Question: "What is the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)?"
Answer: The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is a Methodist church with episcopal leadership started by Americans of African descent in the late 18th century. The word episcopal refers to the church’s bishop-led form of governance. The Episcopal Church is the American iteration of the Anglican Church or Church of England. When John Wesley started Methodism, he was an Anglican minister, and Methodism was a movement within that church. In the Colonies the church was officially known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. After the Revolutionary War, the ties to England were weakened, and neither the Episcopal Church in the United States nor the Methodist Church answers to the Archbishop of Canterbury any more. In the centuries since, each church has developed distinctive doctrines and practices that have taken them far from their historical roots.
Although there were black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, they were forcibly segregated. In 1794, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church (Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia) was formed to allow black Methodists to worship without the interference of white Methodists. As the official AME website says, “The split from the main branch of the Methodist Church was not a result of doctrinal differences but rather the result of a time period that was marked by man’s intolerance of his fellow man, based on the color of his skin. It was a time of slavery, oppression and the dehumanization of people of African descent and many of these un-Christian practices were brought into the church” (ame-church.com, accessed 6/17/20).
Within a few years, church leadership successfully founded a new denomination for black Methodists, and it quickly grew, primarily drawing members from the Middle Atlantic states. The denomination grew prior to the Civil War, but saw large increases during the war and the Reconstruction era. By 1880, the denomination had grown to 400,000 members, and before 1900 it also had congregations in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa. Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has membership in thirty-nine countries on five continents. The work of the AME Church is administered by twenty-one active bishops as well as administrative officers.
The motto of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family,” and their mission is “to minister to the social, spiritual, and physical development of all people” (ibid.). The stated purposes of the AME Church are to “make available God’s biblical principles, spread Christ’s liberating gospel, and provide continuing programs which will enhance the entire social development of all people” (ibid.). The church’s doctrinal statement is thoroughly evangelical with clear statements on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the sufficiency of Scripture, and salvation by grace through faith.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church has taken a strong stand against the ordination of homosexual ministers and performing same-sex wedding ceremonies. A resolution calling for a reevaluation on the ban was considered in 2019 by the AME Church’s Legislative Committee of the 2nd District, but the measure failed. The resolution was not sent to General Conference for a vote.
As with any denomination, the doctrinal statement and official positions are important, but there can be tremendous variety among local congregations. It is important to investigate and evaluate the specific local church before committing to become a member of that body.