St. James AME

Emanuel County
Org 1895
Photography by Randall Davis

“Many of the details of St. James A. M. E. Zion Church’s history are lost to time, but the congregation’s beginnings were in the 1890s. Sam Mitchell, who was married to Sudie Rountree Mitchell, was one of its founders, and Will Mincey was its earliest pastor. The church structure itself was built in 1908 under the leadership of Reverend J. H. Williams. The building was erected by Reverend R. Lee with the help of a group of trustees.” –from The Swainsboro Forest-Blade, 3 December 2014.

Established in Pennsylvania in 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Church arrived in Georgia at the close of the Civil War.  Today there are more than 500 AME churches in Georgia, the oldest of which is St. Philip in Savannah that dates to 1865.  Most members are of African descent, although the church does not limit membership by race. The denomination’s theological orientation is Methodist, while its organizational structure is Episcopal, meaning that it is primarily governed by bishops elected by the vote of the General Conference, which meets every four years. The AME Church, whose official motto is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Man Our Brother,” places a strong emphasis on social service. As such, the denomination folds its primary mission of preaching and religious education into a secondary mission of service to the homeless, the imprisoned, the poor, and other needy persons.

The AME Church did not make headway in Georgia until the closing months of the Civil War (1861-65). Missionaries from the denomination often followed Union troops into occupied parts of the collapsing Confederacy, adding numerous ex-slaves to their membership rolls. Henry McNeal Turner, the state’s first AME bishop, played a vital role in organizing new churches during the Reconstruction era.  After Reconstruction, AME congregations grew in number and importance. In 1881 the denomination founded Morris Brown College in Atlanta. Along with programs in home economics, education, and commerce, the school had a theology department for the training of ministers. In 1913 the college became a university and expanded its reach through branch institutions, but financial difficulties forced the branches to close in 1929. The school’s original name, Morris Brown College, was reinstated at that time.

During the civil rights movement, AME churches sometimes served as organizational centers for black leaders. For instance, W. W. Law led mass meetings at St. Philip AME Church in Savannah. In recent years AME churches in Georgia have sustained their social vision by maintaining emergency food banks and homeless shelters, in addition to providing other social services for local communities.

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