PART 1: The American Reformation Begins
Not all Revolutions begin with a Declaration, and not all Reformations begin with a list of Theses. The Reformation of the Methodist church in the United States began with prayer.
In 1787, ten years after Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones came to the recognition that these words though ambitious in scope were incomplete in execution. These ideals, impressive as they sounded, were not truly intended to include all people.
On July 12, 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia,the city where Allen and Jones were pastors, and agreed upon the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” It was a compromise between the Northern States, who did not want African American slaves to be counted as persons in the census, but instead as property; and the Southern States, who did want them to be counted, but only so that they could receive more seats for white men in the legislature. The two sides agreed to compromise and count slaves as 3/5ths of a person.
Within only four years of the establishment of the United States, it was abundantly clear that the nation that had won its independence from Great Britain would not be extending that liberty and equality to all people. The white, land-holding men who held power in the country would continue to treat the indigenous peoples as trespassers on their own land, or rather God’s land, and would continue to hold their brothers and sisters in slavery.
While they said that all men were created equal, that was not how they treated all men, let alone all women. This hierarchy of value, placed upon persons according to their gender and nations of origin, ran contrary to the Christian scriptures. Disappointingly, however, that was not the prevailing narrative told by preachers and theologians of the time.
According to the seventeenth-century English theologian Lancelot Andrewes, “Animals [i.e. indigenous persons of the Americas, Australia and Africa] can have no right of society with us because they want reason.” With respect to land, animals had no rights, Andrewes concluded on biblical grounds, because God had given the earth to humans. Since they had no human rights, they could be exterminated, both in the sense of being driven from land settled by humans and in the sense of being killed, because biblical commandments against theft or murder did not apply to non-humans.” – David Chidester, Savage Systems, p. 14
Although the Methodist movement had been built upon staunch abolitionism in Great Britain, and although it contained many abolitionist preachers within its ranks, within a nation whose economy was built upon this theological falsehood, the new religious movement found itself failing in many places to remain true to what had set it apart.
So it was that Absalom Jones and Richard Allen found that the promises of freedom rang just as false when coming from the church bells of St. George’s as they did when tolling from the nearby Liberty Bell.
At the root of this disconnect was that theological error, that exegetical fraud, that hermeneutical crime – or, as we once called such things – that heresy. The heresy that God did not love all people the same. The abominable heresy that not all people were made fully in the image of God; thus, justifying leaving them out of the words, “all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Thus, allowing the “Three-Fifths Compromise” to go unchallenged on theological grounds.
Falsehood in science, ignorance in philosophy, criminal greed in the economy – yes, all these things played a role. Yet, the betrayal and falsehood that cut most deeply, was the one that was the most unexpected: the betrayal that came from the church. Abolitionist preachers, of all races and ethnicities, did battle to be heard over the more common teachings of preachers that promoted and endorsed the practice of classifying African Americans as only 3/5 of a person and, thus, not made in the full image of God.
If left unchallenged, this social teaching, supported by a false hermeneutic of exclusion rather than inclusion, rang the death toll for any hope of spiritual integrity that the churches of the fledgling nation might have.
Enter the American Reformation.
In November of 1787, just three months after the passing of the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones had the courage to take action in the face of theological cowardice just as reformers throughout the centuries had done before them. Rather than nailing the 95 Theses to their churches door, the renowned preachers did what many civil disobedience activists since that time have done: they simply knelt to pray in a place where they were not welcome to do so.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knelt in the middle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, did he know that Jones and Allen had been there before? When leaders of the United Methodist Church were arrested while kneeling in front of the White House to protest the separation of families taking place through deportation last year, did they know that Jones and Absalom had been there before? When we kneel to pray in the driveways of prisons about to execute human beings, or in the streets of places like Ferguson where lives have been lost, do we recognize that Jones and Allen have been there before?
With a simple act of kneeling to pray in a place that God had called them to pray, yet man had denied them the right to pray, these leaders sparked the American Reformation within the Methodist movement.
The response they received was not unlike those received by practitioners of civil disobedience today.
When they knelt to pray at the front of the church, rather than in the balcony where the white members preferred them to pray, they were pulled to their feet and told to go pray where they belonged; receiving treatment much the same as practitioners of civil disobedience today. Their response, so the story goes, was to respond that they intended to finish their prayers and then would bother the congregation of St. George’s no more. That is exactly what they did.
Absalom Jones walked out and went on to eventually found the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ). Richard Allen walked out and went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). Sixty years after, Laroy Sunderland and Orange Scott walked out and founded the Wesleyan Methodist Church. A hundred years later, more leaders down in Tenessee would walk out of their church and founded what is now called the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME).
Richard Allen had been present at the actual establishment of the denomination, The Christmas Conference in 1784. Yet he had been restricted to preaching at 5:00 a.m. early services at St. George’s Methodist rather than the regular Sunday services, and disrespected until walking out of that church was the only way he saw to be faithful – the only way to continue the movement, both of Christ and of Wesley.
For the past decade of my ministry, I have looked to this example as the root of a Reformation that began, at least in the Methodist movement, with Allen and Jones, and continues to our day. That Reformation, I would argue, quite possibly holds equal importance to the one begun by Martin Luther. The fundamental truth that all people are made in the image of God, and all people hold equal value in God’s sight, has perhaps just as much to do with our relationship with God and with one another as Luther’s sola fide.
Historically, we have not called Allen and Jones reformers, most likely because we have not recognized that their actions have universal importance; not only for African Americans, but also for all people. The men made this clear in addressing their voices to the nation as a whole:
If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or your country with them” -Richard Allen, To Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice
In fact, the men were so serious about their theology of love, that when given the opportunity put it to the test, during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, Allen and Jones organized their followers to care for the dying white citizens of Philadelphia while other white citizens fled the city.They did not allow the cruelty of others to impact their own integrity and theological consistency.
The question arises, why have we been so slow to follow the leadership of Jones and Allen, who insisted upon being treated as children of God and as no lesser than their fellow human beings? Why have we been so hesitant to join our voices with theirs in condemning the heresy of a hierarchy of humanity: not only in philosophy, but also in practice? Why have we been hesitant to vocally acknowledge, repent and confront the inherently corrupting sin of racism?
The American Reformation began over 200 years ago, it is time for us to finish it.
PART 2: The American Counter-Reformation
When the need for Reformation makes leaving the only option for some, it also makes staying the only option for others. Every movement, revolution, and theological shift creates multiple roles that must be fulfilled. These roles work together to bring about change throughout society.
Therefore, every reform movement that has a lasting and universal impact involves not only those who are called to walk out as a statement of their theological disagreement, but also those who feel that they, at least for a time, are called to stay and work for change from within.
One of the Roman Catholic responses to Martin Luther’s Reformation was what we now call the Counter-Reformation. In many ways, the Counter-Reformation was not a response that moved away from Luther’s criticisms, it was a response that mainly moved with them and addressed them. It turned the focus of the church away from indulgences and towards faith development, as Luther had desired. Without acknowledging the fact, the Counter-Reformation followed Luther’s lead from within the Roman Catholic Church, even after he had departed from it.
Any description of the American Reformation, thus, that leaves out those who stayed within racist institutions and fought to change them would be incomplete, would be dishonoring of their labor, and would be quite discouraging to those still laboring. The story of the American Reformation must include those who believed in Wesley’s principle that “there is no holiness without social holiness” and worked with every ounce of their strength to end injustice and inequality.
There has always been a social component to Reformation, because our actions are symptoms of our theology, and the systems we put in place reveal our understanding of the nature of God.
Martin Luther’s concern for the hard working peasants of Germany in the 16th century, who lived in poverty while sacrificing to buy indulgences from the church, created distance between himself and the Roman Catholic Church.
John Wesley’s concern for the workers in the field, the destitute in the streets, the miners in their shafts, and those suffering in prison created distance between his movement and the Church of England.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones’ concern for those suffering in cruel slavery created a rift between themselves and the Methodist Episcopal Church (now called the United Methodist Church).
Yet, they were not alone in their indignation. There were many that stayed and used that same righteous indignation to fight for change from within, and who also taught a theology that proclaimed the full humanity and dignity of all people.
In what is now called the United Methodist Church, those people would include: the staunch abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries. People like Harry Hosier, an African American preacher who left audiences spellbound. People like John Dixon Long, who risked his life riding onto slave plantations to preach freedom and collect stories of how the slaves were being treated; who was charged with slander and brought to trial by the slave owners when he published the stories in a book called “Pictures of Slavery.”
They would include the African American leaders that insisted, 100 years after Allen’s departure, that African American congregations should not have to submit to white Senior Pastors and trustees, and formed their own Annual Conference within the denomination: the Delaware Conference, an institution that would serve an important role until deeper changes were possible.
They would even include those members of the laity and clergy who labor today in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and who work to fight racism in the pews through activism and education, with the support of The General Commission on Religion and Race.
This work will not be finished until everyone in our pulpits and in our pews understands that we stand as equals in front of both God and one another.
Furthermore, the work of many churches will not even begin until they recognize that this is a conversation that needs to be had. Five hundred years of racist theology being taught in this nation will not be undone in a mere fifty; furthermore, we would be foolish to believe that the teaching of racist theology ended fifty years ago.
So what can we do as leaders, and for many of us as specifically United Methodist leaders?
First, we must celebrate and learn from the “Counter-Reformation” that has been taking place within our churches for the past two hundred years. We must celebrate the work of those persons of indigenous descent that have labored and still labor to bring accountability within the United Methodist Church. We must celebrate the work of those African American leaders who have been and continue to be bold enough to speak truth to power. We must acknowledge that our institution’s problem with racism has received a new nuance every time a new group has arrived on our shores or borders; that leaders of many nationalities, all around the world, have been a part of demanding equality and justice; and that the growth of our Korean and Hispanic/Latino ministries within the United States should translate into representation in leadership. We must ask ourselves how a theology of the full humanity and sacred worth of every person should impact the current struggle over the full inclusivity of LGBTQ persons within our movement. Lastly, those of us who are allies must learn from the examples of those who have come before and remember their part in our history.
Second, we could start by shifting our perspective from desiring reunification, to first desiring reformation. We cannot approach any conversation about coming together without first doing the hard theological and practical work that cause denominations to part ways in the first place. We must address the reasons why leaders had to leave our churches to begin with – namely racism and racist teachings.
We must ask ourselves, is it more helpful and authentic to seek to undo the division or to seek to first undo what caused the division?
What would it look like if the United Methodist Church recognized that a Reformation has been taking place, and that perhaps our role is to listen to the call for justice and liberty given by our contemporary Reformers and submit to their leadership?
What if we focused on hearing the voices of young African American leaders in the AME, AMEZ, CME, and UMC the way that crowds from all communities in the 19th century focused on AME preacher Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth?
The sign of a great leader is their ability to follow those who know the terrain better than they do. It is the fastest and surest way of making progress.
PART 3: The American Reformation Continues
By the time 2014 came to a close, many were ready for it to be over. Within two weeks, the United States observed two non-indictments in high-profile killings of African American men by police officers. Just days before Thanksgiving, news broke that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Michael Brown; and a week after Thanksgiving, news broke that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Eric Garner.
The reason why this is important theologically for the church is because there is a tradition of impunity for white men who kill African American men that stretches back centuries. That tradition was supported by philosophers and theologians who, as discussed in Part 1, did not define African Americans or the Indigenous Peoples of America as human. While God claimed them as children and people of sacred worth, false teachings in universities, newspapers, books and pulpits claimed otherwise; and in so doing, made countless murders over the centuries state sanctioned and accepted.
Therefore, when we now see African American men and women killed in the streets, like Walter Scott, we have no reason to think that this is rooted in anything other than it ever has been – lack of respect, racism and the expectation of impunity.
Therefore, on December 10, 2014, the clarion call of the American Reformation was heard once again from those who still follow Richard Allen’s example over 200 years later.
The Young Adult leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church were unwilling to remain silent in the face of injustice.
Therefore, a week after the second non-indictment announcement, they penned a bold statement, encouraging their denomination to speak up.
We stand with our church leadership to follow the example of leadership of a young adult named Richard Allen who believed in a church that challenges sources of oppression and dares to believe that the United States should live up to its creed of “Liberty and justice for all.” …
“It is time that we push ourselves, our ministries, and our churches to walk out the liberating ministry of Jesus Christ. The time is now for peaceful yet powerful protests to show our open dissent and demand that the voices of Mike Brown,Tamir, Tamika, McKenzie, and Eric are heard and not dismissed as their bodies were by those that saw them as disposable.”
Felecia Commodore – Young Adult Rep. Connectional Lay Org.
Martinique Mix – President Connectional Richard Allen Young Adult Council
Erica Austin – Member At Large Women’s Missionary Society of the AMEC (WMS-AMEC)
Jon Ingraham – President Connectional Young People’s Division (YPD)
Those words, right there, that is the theological struggle that has defined this Reformation; the words that though blatantly obvious, are tragically necessary to say: black lives are not disposable. Black Lives Matter.
That is theology. That is revolution. That is reformation. That is truth.
Their words are a direct response to theologians like the 17th century’s Lancelot Andrews, and philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, who denied that fact and wrote it into our history, culture and institutions.
We are not starting from a point of equality. We are starting from a point of tragedy. We are starting from a point of cruelty. We are starting from a point of heresy. We are working our way out of that.
We cannot, therefore, approach these issues as if those with power can be trusted, when they have never been worth trusting before. They were not worth trusting when persons of indigenous African descent were forced to cross the ocean in ships; and they were not worth trusting when religious leaders in Selma voluntarily crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Trust must be earned, it cannot possibly be assumed or expected. Having authority does not mean you cannot be trusted, but neither does possessing authority mean you can be trusted. Trust is earned.
What could be more true to this spirit of the movement then for the American Reformation to be driven forward by these young leaders’ observation of gross injustice and insistence that the church respond. In other words, their insistence that the church reveal what it really stands for and what its theology really is.
The demand for justice, the demand that the sacred value of lives be recognized is often hard for people of privilege to hear. It is hard for us to hear because our lives have been valued and protected, and so we have a hard time accepting that others have not. We have a hard time remembering that up until quite recently, a hierarchy of humanity was taught with us at the top, and a system that protected and promoted us. That teaching is not gone, it has merely gone underground. It must be unearthed from where it is hiding, challenged, and defeated.
Our discomfort with accepting that we have been treated differently, reveals that in the relationship between justice and reconciliation, the church has been far off course. Reconciliation, the restoration of trust, the coming together of what has been divided, is not truly possible without justice. Without justice, reconciliation is an act of silencing.
We, as people of privilege, want justice, but we want justice that does not cost us anything. That is not justice. The reality is that if we have more power, privilege, money, protection, opportunities than is our fair share in this world, then in order for things to be equal and just, we must have less of all of those things. Things cannot remain as they are.
Believing this to be true, Christians Uniting In Christ, an inter-denominational group that has a history of working against racism, responded to the letter from the young AMEC leaders. They worked with them to put together a gathering last month with representatives from many denominations to discuss the work that must be done (Video).
I have never felt more confident that the American Reformation is in good hands than when sitting beside some of those same young AMEC leaders and the Rev. Waltrina Middleton at “Truth to Power: Eradicating Racism” in Dallas, Texas on March 14, 2015.
Hearing from so many of my young peers, who have been keeping the American Reformation alive in the streets and in the pulpits, I knew I was looking at the next phase of this Reformation.
The leaders of this movement are in many cities and many churches and many denominations. Whether or not they are Wesleyan, they are doing something very Wesleyan. They are taking their theology out into the streets.
John Wesley could not be confined by a pulpit in a building, but went into the streets, and the fields, and the prisons, and the mines, and the factories to bring a message of hope.
Richard Allen could not be confined to a pulpit that did not recognize his full humanity and equality in the eyes of God, and he walked his movement right out of the doors of the church and into the streets of Philadelphia.
The laity and clergy involved today in the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be confined to a pulpit when their peers are struggling in the streets. They have gone out; not months after tragedy, but hours after tragedies.
They go into the streets because they understand one very important thing: to say “Black Lives Matter” is like saying “God is love.” If everyone believed it already, we would not need to say it; yet, because they do not, we must keep saying it until they do. We must say “Black Lives Matter To God” because the heresy was once taught that they do not. That is the job of a preacher. That is the job of a theologian. That is the job of a reformer. We must set things right.
Our place is not only in the pulpit, not only in the pew.
Our place is in the streets. With John Wesley. With Richard Allen. With Traci Blackmon. With Waltrina Middleton. With Felecia Commodore.
With Sandra Bland.
The theological descendants of Richard Allen have issued a challenge to us, do we have the courage to answer that call? As leaders cross denominational lines to make this not merely a Wesleyan movement, but a Christian moment, will we be a part of finishing the work of this courageous American Reformation?
PART 4: The Next Chapter
Check back in a couple years. With the help of Methodist activist/evangelist Sandra Bland, we are busy living this right now.