Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or “Mother Emanuel,” is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the south. Founded in 1818, it was investigated for involvement in the Vesey slave revolt and burned. The church was rebuilt and worship continued until 1834, when all-black churches were outlawed. Worship still continued underground, until it was reorganized in 1865, and took the name Emanuel, which in Hebrew means “God with us.” A two-story wooden church was built at the current site in 1872, was damaged in the Charleston Earthquake of 1886. The present day structure was built in 1891.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church has its
beginnings in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1787, Richard Allen and others of African descent left St. George’s
Methodist Church after being treated unkindly after restrictions were placed on
them. Purchasing a blacksmith shop for
worship, Allen founded the Free African Society. Adhering to the Doctrines of Methodism, the
movement blossomed into the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. Richard Allen was the denomination’s first
The history of Emanuel African Episcopal Church is
similar in that in 1816, black members of Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal
Church withdrew over a disputed burial ground.
Over 4,000 black members left white churches in protest. The leader, Morris Brown, organized a church
for blacks and sought affiliation with Allen’s denomination. In 1818, it arose through the Hampstead
church, one of the three churches in the Bethel circuit created for the area. The Hampstead church was located at Reid and
Denmark Vesey was one of the church’s founders,
along with Rev. Brown. In 1822, when
word leaked that Vesey was plotting a slave revolt, the church also became a
target of investigation. During the
hysteria that followed this controversy, the church was burned. Brown was suspected of knowledge of the plot,
but was never convicted. He went north
to Philadelphia where he eventually became the second bishop of the AME
The church was rebuilt and worship continued until
1834 when all-black churches were outlawed.
Worship continued underground until the end of the Civil War. The church publically reorganized in 1865 and
adopted the name Emanuel, which in Hebrew means “God with us.”
A two-story wooden church was built at the current
site in 1872 but was destroyed in a devastating earthquake on August 31,
1886. The present building was completed
in 1891with the Rev. L. Ruffin Nichols as pastor. The Gothic Revival building was restored,
redecorated and stuccoed during the years 1949-51. Rev. Nichols and his wife were exhumed and
entombed at the base of the steeple as a sign of appreciation for the church
they helped nurture.
On June 17th, 2015 the church was the site of a mass shooting. Nine parishioners and Senior Pastor and State Senator Clementa Pinckney were killed on site while attending Bible Study class.