Sarah B. Gordon, University of Pennsylvania Law School, on:
“The African Supplement: Law, Religion, and Race in Early National America”
In unexpected ways, law provided African Americans with rights to religious integrity that they were denied in other venues. As black congregants developed legal expertise, they built powerful and long-lasting religious institutions. Yet these rights were fragile, as the legal rules governing such institutions also sustained dissent and fracture.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was incorporated in Philadelphia in 1796, setting the stage for subsequent battles over legal and spiritual autonomy for black congregations. Both religious corporations and separatist African American religious communities were significant innovations in the early Republic; the intersection of race, religion, and law generated controversy over the rights of local congregations to control their own spiritual lives and church property.
In the case of Bethel, such controversies were conducted through legal means. Over the two decades following its incorporation, Bethel’s leaders built and increasingly powerfully defended their church against attempts by the central Methodist Church denomination to assert control. Using litigation, amendments to their articles of incorporation, and related legal maneuvers, Bethel’s leaders, especially its founder Richard Allen, acquired unprecedented legal power and protection. In an era when increasing racism and aggression imperiled free blacks across American society, church corporations were uniquely empowered to protect African American religious institutions.
At the same time, such institutions were vulnerable to dissent from within. Incorporation laws mandated lay control of all church property through the election of trustees who were vested with ownership. Such elections allowed dissenters unprecedented rights, often drawing internecine quarrels into courtrooms. In the case of Bethel and Allen, repeated encounters with law produced both victory (against the white Methodist denomination, which was forced to recognize Bethel’s independence) and defeat (against breakaway members from Bethel, who founded another church nearby and who successfully sued Allen and Bethel trustees for theft and trespass). The resulting plurality belies a unitary “black church,” even as it is evidence of great resilience and creativity.
Sarah Barringer Gordon, Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches in the areas of church and state, property, and legal history in the law school, and American religious and constitutional history in the history department. Sally is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), and The Spirit of the Law Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2010), “The New Age and the New Law: Malnak v. Yogi,” in Leslie Griffin, ed., Law And Religion: Cases in Context (Aspen Publishers, 2010), and “Law and Religion, 1790-1920,” in The Cambridge History of Law in America , Michael Grossberg and Christopher Tomlins, eds. (Cambridge, 2008). She is currently at work on two new book projects. The first, tentatively titled The Landscape of Faith , about religion and property across American national history. The second, Convictions (forthcoming, University of Illinois Press), is co-authored with Kathryn Daynes of Brigham Young University, and is a social and legal history of prosecutions of Uta
h polygamists in the nineteenth century.
Sally is a regular commentator in print, radio and television on law and religion. She serves on the boards of Vassar College, the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, and is the incoming co-editor of the American Society for Legal History’s book series Studies in Legal History. She also is actively involved in the Mormon History Association, the American Historical Association, the Western History Association, the American Academy of Religion, the American Society for Church History, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and the Organization of American Historians. She has recently been appointed as an OAH Distinguished Lecturer starting in 2012.
The Religion and Politics in American Public Life lecture series, co-coordinated for 2014-15 by Professors Courtney Bender, Jean Cohen, Josef Sorett, and John Torpey, is a series of public conversations that explore the often contentious role of religion in American political and public life. Each session features a speaker presenting on a timely, topical intersection of religion with American politics and society, such as civil religion, public discourses of morality, and reproductive and sexual rights.
The series is jointly sponsored by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life; the PhD Program in Sociology at the Graduate Center, CUNY; the Department of Political Science at Columbia University; and the Department of Religion at Columbia University.
For a list of previous speakers and topics, see ircpl.org/americanpubliclife. All talks in this series are free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.