African Methodist August Quarterly

African Methodist August Quarterly

Date Observed: Last weekend in August
Location: Wilmington, Delaware

The African Methodist August Quarterly is a meeting of the African Union Methodist Protestant (AUMP) Church held each year at the end of August in Wilmington, Delaware. This religious festival, also known as the Big Quarterly, commemorates the founding of the church in 1813. It has served as an opportunity to conduct yearly church business as well a reunion celebration.

Historical Background

The African Union Methodist Church (AUMC) was the first independent black church to be established in the United States. Although the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Philadelphia began earlier - in 1793 - it did not separate from the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal denomination until 1816.

In 1813 Peter Spencer founded the church, originally called the Union Church of Africans, in Wilmington, Delaware. Spencer was born a slave in Kent County, Maryland, in 1782 and was freed when his owner died. During the 1790s, he moved to Wilmington. There he eventually became known as "Father Spencer" because of his strong faith, teaching abilities, and knowledge of the law. He not only taught people to read and write but he also offered legal advice. Spencer believed that the combination of education and religion would empower and liberate African Americans.

Soon after he arrived in Delaware, Spencer became active in the white-dominated Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church, called the Mother of Methodism in the state. Although accepted into the church, black congregants were not considered equal to whites and were segregated - required to sit in the church balcony rather than on the main floor. During worship, black congregants would praise the Lord out loud when they felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, and white church members disapproved, insisting that the African Americans should worship quietly. Spencer believed that was an unfair request, and he and another layman, William Anderson, left the church. Nearly 40 people followed Spencer and Anderson out of the church and formed the Ezion Methodist Episcopal Church, which was still part of the Asbury denomination. But neither Spencer nor Anderson was ordained, so in 1812 the Asbury church appointed a white minister to lead the new church. Spencer and his followers were not allowed to control their church finances or other business affairs. By 1813 they were so dissatisfied that they withdrew entirely from the Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church and founded the Union Church of Africans. This was the first African-American-controlled church in America.

With the help of Delaware's Quaker community, Spencer built a church on land near an Underground Railroad station. This new and independent church was recorded under the title of the Union Church of Africans in 1813. The legal document clearly stated that the church, also called the African Union Church, was for "African Brethren and their descendants," which secured African-American control of church administration and worship. The church name was changed to the African Union Methodist Protestant Church in 1867. Under Spencer's leadership, 31 churches were established in several more states. By 2005 there were about 40 AUMP congregations in Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

Creation of the Observance

After the church was established, Spencer created the August Quarterly in 1814. The church held four meetings during the year, and the August Quarterly became the annual conference. Also known as the Big Quarterly, the meeting, or conference, was held in Wilmington on the last Sunday of every August. At that time of year, the harvest was usually completed and slave and free African-American workers were given time off to attend. The Quarterly was the first major church festival for African Americans and has long symbolized African-American religious freedom.


Since 1814, the Big Quarterly has been held annually (except for the Civil War years) on the last weekend in August. During the early years of the event, pastors were assigned to the churches they would serve during the upcoming year. Other church business, such as reports from trustees, also took place at the Quarterly.

African-American congregants came to the Quarterly from several surrounding states, reuniting with relatives and friends and celebrating their religious independence (see also Church Homecomings). Slaves and free black laborers were given the day off to attend. Sermons were the major features of the Big Quarterly festivals and involved calland-response elements - a back-and-forth conversation between the preacher and the congregants. Along with preaching, the festival included singing, dancing, testimonies, and faith healing.

The August festival also provided an opportunity for runaway slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad. Spencer along with Quaker Thomas Garrett, Wilmington's station master, helped escapees.

Over the years, the Big Quarterly brought together African Americans across denominational lines. Baptist and Methodist attendees took part, affirming their unity as Christians. The Quarterly also was an opportunity for participants to express themselves through singing and dancing and to share traditional foods at a feast.

Attendance at the Quarterly dropped after the original AUMP church was torn down in 1969 to provide space for a city center plaza that became the Peter Spencer Plaza. The church found another location in Wilmington, and by the 1980s the Quarterly had been rejuvenated somewhat. It is considered the oldest African-American church festival in the nation.

U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware frequently has recognized the festival on the floor of the Senate, noting that "the history and spirit represented by the Big Quarterly are important to our identity and character as a community and as a nation. It is an event that both reminds us of what has been overcome, and challenges us to complete the journey."

Contacts and Web Sites

August Quarterly Mother AUMP Church 812 N. Franklin St. Wilmington, DE 19806 302-658-3838

The Ring Dance Ceremony

Religious or holy dances at the Quarterly were known as ring dances, which had their roots in Africa and at the August festival were usually performed by men. In his book "Invisible" Strands in African Methodism, historian Lewis Baldwin includes a description of the dance which was published in the Dela- ware State Journal :

In the basement of the church a hundred or more men formed a circle and swayed to and fro, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, according to the metre of the hymn sung. Those who formed the inner line of the human ring were the most violent in their movements and most of the time perspired so freely that they could not have been more wet if a hose had been turned upon them. Frantically, they urged one another to more violent feats of ghynmnastic devotion, clapping their hands, jumpbin and shouting, and occasionally groaning. When they grew weary they dropped upon their knees and prayers were offered. The women were modest and did not help form the rings. Instead they sang and watched the proceedings with interest. "Delaware History Explorer Online Encyclopedia - Peter Spencer" Historical Society of Delaware 505 Market St. Wilmington, DE 19801 302-655-7161; fax: 302-655-7844

Further Reading

Baldwin, Lewis V. "Invisible" Strands in African Methodism: A History of the African Union Methodist Protestant and Union American Methodist Episcopal Churches, 1805-1980 . Metuchen, NJ, and London: The American Theological Library Association and The Scarecrow Press, 1983. ---. The Mark of a Man: Peter Spencer and the African Union Methodist Tradition. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987. Biden, Joseph R., Jr. Floor Statement: The Big Quarterly, August 1, 2002. http://biden McNeil, Lydia. "Peter Spencer." In The Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West. Vol. 5. New York: Macmillan, 1996. Newton, James E., and Harmon Carey. "Diamonds of Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore: Seven Black Men of Distinction." In A History of African Americans of Dela- ware and Maryland's Eastern Shore , edited by Carole Marks. Newark: University of Delaware, 1997. . Russell, Daniel James. History of the African Union Methodist Protestant Church. 1920. Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001. .
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
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