Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Unexpected finds

· August 26th, 2015 · No Comments

Author Sarah Gordon reflects what drove her to reconceive her book project—and brought her to write her piece in the July 2015 edition of the WMQ. 

Sarah writes

Readerssbgordon of this blog are surely no strangers to the pains of reviewing documents on microfilm. The tiny print, the poor image quality, the resulting  headaches.  When those documents are articles of incorporation, one might also presume that they would be as dull as they are  difficult.

But while reading through the microfilm of articles of incorporation in the 1790s on a visit to the Pennsylvania state archive in  Harrisburg, I stumbled across two that jumped out.  Seeing them on the page brought home just how early Bethel African  Methodist Episcopal Church and St Thomas African Episcopal Church filed documents to incorporate in 1796.  I wondered at the time whether these were the first two corporations formed by and for African Americans.  I think they are indeed the earliest, and I have followed the traces of these corporations in state records, court opinions, lawyers’ papers, and church archives.

The longevity of these corporations is striking and important – not least because of the rich historiography of African American religious life.  For example, Bethel is now known as Mother Bethel, the original home of what became the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a denomination formed in 1816.  Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, which recently endured such devastating and racially motivated violence, was founded in 1818 as the southernmost branch of the new denomination.  It was there, said his accusers, that Denmark Vesey plotted a slave revolt.

But there was a complex legal history here, as well, and this is what seemed fresh to me.  I was already hard at work on a book project about religious organizations and wealth from the Revolution through the end of Reconstruction. But I couldn’t put the story of African separatist churches down, somehow.  My larger book project changed, as a result.  And for the better.  Great scholars helped me see that the legal history I thought I would be writing was much less engaged in the big picture than I had assumed. Instead of writing a book about church property and finance, I need to write about the property that they were all consumed with – property in persons.

This “aha” moment was thanks in part to the congenial members of BGEAH (the British Group of Early American Historians), to whom I presented my early findings. When I proposed my paper, to be honest, I was still struggling to make sense of these articles of incorporation and the lawsuits that emerged over the next twenty years and more.  The relationship between religious freedom and slavery is still largely unexplored, and I have learned that it is tangled with the private law of religion as well as secular slave codes.  In the early Republic, I suspected, new legal forms for religious organizations (that, is corporations) gave power and shape to the connections between religious bodies and the state. Trying to piece this together, I was writing up until I started talking.

In the audience were three people who helped immensely: Fredrika Teute, Omohundro’s legendary book editor, Betty Wood of Cambridge University, whose book with Sylvia Frey (Come Shouting to Zion) is the standard bearer in the field, and Simon Newman of Glasgow University, whose interest in early national Philadelphia and race have led him to many corners that I was visiting from a different angle.  Each of them told me not to stop, but also made it clear that I had a lot of work to do.  The “African Supplement” article is the first result of that work, but it also will play an important role in the larger book project.

On this path to reconceiving my book project, I had lunch with my dissertation adviser.  Yup, I still go back to my adviser, all these years later.  He puts up with it, which is generous, to say the least.  I think of my visits with Dan Rodgers, one of the world’s most thoughtful and clear-eyed people, as recharging and revisiting what really counts in scholarly life.  At the end of our talk, Dan reminded me “not to forget power.”  And that reminder fired neurons that finally connected legal doctrines to slavery and the ways that disestablishment was intimately and inversely connected to coercion of the body.  In part, removing religious actors from government exiled the most cogent critics of human bondage from politics.  In the South, slavery was placed firmly on the secular side of the ledger, off limits to preachers. Equally important, the new avenues opened to private religious life, especially the corporate form that is central to this article, allowed churches and other religious entities to navigate back to the question that had been so divisive all along – the central issue of slavery.  The great intra-church schisms of the antebellum era were the most dramatic evidence of this long process, but there are many pieces of the puzzle that I still have to find, and many more reels of microfilm to read and archives to visit.

We’ll see if I can keep all the balls in the air as I work beyond the “African Supplement” article, but a chance encounter in a dusty archive led me to rethink my own work, and to dive in to research with a different perspective.  I have now been teaching for twenty years, and the excitement and challenge are still fresh.  That’s a wonderful reflection on how much we all have to learn, and how training never stops.

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