The Black Church Tradition of Arms, W.E.B. DuBois, and Bethel Church of Philadelphia

Thus one can see in the Negro church to-day, reproduced in microcosm, all the great world from which the Negro is cut off by color-prejudice and social condition. In the great city churches the same tendency is noticeable and in many respects emphasized. A great church like the Bethel of Philadelphia has over eleven hundred members, an edifice seating fifteen hundred persons and valued at one hundred thousand dollars, an annual budget of five thousand dollars, and a government consisting of a pastor with several assisting local preachers, an executive and legislative board, financial boards and tax collectors; general church meetings for making laws; sub-divided groups led by class leaders, a company of militia, and twenty-four auxiliary societies. The activity of a church like this is immense and far-reaching, and the bishops who preside over these organizations throughout the land are among the most powerful Negro rulers in the world.

A “company of militia”? Well, that got my attention.

Reading an excerpt from The Souls of Black Folk by the great African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois for my sociological theory class last week, I came across the interesting description of Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church copied above, including the reference to “a company of militia.”

For reasons I discuss below, I was not altogether surprised that Mother Bethel had a “militia” — because racism and the need to defend the church and its community — only that DuBois mentioned it in passing, without remarking on it further.

Statue of founder Richard Allen outside Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Sandra Stroud Yamane

I know a little bit about Mother Bethel AME Church as it is part of my research project on church (congregational) security. The 52nd Pastor of the church, Mark Kelly Tyler, is a member of our collaborative inquiry team funded by the Louisville Institute.

When we visited last June, I was able to tour the Richard Allen Museum in the church’s basement crypt. I was interested (and surprised) to see four long guns on display.

19th Century longarms displayed in Richard Allen Museum, Mother Bethel AME Church, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by David Yamane

According to the explanatory notes, the ca. 1810 musket may have been used by a contingent organized by Allen and others to fight in the War of 1812. The ca. 1830 percussion fowler may have been used to defend the church and its members. And the two ca. 1870 single shot rifles “could have served a similar purpose, as Bethel church continued to be threatened following the Civil War.”

What is the relationship between these firearms in the church museum and the “company of militia” DuBois speaks of in The Souls of Black Folk? An answer can be found in another of DuBois’s major works, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, an exhaustive study of the Seventh Ward commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania and published it in 1899.

In chapter 12 on the “Organized Life of Negros,” DuBois again talks about Bethel Church, “the mother African Methodist Episcopal Church of America.” He notes that the functions of the “Negro Church” are so “far-reaching” that “its organization is almost political” (p. 201). He then analogizes various aspects of the church organization to their secular governmental equivalents.

Excerpt from W.E.B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro (published in 1899).

Here we find “Allen Guards” as being like the “militia” (see image below). I have elsewhere seen Allen Guards characterized as being the church’s “drill team,” and perhaps they evolved in that direction. But I suspect when DuBois was writing at the end of the 19th century, the Allen Guards played a more traditional role of armed protection for the church community.

In this respect, they represent a communal version of what Nicholas Johnson calls The Black Tradition of Arms.



5 thoughts on “The Black Church Tradition of Arms, W.E.B. DuBois, and Bethel Church of Philadelphia

  1. Pingback: The Black Militia in Philadelphia | 357 Magnum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.