The African Supplement: Religion, Race, and Corporate Law in Early National America
William & Mary Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 3, Pg. 385, 2015
Posted: 1 Aug 2015 Last revised: 8 Aug 2015
Date Written: July 1, 2015
In unexpected ways, corporate law in the early Republic provided African Americans with rights to religious integrity that they were denied in other venues. As black congregants developed legal expertise, they built powerful and long-lasting religious institutions. Yet these rights were fragile, as the legal rules governing such institutions also sustained dissent and fracture. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was incorporated in Philadelphia in 1796, setting the stage for subsequent battles over legal and spiritual autonomy for black congregations. Such battles were conducted through legal means. Over the two decades following its incorporation, Bethel’s leaders built and increasingly powerfully defended their church against attempts by the central Methodist Church denomination to assert control. In an era when increasing racism and aggression imperiled free blacks, church corporations were uniquely empowered to protect African American religious institutions. Repeated encounters with law produced both victory (against the white Methodist denomination, which was forced to recognize Bethel’s independence) and defeat (against breakaway members from Bethel, who founded another church nearby and who successfully sued Bethel leaders for theft and trespass). The resulting plurality belies a unitary “black church,” even as it is evidence of great resilience and creativity.
Keywords: Law and religion, legal history, Methodism, Mother Bethel, AME Church, incorporation, religious corporations, Richard Allen, trustee, episcopal, religious authorities, the black church, dissent
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