Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.

In 1808, the story goes, people of African descent established the first Black Protestant congregation in Pittsburgh — what would later become the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Hill District.

The exact year of origin is hard to know, said Jamaal Craig, a community activist and civil rights historian. When it comes to early Black American history, written records often lag behind the actual “things in motion.” 

Who were these early Black Protestants, and how did they establish the Bethel AME Church?

The answers to those questions have everything to do with slave laws and pursuits of freedom.

In 1808, slavery was still legal in Pennsylvania to an extent. The Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 declared that any enslaved person born before March 1, 1780, would stay enslaved for life. Anyone born after 1780 would serve a 28-year period of indentured servitude and then be freed. The last enslaved people in Pennsylvania weren’t freed until 1847.

Pennsylvania’s laws were still more progressive than many neighboring states. This was thanks in large part to Pennsylvania’s large number of Quakers, who were steadfastly against slavery. 

“Demolition of Bethel AME Church, Wylie Avenue and Elm Street, Lower Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 24, 1957.” (Photo by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)

Virginia and Maryland to the south were slaveholding states. Although Ohio entered the Union as free territory, it had “Black codes” that prohibited many people of African descent from settling there. (For example, hopeful residents had to pay a $500 bond upon their arrival.)

For this reason, between about 1800 and the Civil War, Pennsylvania — and Pittsburgh in particular, because of its westward location — became a refuge for self-liberating people, freedom seekers and Black children of white enslavers, particularly from Virginia, said Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center. 

By 1808, Pittsburgh’s Black population would have included many of these migrants.

As to their Protestant faiths, there “wasn’t a great deal of personal choice” in that, Black said.

Some Africans arrived in the United States already practicing versions of Christianity, Craig said. Those who weren’t Christian were generally forbidden from practicing their home religions, which included Islam and African faiths like Sufism and Akan. 

Whether by force or because it was the only option they saw, many converted to Protestant Christianity. People who were enslaved often followed the faith of their enslavers, Black said. People who were freed often followed the dominant faith of wherever they lived.

In Pittsburgh, that meant people of African descent were often Methodist or Presbyterian. Those who migrated from Virginia were sometimes Episcopalian. The early records of Pittsburgh’s Methodist society show that it included both white and Black members, said David Grinnell, archivist for the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Yet there were some Black Protestants who did not affiliate with any of the predominantly white denominations they saw around them. They created their own faith communities, guided by their own understandings of the Bible. 

In the 1950s, Bethel’s building in the Lower Hill District was torn down as “blight,” and the church was forced to relocate. On June 19, 2021, they returned to their church’s former home — now a parking lot — for a worship service that featured voices from Bethel, neighboring congregations and the Penguins development team. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Although literacy rates in these communities could be low, particularly among formerly enslaved people coming from the South, many members knew portions of the Bible by heart and were sophisticated, devoted interpreters of Scripture. To form their own congregations was a means of asserting their freedom and autonomy in an oppressive society.

This was the character of Pittsburgh’s first Black faith community. When it began, it wasn’t affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church or any denomination. It was called simply the “colored church,” Black said, and it met out of people’s homes. There were likely about a dozen members.

Meeting out of homes was a necessity, Craig said. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed enslavers to hunt freedom seekers anywhere in the United States, people of African descent in Pittsburgh couldn’t trust that they were safe.

“Why would they have structures?” he said. A Black congregation meeting in a designated church building would make them “targets.”

The congregation’s official affiliation with the AME Church began about 10 years later. 

The AME Church started in Philadelphia. At the time, Philadelphia was the second largest city in the United States and hada large Black population and anti-slavery society. 

Many leaders of the anti-slavery society, including AME founders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were Methodists. After facing discrimination in the local Methodist Episcopal church — being pulled off their knees while praying, being segregated in the balcony — they decided to form their own congregation. They created Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1794.

News of the event spread fast. Other churches, including Pittsburgh’s independent “colored church,” began to identify with the tradition.

“The African Methodist Episcopal Church by its very birth was revolutionary,” said Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center. In its early days, Bethel AME was involved in anti-slavery movements and the Underground Railroad. It has continued to protest racism and work for justice since. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

When the AME Church became an official denomination in 1816, these formerly unaffiliated congregations were ready to sign on. In 1818, Pittsburgh’s first Black church became Bethel AME, named after “Mother Bethel” in Philadelphia. 

(If it feels like there are a lot of Bethel AME’s in the region, that’s for good reason, Black explained. Most AME churches established in the Northeast at the time shared the name.)

A lot of anti-slavery advocates were members of the AME Church, and a lot of AME church members were leaders in the region’s anti-slavery networks. It was impossible to separate their growth or activism from one another. (Interestingly, many were also members of the Prince Hall Freemasons, Black added.) 

“The African Methodist Episcopal Church by its very birth was revolutionary and was anti-slavery,” Black said. 

In Pittsburgh, that meant Bethel AME was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It meant Bethel was the site of Pittsburgh’s first school for Black students, founded in 1831. A hundred some years later, it meant Bethel was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, holding community forums on police brutality and protesting the razing of the Hill District, including their own church building, to build the Civic Arena. The social and the spiritual always went hand in hand.

“They were determined to put God first,” Black said. “Everything else was a manifestation of God’s word.”

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

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Chris Hedlin

Chris Hedlin is a reporter for PublicSource focusing on religion. She comes to PublicSource through the American Council of Learned Societies’ Leading Edge Fellowship program, which pairs scholars of...