Learn the Black Church History of the Civil Rights Movement

February 26, 2015

Black History Month--Learn the Black Church History of the Civil Rights Movement
Bob Kellemen

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Bob Kellemen

Black History Month--Learn the Black Church History of the Civil Rights Movement

A Word from the BCC Team: As part of Black History Month, we’ll have several posts this week on Black Church History, the Black Church, and Multiethnic Ministry. Rick Horne began our series by talking about What’s a White Guy Know About Multiethnic Ministry?. Nicolas Ellen continued our series by pondering with us 4 Wisdom Principles for Multiethnic Ministry. And today, Bob Kellemen helps us to Learn the Black Church History of the Civil Rights Movement.

Learning from the Founding Fathers of the Black Church

Historians of American history frequently emphasize our “founding fathers.” Politically speaking, they highlight white males like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and James Madison. Spiritually speaking, they feature white males such as Roger Williams, Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and Isaac Backus.

Sadly, they have often left African American founding fathers missing in action. In particular, the spiritual founding fathers of independent African American church life have been neglected, relegated to the back seat of the historical bus. We now seek to recover something of the lost legacy of loving leadership bequeathed to us by African American spiritual forefathers.

Rev. Richard Allen and Rev. Absalom Jones: Standing Up for Black Civil Rights

Rev. Richard Allen and Rev. Absalom Jones were two of the foremost founding fathers of the African American independent churches. Rev. Allen was born a slave in 1760 to Benjamin Crew of Philadelphia. Allen came to salvation in Christ around age twenty. He then traveled extensively, preaching the Gospel in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Rev. Absalom Jones was born in slavery on November 6, 1746, in Sussex, Delaware. At age sixteen he moved to Philadelphia, and by age thirty-eight he was able to purchase his freedom. Along with Richard Allen, he became a lay preacher for the African American members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. By 1794, he was ordained a deacon in the African Episcopal Church, and in 1804 he was ordained a pastor.

In February 1786, Rev. Allen preached at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Thinking that he would be there one or two weeks, ministry needs led Allen to a settled place of service in Philadelphia.

Concerned for the well-being of African Americans in this parish, he explained that:

“I established prayer meetings; I raised a society in 1786 of forty-two members. I saw the necessity of erecting a place of worship for the coloured people.” However, only three brethren united with him, including the equally-important African American founding father, the Reverend Absalom Jones. Their little band met great opposition, including “very degrading and insulting language to us, to try and prevent us from going on.”

The Lord blessed their endeavors, as they established prayer meetings and meetings of exhortation, with many coming to Christ. Their growing congregation, still without a building, often attended services at St. George’s Church.

When the black worshippers became more numerous, the white leaders “moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us around the wall.”

It was at this juncture that one of the most noteworthy events in African American Church history occurred. Taking seats that they thought were appropriate, prayer began.

“We had not long been upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H— M—, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up—you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘Wait until prayer is over.’ Mr. H— M— said ‘no, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and I force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ‘Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.’”

By the time the second usher arrived, prayer was over, and:

“We all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church. This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct.”

As a result, they birthed the first independent Black Church in the North when they hired a store room and held worship by themselves. Facing excommunication from the “mother church,” they remained united and strong.

“Here we were pursued with threats of being disowned, and read publicly out of meeting if we did continue to worship in the place we had hired; but we believed the Lord would be our friend. . . . Here was the beginning and rise of the first African church in America.”

Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne: Walking the Talk

Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne was an early leader in and the official historian of the AMEC. Payne experienced numerous opportunities to live out his Christian manhood. His manliness remaining strong in the twilight years of his life. When he was in his seventies, Payne refused to stay on a train where he would have been seated in Jim Crow conditions. Standing his ground and confronting the white authorities on the train, he said to them:

“Before I’ll dishonor my manhood by going into that car, stop your train and put me off.”

After Payne left the train, “the guilty conductor looked out and said, ‘Old man, you can get on the platform at the back of the car.’ I replied only by contemptuous silence.” Payne then carried his own luggage, walking a great distance over “a heavy bed of sand” to his next speaking engagement in the deep South.

Payne literally walked the talk.

He was the Rosa Parks of his day. In fact, Rosa Parks worshipped at an AME church. During youth Sunday School she learned the history of the AME Church, including the history of one Daniel Alexander Payne.

Thus we can trace the Civil Rights Movement from Daniel Alexander Payne, to Rosa Parks, to Martin Luther King, Jr.

How did such Christian manhood develop? Payne credits his father who started him on his purposeful life.

“I was the child of many prayers. My father dedicated me to the service of God before I was born, declaring that if the Lord would give him a son that son should be consecrated to him, and named after the Prophet Daniel.”

Imagine the sense of self, the sense of biblical masculinity that Payne’s father passed to his son.

He did so not only by naming, but also by modeling. Of his father, Payne testifies:

“He was an earnest Christian and a class leader, having two classes under him—what used to be called the Seekers’ Class and the Members’ Class. He was a faithful observer of family worship; and often his morning prayers and hymns aroused me, breaking my infant sleep and slumbers.”

So…we can trace the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement even further—from the prophet Daniel, to Daniel Alexander Payne’s father, to Daniel Alexander Payne, to Rosa Parks, to Martin Luther King, Jr.

And now you know, the rest of the story.

Join the Conversation

What can we learn from the courage and convictions of Revs. Allen, Jones, and Payne?

How similar or different are race relations today among Christians than in the day of Revs. Allen, Jones, and Payne?

What impact could knowledge of African American leaders like Revs. Allen, Jones, and Payne have upon Americans? African Americans? African American males?

Why do you think that the history of African American leaders like Revs. Allen, Jones, and Payne is so infrequently highlighted? What could be done to reverse this pattern?