Emanuel AME Church – Charleston, South Carolina
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Emanuel AME Church in Charleston has a long history of freedom, slavery, rebellion, and peace. The church began in 1791 as an outgrowth of the Free African Society and was comprised of both slaves and free blacks. In 1818 it joined the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination and became known as the Bethel Circuit. The church was led by a Reverend Morris Brown, himself a free black.
The Bethel Circuit was burned in 1822 after a planned slave insurrection known as the Denmark Vesey conspiracy was discovered. The church was the suspected meeting place for the planning of the rebellion, and it was burned in retaliation. Though Reverend Brown was acquitted of conspiracy in the plot, he nonetheless was forced out of South Carolina. Former slave Denmark Vesey, the conspiracy’s architect, was not as fortunate. He had been a founder and active member of the church and was convicted of using his skills as a religious leader to encourage slaves and free blacks to join the uprising. Vesey was kept in the city jail until he was hanged along with 36 of his co-conspirators.
Though the church rebuilt, it was forced to close in 1834 due to a new law prohibiting any black person – free or enslaved – to worship without the oversight of whites. Fear of future slave revolts had gripped the city, and many residents erected iron spikes along their gates – known as chevaux-de-frise – to prevent rebelling blacks from entering their homes. An example of the ironwork remains at 27 King Street.
However, members of the Bethel Circuit continued to congregate; they met secretly and illegally until the end of the Civil War. Once blacks were permitted to organize their own churches in 1865, Bethel was reborn as Emanuel AME Church. The first church under this new name was built in 1872 at the current site, yet was severely marred in the great earthquake of 1886. The present Gothic Revival building replaced the damaged church in 1891. Emanuel AME is known as the oldest AME church in the south.
Emanuel AME Church – Additional Info
The Gothic Revival building that houses Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is a testament to the determination of the church’s founders and its early congregation. The present-day structure with its signature steeple was built in 1891, replacing an earlier wooden church from 1872 that was damaged in the Charleston Earthquake of 1886. Many of the brick and marble panels were restored between 1949 and 1951.
The origin of Emanuel AME dates to 1816, when Morris Brown organized a withdrawal of the Charleston Methodist Episcopal Church’s black members over a burial ground dispute. The newly-formed congregation quickly established themselves as an African Methodist Episcopal church, a denomination that was founded earlier in Philadelphia.
Brown was eventually jailed for violating laws restricting free and enslaved blacks from holding religious gatherings without white supervision. After the first incarnation of the church was burned under a cloud of suspicion over a suspected slave uprising, the congregation continued to worship until 1834, when all-black churches were officially outlawed. After a period of underground worship, the church formally reorganized publicly in 1865 and adopted the Hebrew name Emanuel, meaning “God is with us.”
The church is the oldest AME church in the South and has the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, Maryland.
Emanuel AME Church Info
Address: 110 Calhoun Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Emanuel AME Church Map
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