The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s MEC pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation. Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, Allen led a small group who resolved to remain Methodists. In 1794 Bethel AMEC was dedicated with Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel’s independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution.
In 1880 AME membership reached 400,000 because of its rapid spread below the Mason-Dixon line. When Bishop Henry M. Turner pushed African Methodism across the Atlantic into Liberia and Sierra Leone in 1891 and into South Africa in 1896, the AME now laid claim to adherents on two continents.
While the AMEC is doctrinally Methodist, clergy, scholars, and lay persons have written important works which demonstrate the distinctive theology and praxis which have defined this Wesleyan body. Bishop Benjamin W. Arnett, in an address to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, reminded the audience of the presence of blacks in the formation of Christianity.
Bishop Benjamin T. Tanner wrote in 1895 in “The Color of Solomon – What?”, that biblical scholars wrongly portrayed the son of David as a white man. In the post civil rights era theologians James H. Cone, Cecil W. Cone, and Jacqueline Grant who came out of the AME tradition critiqued Euro-centric Christianity and African American churches for their shortcomings in fully impacting the plight of those oppressed by racism, sexism, and economic disadvantage.
In the 1990s, the AME Church included over 2,000,000 members, 8000 ministers, and 7000 congregations in more than 30 nations in North and South America, Africa, and Europe. Twenty bishops and 12 general officers comprised the leadership of the denomination.
The origin of the Gullah people is connected to the transatlantic slave-trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1670, the first English-speaking settlement was established in South Carolina. The area chosen by settlers was a stretch of coastal plain and swampland known today as the Lowcountry. Due to the area's semi-tropical climate and abundant rainfall, early colonists struggled to find a crop that would produce sufficient revenue for England. By 1700, however, settlers discovered that rice, an Asian import, was best suited for growth in South Carolina's valley swamps.
Early attempts to capitalize on this discovery failed due to the ignorance of the intricacies involved in rice cultivation among South Carolina's white planter population. Slave owners soon found that there was a great advantage in importing Africans from the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa to perform the arduous work. Realizing the growing demand for Africans from the "Rice" and "Windward" coasts — known today as Sierra Leone — slave traders made it a point to provide slave owners in South Carolina with large numbers of captives from these areas for local markets. These traders even capitalized on the high prices typically asked for these particular Africans by advertising their origins in auction listings and newspapers. The resulting boom in the slave trade and rice cultivation made South Carolina, especially the Lowcountry became one of the wealthiest colonies in North America. Charles Towne (now Charleston) became one of the most fashionable cities in the American colonies and a crown jewel in England's colonial empire.
The development and preservation of the Gullah's distinct African culture was aided by their unique slave conditions. The climate of the Lowcountry, and the surrounding sea islands aided not only rice cultivation. By 1708, the great influx of new Africans and the lack of English cultural influence upon their lives directly assisted the creation and preservation of a distinctly African set of traditions. These enslaved Africans, therefore, continued to share many parts of the languages, religion, rituals and customs drawn from their ancestral communities in Africa. Many Gullah arts and crafts are indistinguishable from those found in West Africa. For example, Gullah artisans skillfully create wooden mortars and pestles, rice "fanners," clay pots, and other pieces closely connected to Sierra Leone. Most importantly, tourists in the Lowcountry of South Carolina can still bear witness to women continuing the tradition of basket making in local markets and roadsides. These beautiful pieces, known as sweetgrass baskets, are closely connected to the Sierra Leonean shukublay.
Gullah religious systems and beliefs, while derived from the Christianity practiced by their former slave masters, are also evidence of a distinctly African tradition. While adhering to Christian doctrine, the Gullah practice a faith immersed in communal prayer, song, and dance. Many also continue to hold traditional African beliefs. .
Today, the Gullah people still live and practice their lifestyle in the areas that were once home to their ancestors. Despite encroachment of modern American traditions and increased expansion into their homeland, these special people continue to provide an important glimpse into South Carolina's Lowcountry past. By increasing awareness and education about the Gullah, we aid in the preservation of their unique heritage.