Varieties of African American Worship
The Case of the Liturgical Divergence of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones
Part of the 2009-2010 Liturgy Symposium
Refreshments for mind, body, and spirit will be served. Free and open to the public.
We know well the story of the day when Richard Allen and Absalom Jones and other African American members departed from St. George’s Church, the Mother church of American Methodism, because they were pulled from their knees while praying when they chose seats designated for whites only. We know well the story of that day up to this juncture, the leave-taking, the exodus. But what happened next? Subsequent events may not be so familiar. It is certainly not a simple story but one of divergence. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood … and that has made all the difference.”
Mary Sawyer notes that the exodus event(s)—the formation of churches by African Americans independent of white institutions—provided an opportunity for a single, perhaps “national”, African American church. In other words, the shift from invisible to visible institutional form of the nascent black church, both before and following the U.S. Civil War, could have resulted in the founding of a single unified religious institution by and for African Americans in a white racist society but did not. Instead multiple institutions developed with a diversity of leaders, theologies, and worship styles. This paper is a close look at one instance of such a choice, one moment among many, when divergence was chosen over unity, the parting of ways between Richard Allen and Absalom Jones and the founding of Mother Bethel A.M.E. and St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church by each respectively. I proceed by rehearsing quickly the circumstances preceding the split between these two leaders, then looking at the form and style of worship adapted by each respectively, and finally by drawing some conclusions about our interpretation of liturgical history in “the black churches.”
Scott Haldeman is Associate Professor of Worship at Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. Specializing in the history, theology and practice of US Protestant worship, he is also interested in the less formal ways human beings ritualize themselves in relation to various categories of identity, such as race, gender and sexuality. He is the author of one book, Towards Liturgies that Reconcile: Race and Ritual among African-American and European-American Protestants (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2007) in the Liturgy, Worship and Society series, and numerous articles, including “‘Help Our Unbelief’: The ‘Not Yet’ of Rites of Reconciliation” in Liturgy 23:4 (October 2008) and “No Easy Peace: Cultural Diversity, American Racism, and Christian Worship” in Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching, and the Arts 41:2 (2007). He was a member of the PC(USA) Sacramental Study Group that produced “An Invitation to Christ, Font and Table: A Guide to Sacramental Practices” and is active in the American Academy of Religion, the North American Academy of Liturgy, and Societas Liturgica.