Last week, Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an act of white supremacist terror, once again introducing violence into a church with deep roots in the history of Charleston. Founded in 1818 as the first A.M.E. Church in the South and one of the largest black Methodist congregations in the country at the time, the church served as a symbol of black resistance to white supremacy from the moment of its founding. As such, it almost immediately drew the ire of white Charleston. As many have observed, the church’s revolutionary potential was realized in 1822, when it became implicated in the insurrection scheme planned by a free black man named Denmark Vesey. The very founding and existence of the church, however, was in itself a revolutionary and rebellious act.
Richard Allen founded America’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. Two years later, after disputes with the city’s Methodist church over the use of church funds and of its burial ground, black Charlestonians sought to form their own independent black church. In 1818, after being ordained in Philadelphia, a free black man named Morris Brown founded Charleston’s “African Church,” – it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it became known as Emanuel A.M.E. – which was affiliated with the A.M.E. Church. Over 4,000 black Charlestonians subsequently joined, making the African Church not only the oldest independent black congregation south of Maryland, but also the largest A.M.E. Church outside of Philadelphia. During the slave trade era, 2 of every 5 enslaved people imported into the United States came through the port of Charleston, and at the time of the African Church’s founding enslaved people constituted 70% of Charleston County’s population. In a city and region so deeply invested in the slave system, defying white authority and establishing an independent black church was a revolutionary act.
The African Church was a unique institution in black Charleston because of its ability to bring together people of African descent from different backgrounds. Charleston’s black community was often divided along class, color, and status lines – free people of color tried to distance themselves from slavery, people of mixed racial ancestry tried to derive advantage from their lighter complexions, and skilled artisans and business owners strove to increase social distance between themselves and unskilled free and enslaved laborers. The African Church’s congregation blurred the lines dividing black Charlestonians, fostering a sense of common, racial identity that may not have existed elsewhere in the city.
White authorities feared the church’s revolutionary potential, and almost immediately began enacting measures to counteract it. From the moment of its founding, the African Church dealt with regular and persistent harassment from whites and from Charleston authorities. Charleston’s city guard arrested 140 members and ministers in June 1818, including founder Morris Brown, for violating the states prohibition on educating slaves. Each of the ministers arrested were encouraged to leave the state, but also offered the opportunity to pay fines or face imprisonment. Morris Brown chose prison and remained in Charleston.
Two years later in 1820, a group of prominent white Charlestonians petitioned the state legislature to express their continued concern about the presence of an independent black church in the city. The petitioners called the legislature’s attention to the “evils” they felt the African Church represented. These men pointed to the “spacious building that has lately been erected in the immediate neighborhood of Charleston for the exclusive ownership of negroes and colored people, from means supplied to them by abolition societies.” The gathering of an all black congregation was a self-evident evil, one made all the more concerning by the congregants’ alleged affiliation with northern abolitionists. Whites feared the possibilities of free and enslaved blacks meeting together outside the supervision and control of whites. Not only did these petitioners want to prevent this black congregation from meeting, they sought specifically to prohibit “free negroes and colored people” from visiting “the eastern states for ordination and other religious pretences and again returning.” White Charlestonians felt they actively needed to prevent the independent worship of free and enslaved blacks.
In 1822, whites’ worst fears about the insurrectionary possibility of the African Church came to fruition in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, a plot that deeply implicated the African Church. Many of the accused leaders of the conspiracy played active roles in the church, with some, like Vesey, serving as class leaders. The authors of the published Official Report of the plot condemned the African Church in no uncertain terms, placing blame squarely on the church for fostering an environment in which the seed of such an insurrection could grow. They decried its “inflammatory and insurrectionary doctrines” and accused the church of instilling “perverted religion and fanaticism” in its congregants. Many of the slave witnesses implicated the African Church as well, though certainly under pressure (if not torture) from their white interrogators, whose views towards the church were well known. An enslaved man named William Paul, in his testimony against one of the conspirators, claimed to have been told that “all those belonging to the African Church are engaged in the insurrection.”
Another published account of the proceedings that followed the Vesey plot’s discovery argued that “religious fanaticism has not been without its effect on this project,” and that “the secession of a large body of blacks from the white Methodist church, with feelings of irritation and disappointment, formed a hot bed” which gave “life and vigor” to insurrectionary ideas. It continued, noting “Among the conspirators, a majority of them belonged to the African Church and among those executed were several who had been class leaders.” In the immediate aftermath of the conspiracy, Charleston authorities directly tied the insurrectionary activity to the African Church. By all accounts, the Vesey conspiracy would not have been possible without the independent space and inspiration the African Church provided.
Denmark Vesey also allegedly used his knowledge of the Bible to denounce the slave system and recruit other slaves and free people of color to his insurrectionary plot. The Official Report accused Vesey of having “rendered himself familiar with all those parts of the scriptures, which he thought he could pervert to his purpose; and would readily quote them to prove that slavery was contrary to the laws of God.” Benjamin Ford, a white Charleston resident aged 15 or 16, told the court that when Vesey came into his family’s shop, he would readily discuss the hardships faced by blacks. Further, Ford claimed, “his general conversation was about religion which he would apply to slavery,” and “all his religious remarks were mingled with slavery.” Vesey, an active member of the African Church with experience with and exposure to the political and ideological currents of the Atlantic World, espoused radical religious views and was, according to the witnesses who cooperated with white authorities, unafraid to share them with any who would listen.
Deeply implicated in the Denmark Vesey insurrection conspiracy, the African Church was burned by whites when its role in the affair became clear. Though congregants attempted to re-establish the church, the state would soon reaffirm its commitment to outlawing black churches and schools. Black congregants continued to meet, often in secret, through the rest of the antebellum era. As in many other southern communities, the church was one of the first things to be re-established in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation.
Though the veracity of the details of the Vesey conspiracy remain contested, they reveal how the African Church specifically, and religion more broadly, figured significantly in the 1822 insurrection plot and in the lives of black Charlestonians. Many of the accused conspirators played active roles in the church. Beyond that, the African Church could have facilitated the planning of the conspiracy and fostered a sense of racial solidarity by bringing together members of Charleston’s black community across class, color, and status lines. The church may have even instilled in some black Charlestonians, both free and enslaved, a sense of religious duty to revolt against the slave system. At the most basic level, free and enslaved blacks leaving a white-controlled congregation in 1818 to form an independent black church in the heart of the South Carolina lowcountry and the slave South represented an inherently rebellious act. From the moment of its founding, Charleston’s African Church was a site of protest, rebellion, and revolutionary possibility. It was perhaps this status as a site of black independence and rebellion that made Emanuel A.M.E. a target.
The murder of 9 people there continues a long history of white violence.
A version of this article originally appeared on Marksism.