Peter Spencer’s Union Church of Africans developed as part of an independent black church movement that swept the northern part of the United States in the late 1700s and the 1800s. Inspired by the principle of religious freedom expressed in the U.S. Constitution and by a vision of black self-determination, in 1813 Spencer led the movement that created the first independent black denomination in the United States. It would eventually result in the incorporation of the African Union Methodist Protestant (A.U.M.P.) and Union American Methodist Episcopal (U.A.M.E.) denominations in the mid 1860s, also known as the Spencer Churches and as African Union Methodism. These churches embodied a growing desire on the part of Africans in America to be self-governing and to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences. They also stood as the prime expression of resistance to African enslavement and segregation, and as participants in some of the earliest organized protests for civil rights for people of African descent in the United States.
Daniel J. Russell’s History of the African Union Methodist Protestant Church, 1920: http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/russell/russell.html
Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly white congregation, was founded in Wilmington in 1789. From its beginnings, it followed a policy of racial segregation that alienated its black members, leading Peter Spencer and other blacks to break away in 1805 and found Ezion Methodist Episcopal Church.
Asbury Methodist Church, Wilmington, 1902
Delaware Historical Society Collections
Asbury Methodist Church at Third and Walnut streets served its congregation until 1956. Since then it has been home to another church and currently houses the Methodist Action Program.
List of “colored members” of Asbury Church, 1803-1804
Blacks belonged to Asbury from the beginning. By 1805, about 100 belonged to the church, accounting for nearly half of its members. Even after some left to form Ezion Methodist Church, other blacks remained at Asbury.
When Peter Spencer and William Anderson left Ezion, they founded the Union Church of African Members in 1813. Later that year churches in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York joined it to form the Union Church of Africans, the first independent body of black Methodists to become a denomination in the United States. The denomination consisted of about thirty congregations at the time of Spencer’s death in 1843. However, after his death the church lacked a strong unifying leader. A series of schisms beginning in the 1850s led to the creation of the A.U.M.P. and U.A.M.E. churches as rival denominations.
Articles of Association of the African Union Church
In the 1850s, the removal of Ellis Saunders as Elder Minister and the ouster of the trustees of the Mother African Union Church in Wilmington led to legal action and a split within the Union Church of Africans. This resulted in the incorporation of the African Union Methodist Protestant (A.U.M.P.) and Union American Methodist Episcopal (U.A.M.E.) churches as separate denominations in the mid-1860s.
The Final Decision of the African Union Church Case, 1856
Delaware Historical Society Collections
After the split within the Union Church of Africans in Wilmington in the 1850s, the churches reorganized as the African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church (A.U.F.C.M.P., later A.U.M.P.) and the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church (U.A.M.E.), both with headquarters in Wilmington. Schisms and defections continued into the twentieth century, leaving both churches as small, regional denominations. Despite their low profile, some of their bishops were active in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Urban renewal and redevelopment in the late 1900s claimed the mother churches of both denominations, forcing them to relocate.
The deed for Ezion and the articles of association for the Union Church of African Members list the names of original members of both churches. These brave people forged faith and built freedom by leaving established churches to form new ones that better met their needs. Along with early members of both churches whose names remain unknown, they were pioneers in the development of black churches and community life in Delaware and the nation.
Original trustees of Ezion, 1805
Signers of the Articles of Association of the African Union Church, 1813