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

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