Strong Roots Can Buckle the Pavement: The Earth-Moving Efforts and Effects of America’s First Black Leaders

Much has been written about the racial or ethnic struggles in America. Most of these treatises focus on the white and black issue, more specifically, the Europeans who traveled to the continent and the Africans who were mostly brought here against their will. And rightfully so. This by far has proven to be the highest hurdle for our blessed nation. Yes, there have been struggles between the Europeans and the aborigines, as well as the aborigines and the Africans, but these cultural conflicts pale in comparison to the difficulties between the European descendants and the African descendants in America.

Even in one of the largest people groups in America, the Christian church, the struggle between those of European descent and those of African descent is a prominent issue. This battle within the Christian church in America is the focus of this article. However, the information shared will undoubtedly apply to the American culture at large.

This writing is inspired by the beautiful oak trees that tunnel a passage along the street I live on. On both sides of the winding road to my house, these magnificent trees stand as sentries on duty. Uniquely, these trees are all without exception, within a few feet of the edge of the concrete pavement. One of these noble gatekeepers stands only a few inches from my driveway.

For nearly thirty years, I have had the privilege of studying the movement and effects of the early Methodist Church in Europe and in America. Through these decades of study it has been my unexpected discovery to find that from these early Methodists, contemporary Americans can learn a valuable lesson- theirs was a movement which greatly exemplified unity through diversity.

During the colonial period, the early Methodist leaders in Europe were the circuit-riding preachers, the preachers on horseback, mostly of English and Irish ancestry, and sent by John Wesley to spread the Gospel and disciple the faithful throughout Great Britain. Eventually, their efforts crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the forests of colonial America.

Theirs was a religion which from the start crossed many lines of ethnicity and class, easily viewed in what was called a Methodist Class meeting. Among the participants of a normal Methodist Class meeting, a meeting of local Methodists who were serious about growing in their faith, one could find members of the wealthy merchant class worshiping and studying alongside those of the poor coal-miners group.  Also present in these sharing and teaching meetings could be a member of English Royalty standing next to the local baker. Even women took on roles of leadership in these gatherings. This was community as modeled in the ancient, early-Christian Church just after Jesus’s departure from earth. This was also why a fatigued culture which pained from religion-as-usual, gave the derisive name of Methodists to the faithful influenced by John and Charles Wesley. In practice these Methodists were refurbishing a stale, out-of-touch religion, turning their beliefs into a practicable application for what Jesus called the abundant life.

These meetings once started by the brothers Wesley in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales transformed the nation of 18th-century Great Britain. No longer did members of Royalty look down on his or her fellow man or woman who worked 16-hour days bending red-hot iron in the numerous furnaces and shops of the infant beginnings of the industrial revolution. No longer were the illiterate to remain unable to read as they viewed and slowly gained understanding of the printed words of the memorized hymns, hymns they had been singing for months if not years. Fewer were the men and women who continued to abuse hard liquor like Gin, as they became convinced that their lives mattered, to themselves, their families, their neighbors, and most importantly to God- quickly they realized they needed to take the necessary steps to sobriety.

As these early Methodists began to grow in their faith, many like the Pilgrims before them, felt led to cross the Atlantic Ocean and settle in colonial America. Many of them did, bringing with them the Wesley-infused teachings straight out of the Bible. Soon, the transformation which took place in the British Isles was beginning to spread like wildfire in America.

One of the largest groups in America to catch this Holy fire were the free and enslaved Africans of the late 18th-century. The personal journals of Wesley’s leading men in the colonies, men like Joseph Pilmoor, Richard Boardman, Robert Strawbridge, and the future leader of them all, Francis Asbury, were clear that the Africans made up a large portion of the early Methodists in colonial America. In addition, several of these sable-skinned citizens would soon become leaders, not only among their ethnic brothers and sisters, but also among those of a different culture. So prominent was the presence of Africans in the early American Methodist Church that when his future in-laws found out their daughter was going to marry Freeborn Garrettson, a Methodist circuit-riding preacher in the American Colonies, they rebuked her for wanting to marry into a “negro church”.

Starting in Philadelphia, the Reverend, Joseph Pilmoor, mentions one young man, a slave of a local family. This young man with a passion to preach eventually began to do so. He quickly earned his freedom as his Christ-centered preaching and prayer transformed the heart of his earthly master. In time, the future American Methodist Bishop, Francis Asbury, encouraged this vibrant and outspoken leader to take over the famed, St. George Methodist Church family in Philadelphia. Yes, the young African preacher became the leading local preacher at the predominantly European member “Methodist Cathedral” on the corner of 4th and New Streets. That young man was Richard Allen.

In New York, Francis Asbury on his very first trip to the island-city met another young African, the son of two free parents who were leaders in Wesley’s chapel on John Street. In time, this young man was given the chance to preach at the famed Methodist church which still stands in Manhattan. Not only did he preach, but he too became lead preacher at the predominantly European, John Street Methodist Church in New York. This young man was James Varick.

Another African leader in the New York congregation was Peter Williams. Born in New York City and the son of slave parents, George and Diana Williams, each owned by the Boorite family. Interestingly, Peter was born in the barn where the Boorite family cow was kept. Peter would often smile and say, “I was born in as humble a place as my Master.” Peter was not referring to Mr. Boorite, but to the Savior, Jesus, who was born in a stable. Peter had seven sisters and two brothers, each born in that same humble location.

Peter’s conversion was at a young age, identifying this experience with the early New York group of Methodists associated with the Rigging Loft, the forerunner to John Street. In this humble beginning of a church- a room dedicated to fixing the large canvas sails of the ships which crossed the Atlantic Ocean, Peter and many others would meet regularly. This group was led by the British preacher wearing an eye-patch, dressed in a military uniform, and carrying a sword at his side. On many occasions that sword lay across the wooden pulpit which this man would preach from. That bold and unique preacher was Captain Thomas Webb, the ex-British Army officer who abandoned the military life for preaching.

Also key in young Peter’s walk of faith was the young preacher who immigrated to New York from Ireland, Philip Embury. Both Webb and Embury aided in Peter becoming a leader in the New York Christian community, a leader which would abandon his enslavement and remain a leader at John Street for more than four decades serving as the church sexton and funeral director.

What of the colony of Virginia?  The largest colony of the original thirteen colonies can also boast of a young African leader in the American Methodist church. This young man, nearly the same age as Richard Allen and James Varick, also had a passion to preach. Equally important, he had a passion for people. When the time arrived for him to minister in the colony of South Carolina, more than likely the recommendation again of Francis Asbury, the young man departed the colony of Virginia and headed south. Along the way, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he witnessed the depravity of the slave population. His heart was quickly spurred with a longing to reach this suffering community. He decided to stay in Fayetteville. He too would lead a large Methodist church, predominantly made up of people of European ancestry, but also including his fellow Africans. This young man was Henry Evans.

North Carolina also had another African preacher and leader in the early Methodist Church in America. This individual not only outperformed the stellar accomplishments of Richard Allen, James Varick, and Henry Evans, but also this young man became the traveling partner of the bishop himself, Bishop Francis Asbury. This young man of African heritage was Harry Hosier, also spelled Hoosier. Harry was the individual Founding Father, Dr. Benjamin Rush, referred to as the greatest preacher in America.

By now I’m sure many of you are asking, Al, this article is informative and sheds light on an interesting subject, but how does it tie in with the title of the article, “Strong Roots Can Buckle the Pavement?” Let me explain.

As many know, you plant a large tree near asphalt or concrete paving and what will eventually happen? The roots of this mighty tree will begin to push up the flatwork. The once flat surface begins to crack and rise upward, creating a hazardous hump or set of bumps and fissures from the unseen and expanding root growth below the once-flat surface. I see this sort of surface-changing movement everyday on my way home and at my driveway. There the mighty oaks that line my street and hug my driveway do this. In the same manner, as these early American, black, leaders would rise up and gain positions of leadership, their accomplishments would inadvertently create bumps and fissures in their sacred communities. These “roots” if you will, were doing what they were created to do, to seek their highest ground for growth and nourishment of themselves and others. Unfortunately, this movement ran head on into those who were not comfortable with the change.

Contrary to most contemporary interpretations of the early Methodist church in colonial America, and many other churches of the period, many black men were appointed the lead preaching position in white churches. Richard Allen, James Varick, and Henry Evans are examples cited above. The Baptists and Congregationalists had theirs as well. Contemporary historians tend to lean in the opposite direction- that black leaders left the predominantly white churches because they were denied positions of leadership or forced to sit in the balconies. This couldn’t be further from the truth. These black leaders long before they departed the predominantly white churches for other reasons were the lead pastors in these churches. And for the balcony issue, there were found both white and black worshipers in the balconies. The balconies were originally more a reflection of the maturity level of the members’ faith walk and less an echo of ethnic bias.

I hope you hear what I’m saying, these religious communities were at the start vibrant and healthy.

But as with all human institutions, there were those within these life-affirming centers whose sinful shortcomings would soon bring about the life-stealing divides, the humps, bumps, and fissures which would require change. That change did happen. And despite the ultimate adverse effects, the change was unavoidable.

What transpired as these young black leaders became the leading pastors at these predominantly white churches was that some of them were eventually forced to leave by the developing oppositions to their achievements.  Other than Harry Hosier, Henry Evans, and Peter Williams, the remainder of individuals listed above, along with several other fellow Africans, several of which were in key positions of leadership, departed the American Methodist church and began their own version of Methodism. Richard Allen being the most memorable, creating the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and James Varick doing the same in New York.

I don’t fault these departing black leaders from the past. I would have done the same- like the Apostle Paul symbolically kicking off the dirt from his sandals when he felt called to abandon preaching to the first-century Jews and preach to the first-century Gentiles. Seems these brave men, these mighty oaks if you will, were doing the same as the life-seeking roots of mighty trees- they were doing whatever it took to continue doing what they were created to do. To me, it was a form of love- creating a healthy boundary until further notice.

Despite this departure, it is interesting to see how it was handled by American Methodism’s leader at the time, Francis Asbury. It is a fact that the departures of men like Richard Allen and James Varick occurred under Asbury’s watch. However, this fault does not lay at the feet of Bishop Asbury. It was Asbury who more than a decade before their departures encouraged the men to take roles of leadership in the predominantly white churches. And they did just that for several years. It was Asbury’s goal to help in the God-ordained development of their leading and preaching skills. This same encouragement to step out and become a leader was offered to many young men, Francis Asbury included. This was the ancient Christian church model of discipleship and leader creation. In essence, Asbury was showing these men the ultimate in respect and love- he was loving his neighbor as he loved himself. And history clearly shows that the love and respect was mutual between these men and Francis Asbury. History also reveals that during the departure of these black leaders and after the departure, Francis Asbury faced much opposition for his continued encouragement and attachment to these men of African ethnicity.

Once Richard Allen left the American Methodist Church in 1794 and started his African version of Methodism, Richard Allen made sure that Bishop Francis Asbury was made honorary speaker for the AME’s inaugural service. Despite the “ground-changing” departure, Francis and Richard maintained a solid relationship. As mentioned above, the issue of Richard leaving the church community he was appointed to lead by Francis Asbury was a result of local members who grew more and more uncomfortable with a man of dark skin leading their church. In fact, several of the key trustees, men who put up the money and financed the purchase of the grand St. George Church building also put up money to help Richard obtain property and eventually a building for his new idea. It wasn’t an easy task, these bold contributors could only account for a portion of the funds needed to branch out like Richard and his group did. And these bold contributors, like Francis Asbury, faced much opposition for their support and encouragement of Richard Allen. Ultimately, Richard was able to raise the necessary funds to strike out on his own. Despite this departure, over the next twenty years, Richard and Francis maintained a strong Christian-communal relationship.

If contemporary culture was honest, they would have to recognize two things about America.

First, that Christianity is the life-giving source which makes up the foundation of our culture.

To ignore this fact is to ignore several centuries of world history. Men like Martin Luther, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, John Locke, Lord Montesquieu, and William Blackstone faced public humiliation, shed their blood and extolled the virtues and origins of representative government as coming from the Bible. Locke went as far as to proclaim that no civil law should ever violate the laws of scripture.

Of the more than 250 men who can be considered as the Founding Fathers of America, only a handful would be considered irreligious. Nevertheless, the entire group, irreligious included, agreed on one thing, that there was one supreme law giver who could determine what was just. They also agreed this law giver was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Bible. They knew that in order for a civilization to be just it must be right in the eyes of this law giver. In other words, only God can determine what is just because He determines what is right. And what is right is clearly evidenced in nature and in Jesus, the son of God, hence the Declaration of Independence’s phrase, “of nature and nature’s God.” Or as the founders were known to express- to know right you must know the Word of God and the Revealed Word of God, i.e. the Bible and the Bible revealed in nature and the life of Jesus.

Without this point of view, one can never fully understand America’s founding.

Men like John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Richard Allen, James Varick, Richard Boardman, Joseph Pilmoor, Henry Evans, and Harry Hosier are the product of the turbulent centuries before them, violent upheavals which drove men from the cold and stagnant religion of the Middle Ages back to the teachings of Jesus and the wisdom of Judaism. Christianity not only rescued humanity from the dark ages, it also gave birth to the greatest human experiment in five thousand years of recorded human history, the founding of America. To ignore the spiritual, (Judeo/Christian), side of America’s founding is like attempting to fly an aircraft minus one wing. History every day in our country continues to display how this ignorance and removal of such a life-affirming influence has caused a nosedive toward disaster.

Second, with Christianity being the solid rock which America is derived from, then these men of African descent, Richard Allen, James Varick, Henry Evans, and Harry Hosier should be recognized as Founding Fathers of our nation.

These men of African heritage are among the elite group of men who brought Christianity to the virgin forests and the burgeoning towns and settlements which created the nation of America. These men stand alongside American notables like John Eliot, Francis Asbury, Gilbert Tennent, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Peter Muhlenberg, and David Brainerd.

One hundred years after his death, at the dedication of Francis Asbury’s granite statue in Washington, D.C., President Calvin Coolidge called Francis Asbury one of the builders of our great nation. Quite an accomplishment for one who never sought or gained an American citizenship. You could call Asbury America’s British Founding Father. Interesting that Harry Hosier for many years was Bishop Asbury’s constant companion. The crowds which gathered to hear Francis and Harry preach were so large at times that standing outside a building and with no ability to physically view the preacher himself, Harry’s preaching at times was mistaken for the bishop himself. If Francis Asbury can be considered a founding member or builder of our nation, then at the very least so should Harry Hosier.

These dark-skinned preachers were members of a noble team of men who like the Apostle Paul taught that we need to remember the faith of our fathers before us. Wise advice for today. If contemporary culture would open their eyes, they would see that this faith permeates our nation. It is emblazoned on our buildings, organic to the names of our towns, schools, and cities throughout the land, and planted in the seedbed of American culture, a culture aching to break free from a cold-hardened and buckled pavement.

The buckled and bumpy pavement no longer can be tolerated. It is time to repair the flatwork. Time for the church to do its life-enhancing work.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, it is my hope that this article can at the very least inspire thought and perhaps, consideration of the wisdom of the past. Know that I do not consider myself a priest, a church planter, a preacher, or a prophet. It is my strong desire, a desire I am convinced God placed on my heart, to bring to life communities of the past, especially when a community has worked well.  So if you take anything from this article it is my hope that you gain a clear understanding that in America today, although portions of the church, much like the culture, are divided black and white, the majority of the church and culture in this God-ordained land desperately needs, and if truth be told, desperately desires to reconcile along these lines of color.

These men, or if you will, these “strong roots” from the past, due to their achievements and struggle for fairness may have buckled the past’s sacred “pavements” of the American church, but their legacies, along with the legacies of the once “level”, once vibrant, and once life-affirming “pavements” must each purpose themselves to be the remnant that can rescue our struggling nation.

More to the point, the church in America, black and white, if it is to once again become the life-changing agent it has been for more than two thousand years, this same church which landed on the shores of America must once again gain the wise words from the Bible as found in the New Testament book of Acts, that from one blood, God has created all nations of men.