Religion in the 19th Century - Woven With Words
Madonna Delfish and others contributed to this article
In the early decades of the 1800s, slavery disappeared, the result of Pennsylvania’s 1789 law for “the gradual elimination of slavery.” To some degree, this made Pennsylvania attractive to slaves escaping to freedom, and both they and free African Americans found their way northward to the county, slowly boosting the overall African American population. The census of 1820 lists “Negro population” of rural Berks at 347, with a population of 90 in the city. While minuscule compared to the total population, African Americans were nevertheless becoming substantially more noticeable.
That was especially true in Reading, which drew “country Negroes” seeking work as the iron industry declined. By 1830, the city’s African American population had grown to 294, although figures for the first half of the nineteenth century generally understate African American presence because slaves on the run or working to disappear into the community certainly wouldn’t be enumerated. Although slavery had been banned in Pennsylvania, no place, North or South, was a safe haven. The Fugitive Slave Act, passed by Congress in the closing years of the eighteenth century, gave slave hunters carte blanche to apprehend fleeing slaves anywhere, and levied severe penalties for harboring runaways.
While the record is again silent, the growing African American population in Berks may have created the same “problem” that Philadelphia had confronted decades earlier: whites felt they were being “crowded out” of their churches. More generally, as the population of freed African Americans grew in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whites tended to polarize, and segregation and discrimination grew.
In Philadelphia, a group of freemen belonging to racially mixed St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church severed ties sometime between 1787 and 1792, following a particular incident in the church. After the arrival of popular African American minister Richard Allen in 1786, African American members increased steadily and a new building was constructed, largely by African American congregants. On the day it opened, Allen and his fellow freemen entered the church intending to take their usual places, but instead were directed to the gallery.
As Allen wrote, in November, 1787, the coloured people belonging to the Methodist Society in Philadelphia, convened together, in order to take into consideration the evils under which they laboured, arising from the unkind treatment of their white brethren, who considered them a nuisance in the house of worship, and even pulled them off their knees while in the act of prayer, and ordered them to the back seats. From these, and various other acts of unchristian conduct, we considered it our duty to devise a plan in order to build a house of our own, to worship God under our own vine and fig tree (Allen 1817, 3).
This sentiment would soon echo in Berks. Here, a group in close contact with Reverend Allen’s flock would eventually join as some of the earliest members of his religious movement. The church Allen created was the beginning of the independent African church movement in the U.S.
The timing was perfect for this movement, because social and demographic changes now made African churches possible. On a very basic level, freemen could move as they wished and were no longer restricted in matters of religion. As the iron trade declined and African Americans increasingly moved to Reading, important elements fell into place: numbers, leadership, and the ability to exercise free will, elements lacked by the scattered and enslaved African American population. Indeed, conditions were right for a uniquely American exercise: breaking away by those dissatisfied with an existing religious institution to create a new church, one more responsive to their needs.
A Church for Freemen
A single reference in the minutes of the Philadelphia annual conference of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church says that a congregation of nine existed in Reading by 1822 (Payne 1969, 14). Local history suggests that “The Bethel A.M.E. society...was organized in a log-cabin on Franklin St. in 1821” (Bethel Herald 1927, 1). However, several other dates in the 1830s also have been connected to this story. Given subsequent events, a later date is likely. Oral tradition likely confused that with a watershed event in 1823.
That event was the formation of the first African church in Berks. It wasn’t by Methodists, however, but by Presbyterians. An African American congregation had grown from a Sabbath school operated by the First Presbyterian Church in members’ homes. Animated by the nineteenth century missionary drive to create more churches, the Presbyterians purchased two log cabins on the northeast corner of Mulberry and Washington Streets for the new congregation. The new church’s emphasis was not on denominational affiliation. Rather, it publicly identified itself as “The African Church,” and consciously noted that it was open to all, white or African American (Berks and Schuylkill Journal 1924, 3). In 1829, the property was formally deeded to trustees of the “First African Presbyterian Church.”
In relatively few years, doctrinal issues divided the African Church’s “Presbyterian” and “Methodist” elements. The Methodists in Reading and Philadelphia had maintained contact with each other, and “circuit preachers” were aggressively proselytizing. Issues of status in the African American community also may have played a role, and the Presbyterian Church would be known as the province of “high yellow,” or light-skinned African Americans, who assumed superiority over their dark-skinned brothers and sisters. By 1834 the break was official.
The “Methodist element” was drawn to Richard Allen’s “Mother Bethel” church at Sixth and Lombard Streets, which had become the center of a movement that had embraced African churches in Baltimore; Salem, New Jersey; Attlesboro, Pennsylvania; and Wilmington, Delaware. In 1816 these churches formally organized as the A.M.E. Church. The Reading group would become the sixth member church.
The “African Methodist Episcopal Society” minute-book of 1836 notes that on November 7, the trustees approved a series of resolutions: “that the church be built as soon as possible and there be Money to begin it... that the House be Brick house... [and] that there be a school room under the fore part of the church.” Two board members were given “subscription papers” and authorized to collect money. For seventy-five dollars, the society bought a lot on North 10th Street, quickly beginning construction of a church (Johnson 1980, 26).
Bethel’s formation provided a pattern for a church-building process that would continue well into the twentieth century. Internal divisions, doctrinal divides, the search for a more responsive church, and the missionary urge to spawn new churches led to other African American churches quickly taking shape.
A group withdrew from Bethel in just a few years to form Wesleyan Methodist Church, popularly known as “the Ark,” on the west side of North 10th Street near Walnut. According to an account from an unidentified newspaper clipping dated April 2, 1899, the Ark grew from a “difficulty” that led to a “half dozen or more leaving the church and forming a new organization. The seceders did not acknowledge allegiance to any particular denomination, but were a kind of independent, free-and-easy congregation.” The Ark’s congregation quickly grew to include a large number of prosperous white citizens.
Before long, Union Methodist Church opened its doors on the east side of North 10th Street near Elm. By the end of the century, both it and the Ark would be defunct. However, new churches invariably grew up to take the place of those that disappeared. While doctrinal and other disputes certainly figured in the creation of new churches, missionary efforts were equally productive. Mt. Frisby Church, ministering to the descendants of the original slaves at Hopewell Furnace, was a missionary effort of Bethel, as was Mt. Zion Church of God and Christ in the 1920s. In the early twentieth century, Baptist as well as new non-denominational churches also became part of the local African American religious landscape.
While the disputes leading to church splits sometimes were quite acrimonious, the heat usually cooled quickly. Relationships between the churches tended to be cordial. Churches would regularly join for picnics, social events, and joint services. Preachers would trade pulpits for a Sunday, or even move to another city church. It is significant that even in division, churches worked to avoid rivalries or harbor ill feelings that might divide the community. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the community seemed to know that divisiveness was something a small minority could not afford.
The role of predominantly African American churches has always gone beyond the spiritual. From their beginnings they assumed an expansive role in virtually every aspect of members’ lives. Indeed, this came about because the need was great. People emancipated from slavery came from a legacy of dependence and submission. Educations had generally been rudimentary. Skills for everyday living, from working on one’s own to owning property to paying bills and taxes, were alien. Ex-slaves had no resources, and a parent’s illness, or virtually any setback, could be devastating to an entire family. As the number of African Americans grew in Berks, and especially in Reading, animosity toward African Americans also grew, and doors closed—or simply failed to open. Limited employment opportunities weighed particularly heavily. It quickly became evident that African Americans would need to hammer out their own solutions. The church was the only institution with the stability and authority to assume that role.
An early and critical task was developing leaders, and in the churches, African Americans for the first time could assume leadership positions. Whether as byproduct or by intent, the ongoing process of making new churches substantially broadened leadership opportunities. Churches also became both explicit and implicit arbiters of behavior. Miscreants, particularly violators of contemporary standards of morality, were brought before boards and admonished.
Freemen yearned to demonstrate to the broader population that their race did possess the physical abilities, mental skills, and moral turpitude that stereotypes denied them. To dispel the “common knowledge” that African Americans were physically incapable of riding bicycles, for instance, cycling clubs were organized and met in the churches, and a profusion of debate clubs, book clubs, and other “self-improvement” groups developed as well.
Schools were also integral to the churches. Significantly, when Bethel approved construction of its first structure, members mandated that a school be part of it. The Ark also operated a school. Before the era of free public education for African Americans, church schools educated children and adults alike. Even after Pennsylvania opened public “colored schools” in the 1850s, churches continued their robust educational role, often focusing on “necessary skills” such as public speaking, rhetoric, and domestic activities. To help young people pursue higher education, churches held fundraisers and awarded scholarships.