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George F. Bragg (George Freeman), 1863-1940
Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, by the Rev. George F. Bragg, in Honor of the Centennial of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Which Occurs in the Year 1916
[Baltimore]: [Church Advocate Press], [1915].

Summary

In Richard Allen and Absalom Jones (1915), George Freeman Bragg (1863-1940) celebrates the centennial of the African Methodist Episcopal Church's founding in 1816 by providing a synopsis of the denomination's humble beginnings and eventual rise to prominence. Bragg recounts the roles of Richard Allen (1760-1831) and Absalom Jones (1746-1818) in founding the church and describes that body's role in the pursuit of racial and religious freedom.

George Bragg was an Episcopalian priest and active social reformer in Baltimore, Maryland. Among his other accomplishments, Bragg founded the Maryland Home for Friendless Colored People and recruited such African American leaders as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois into the Committee of Twelve, an organization that worked to prevent the disenfranchisement of African Americans in Maryland. Bragg also operated his own printing press and published a variety of works under the Church Advocate Press imprint, including Men of Maryland (1914), Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, and History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church (1922). Bragg sold copies of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones for ten cents each.

Bragg notes that Allen and Jones are both born into slavery and that they meet each other while in the fields of Delaware, where they both join the Methodist church. In Allen's case, religious conversion leads directly to legal freedom. Allen "demonstrated by his interest in his 'master's' affairs, and persuading the other slaves, to such conduct, that he was really born of God," and "[h]is testimony before his 'master' was so great and prevailing, that he finally got his freedom" (p. 12). Likewise, Jones was only allowed to purchase his freedom in 1784, six years after his original appeals to his master. As free men, Allen and Jones both meet again in Philadelphia, where they acquire wealth, become "men of means," and join the congregation of St. George's Methodist Church.

While Allen, Jones and a number of other African Americans kneel in the gallery of St. George's for prayer one Sunday in 1787, church leaders attempt to pull them off their knees and move them to another part of the church. Offended by the racism of church leaders, Allen and Jones lead the African American membership out of St. George's Methodist Church, never to return.

Most histories of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church begin with the abandonment of St. George's, but Bragg points out that "the African Methodist Episcopalian Church was not established until more than twenty-five years after the above mentioned incident" (p. 9). The immediate reaction of Jones and Allen is to found the Free African Society in 1787, an organization "formed, without regard to religious tenets, provided, the persons lived an orderly and sober life, in order to support one another in sickness, and for the benefit of their widows and fatherless children" (p. 4). When the Free African Society becomes the African Church, Allen, who wishes to remain affiliated with the Methodist church, leaves the group. In 1791 the African Church joins the Anglican Communion and reorganizes as the St. Thomas Episcopal Church of Philadelphia.

The articles by which St. Thomas is governed stipulate that "none among us, but men of color, who are Africans, or the descendants of the African race, can elect, or be elected into any office among us, save that of a minister or assistant minister; and that no minister shall have a vote at our elections" (pp. 5-6). The congregants of St. Thomas have to allow a white minister to lead their congregation because "at that time it was 'white' minister or no minister . . . there had never been an ordination of a colored man to the ministry" (p. 6).

Despite his inability to read Latin or Greek, Jones is ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1805, but his ordination comes with the stipulation that "it is not to be understood to entitle the African Church to send a clergyman or deputies to the Convention [of ministers], or to interfere with the general government of the Episcopal Church" (p. 7). The Episcopal church welcomes the increase in African American membership but resists the idea of true ecclesiastical equality.

Instead of joining Jones at St. Thomas, Allen remains affiliated with the Methodist church. In 1799, American bishop Francis Asbury ordains him the first African American minister in the Methodist church. Allen presides over the Bethel Church until 1816, when sixteen congregants from St. Thomas and Bethel found "the African Methodist Episcopalian denomination, electing Richard Allen the first Bishop of the new Organization" (p. 9).

Bragg briefly sketches the subsequent growth of Allen's church and puts its role in American history in perspective. Occurring in 1816, the same year as the inauguration of the American Colonization Society that worked to remove African Americans from the United States, the "birth of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, that very same year, with Richard Allen as its Bishop, seemed almost, as it were, the direct intervention of Heaven on their behalf" (p. 11).

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Zachary Hutchins

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