Such movements, however, had a way of becoming victims of their own success, as Niebuhr argued. Insofar as they spoke to popular aspirations and needs, they attracted large followings, necessitating new structures and hierarchies. The sharp critiques of social injustice became muffled as devotees percolated up into the respectable classes. Enthusiasm waned, leaving liturgy and ritual to provide what spontaneity and spirit no longer could. Sects became churches. (Campbell 36)
Campbell syas that Methodism especially illustrates this idea beacsue this movement always possessed something of a divided soul:
On one hand, the early Wesleyan movement was an extraordinarily decentralized affair, that invested authority in an army of itinerant ministers and lay preachers, many with little formal religious training. On the other hand, Methodism retained a strong episcopal center that reigned supreme on questions of doctrine and discipline, finance, and ministerial appointment. The stresses implicit in this situation first became apparent in English Wesleyanism, which was wracked in the early nineteenth century by a seemingly endless series of schisms and disputes arraying ministers against congregations, the poor and the working class against the "better classes," defenders of enthusiastic "low" Methodism against those developing a taste for more cerebral fare. By mid-century, mainstream English Methodism had lost more than a million adherents and most of its political edge. (Campbell 36)
The process was slow in the United States, "where the persistence of revivalism and the exigencies of western expansion kept Methodists closer to their evangelical roots" (Campbell 36). Still, the church did become accepted as a church and not a sect.
The church increased in importance into the twentieth century, and between 1918 and 1932, representatives from the three black denominations of African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Colored Methodist Episcopal developed plans to merge into one religious body to be named the United Methodist Episcopal Church.
At this time, the clergy and laity of these three black denominations debated the advantages and shortcomings of the Birmingham Plan of 1918 and the Pittsburgh proposals of 1927, both seeking to create a single black Methodist organization. Opponents of the two agreements feared that organic union would work against their particular denominational interests and would also destroy their historical identity. Those advocating such a merger stressed the common religious and racial background of the three churches, holding that black Methodist unity would benefit the nation's black population: "By 1932, however, the deep denominational divisions among black Methodists slowed the movement toward merger and undermined efforts to end the religious rivalry among these three important black institutions" (Dickerson 479). At the time, the AME church was the largest of the three 545,814 members in 6,708 churches in 1926 (Dickerson 480).
Mission of the Church
The mission statement for the AME church stats that its purpose is "to minister to the spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional, and environmental needs of all people by spreading Christ's liberating gospel through word and deed. At every level of the Connection and in every local church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church shall engage in carrying out the spirit of the original Free African Society, out of which the a.M.E. Church evolved..." ("Mission Statement" para. 1). This program covers a number of topics, including to seek out and save the lost and to serve the needy through a continuing program the covers the following elements: preaching the gospel: feeding the hungry: clothing the naked: housing the homeless: cheering the fallen: providing jobs for the jobless: administering to the needs of those in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, asylums, and mental senior citizens' homes; caring for the sick, the shut-in, the mentally and socially disturbed; and encouraging thrift and economic development.
The AME church has recently undertaken to address social issues such as the role of women...
The organization elected its first woman bishop in 2000 and then added two more in 2004. In addition, the church has be3n increasing its presence in Africa by electing three native African bishops, showing a commitment to local leadership in that part of the world ("AME Church Elects More Women Bishops" 18).
Another part of the mission to which AME is dedicated is economic advancement for those in the community, and AME has been instrumental in raising funds for various charitable organizations and also for developing programs to aid in developing more black-owned business and to gain similar opportunities for economic improvement for people. Black churches of all sorts are working to address the many problems facing the inner cities across the country, such as chronic unemployment, crime, substance abuse, illiteracy, the spread of AIDs, and absent fathers: "While the rest of the United States is enjoying an economic boom, these blights remain the rampant pathology of inner-city America and the context in which many urban African-American churches work out their historic commitment to God and their fellow man" (How'd 18). Government has failed to solve these issues or to make much of a difference in impoverished neighborhoods. Arican-American churches have long served as the hub of life in their communities, and one recent example given is as follows:
There is Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal (or AME) Church in Baltimore, where a huge office building was dedicated on Sept. 19, 1999, to house community services under the leadership of the Rev. Vashti Murphy McKenzie, the first woman to pastor a large congregation in that denomination. Already the building hosts a dozen outreaches ranging from a welfare-to-work center for unemployed women to an entrepreneurial-skills program in which a dozen youths are marketing their own line of clothing. Some of Payne Memorial's programs are funded by a $1.5 million government social-services contract. (How'd 18)
Many of the black churches today exist not in the sort of major edifices that many of the larger denominations have but in storefronts, in effect matching the depressed areas in which they are found. An example cited is that of the AME church in Washington, D.C. where more than 80 people gather every Sunday. As Amanda Mantone writes,
Storefront churches dot most street comers in Petworth, ministering from dilapidated row houses and boarded-up commercial strips. Some are new, but most have been there for several years, having started in school buildings or the basements of more established churches. Many of the area's largest congregations once worshiped in storefront sanctuaries, sandwiched between liquor stores and funeral homes. (Mantone 14)
This is seen as reaching out to those most in need in an era otherwise dedicated to the "megachurch," and "storefronts buck the trend toward massive congregations and televised, PowerPoint sermons. They instead offer intimate Bible studies to which members can walk. An urban phenomenon, storefront churches are difficult to study because so many are started by unordained ministers and are independent of denominational hierarchies" (Mantone 14). One of the reasons why storefront churches remain vital in this age is immigration, for many of these new arrivals seek out such local institutions and avoid the larger and more institutionalized church groups. Churches like the AME in Washington, D.C. also dedicate much of their effort to outreach work, which the pastor in Washington says is funded almost entirely by tithing.
To make the movement stronger and to reach more people, efforts continue today to create a unified Methodist movement as the black churches try once more to join into a union of churches. In this case, it is the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) and the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) church, whose general conferences are considering a new Christian Methodist Episcopal Zion Church with a membership of more than 2 million members ("Black Methodist Churches Moving Toward Union" 676). The AME is not part of this recent effort and is by far the largest church of this type and well able to go it alone if it chooses. There has also been a move by some to create an even larger Methodist entity, a union between the traditionally white Methodist churches and the black churches. Some see the invitation of the white churches for the black churches to join them as paternalistic, and a merger seems unlikely given the opposition to it:
Some church officials worry that in a merger, the black denominations would be absorbed into the larger white denomination and could lose their special identity. In 1964 the United Methodist Church began dissolving what was then called the Central Jurisdiction - a nongeographic district comprising United Methodist churches that were black - and brought them into the white districts, which United Methodists call annual conferences. Some people believe that the members whose ancestors refused to leave the old Methodist Church despite racism and slavery lost their sense of black community when they lost the Central Jurisdiction. ("Methodist Groups Talk of Merger" 1071)
Some also believe that there is still a degree of hidden racism that might emerge if there were such a union, and this also mitigates against such a union.
The AME Church was created when a group of black members of…
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