I had no such thought in my heart. But to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understood, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say, “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and will turn your enemies to become your friends.”

At first I supposed that Satan had spoken to me, for I had read that he could transform himself into an angel of light, for the purpose of deception. Immediately I went into a secret place, and called upon the Lord to know if he had called me to preach, and whether I was deceived or not; when there appeared to my view the form and figure of a pulpit with a Bible lying thereon, the back of which was presented to me as plainly as if it had been a literal fact.

In consequence of this, my mind became so exercised that during the night following, I took a text and preached in my sleep. I thought there stood before me a great multitude, while I expounded to them the things of religion. So violent were my exertions, and so loud were my exclamations, that I awoke from the sound of my own voice, which also awoke the family of the house where I resided. Two days after, I went to see the preacher in charge of the African Society, who was the Rev. Richard Allen (the same before named in these pages) to tell him that I felt it my duty to preach the gospel. But as I drew near the street in which his house was, which was in the city of Philadelphia, my courage began to fail me; so terrible did the cross appear, it seemed that I should not be able to bear it. Previous to my setting out to go to see him, so agitated was my mind that my appetite for my daily food failed me entirely. Several times on my way there, I turned back again; but as often I felt my strength again renewed, and I soon found that the nearer I approached to the house of the minister, the less was my fear. Accordingly, as soon as I came to the door, my fears subsided, the cross was removed, all things appeared pleasant—I was tranquil.

I now told him that the Lord had revealed it to me that I must preach the gospel. He replied by asking, in what sphere I wished to move in? I said, among the Methodists. He then replied, that a Mrs. Cook, a Methodist lady, had also some time before requested the same privilege; who it was believed, had done much good in the way of exhortation, and holding prayer meetings; and who had been permitted to do so by the verbal license of the preacher in charge at the time. But as to women preaching, he said that our Discipline knew nothing at all about it—that it did not call for women preachers. This I was glad to hear, because it removed the fear of the cross—but no sooner did this feeling cross my mind, than I found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me as a fire, began to be smothered. This I soon perceived.

O how careful ought we to be, lest through our bylaws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear nowadays for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach, seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as the man?

If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman, seeing he died for her also? Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one, as those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach, would seem to make it appear?

Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity—hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? For she preached the resurrection of the crucified Son of God.

But some will say that Mary did not expound the Scripture, therefore she did not preach, in the proper sense of the term. To this I reply, it may be that the term preach, in those primitive times, did not mean exactly what it is now made to mean; perhaps it was a great deal more simple then, than it is now; if it were not, the unlearned fishermen could not have preached the gospel at all, as they had no learning.

To this it may be replied by those who are determined not to believe that it is right for a woman to preach, that the disciples, though they were fishermen, and ignorant of letters too, were inspired so to do. To which I would reply, that though they were inspired, yet that inspiration did not save them from showing their ignorance of letters, and of man’s wisdom; this the multitude soon found out, by listening to the remarks of the envious Jewish priests. If then, to preach the gospel, by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and accompany it too, with power to the sinner’s heart. As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labour according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently bear testimony in favour of my poor labours, in awakening and converting sinners?

In my wanderings up and down among men, preaching according to my ability, I have frequently found families who told me that they had not for several years been to a meeting, and yet, while listening to hear what God would say by his poor coloured female instrument, have believed with trembling, tears rolling down their cheeks–the signs of contrition and repentance towards God. I firmly believe that I have sown seed in the name of the Lord, which shall appear with its increase at the great day of accounts, when Christ shall come to make up his jewels.

At a certain time I was beset with the idea that soon or late I should fall from grace, and lose my soul at last. I was frequently called to the throne of grace about this matter, but found no relief; the temptation pursued me still. Being more and more afflicted with it, till at a certain time when the spirit strongly impressed it on my mind to enter into my closet, and carry my case once more to the Lord; the Lord enabled me to draw nigh to him, and to his mercy seat, at this time, in an extraordinary manner; for while I wrestled with him for the victory over this disposition to doubt whether I should persevere, there appeared a form of fire, about the size of a man’s hand, as I was on my knees; at the same moment, there appeared to the eye of faith a man robed in a white garment, from the shoulders down to the feet; from him a voice proceeded, saying: “Thou shalt never return from the cross.” Since that time I have never doubted, but believe that God will keep me until the day of redemption. Now I could adopt the very language of St. Paul, and say that nothing could have separated my soul from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus. From that time, 1807, until the present, 1833, I have not yet doubted the power and goodness of God to keep me from falling, through sanctification of the spirit and belief of the truth.

[From Jarena Lee, The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee Giving an Account of Her Call To Preach the Gospel (Philadelphia, 1849), 10-13.]