"In great and obviously loving detail, this book covers the birth, spread, and various rises and declines of the AMEZ church in Florida from the end of the Civil War through the rise of legal Jim Crow and the establishment of a white supremacist state in the early 20th century."--Paul Harvey, University of Colorado
This history of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church in Florida tells how dedicated members of one of the oldest and most prominent black religious institutions created a forceful presence within the African-American community--against innumerable odds and constant challenges.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination established an official presence in the state one year before its better-known cousin and rival, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. When Connecticut native Wilbur Garrison Strong arrived in Key West in 1864, he stood out as the first black ordained minister in all of peninsular Florida. He brought with him the northern Methodist tradition of joyful praise and preaching, an ethos of a plain and simple gospel that emphasized "righteous living" and an unbending commitment to emancipation and hope. With Key West under the control of Union forces during much of the Civil War, slaves and free blacks were able to express their desire for independence from white churches more easily there than throughout the rest of the state, and they gravitated to the church that Strong established.
During its formative years, the AMEZ became one of the first mainline churches to ordain women to full clerical status. Its ministers commanded great strength in certain cities, and its membership included more of the urban and middle-class population than was typical for southern religious organizations, which were predominantly rural. At its zenith, the AMEZ was one of the largest African-American churches in the state. But it faced difficulties--gender issues, idiosyncratic leadership, rivalries between local ministers and Episcopal authorities, and political dissension at a point when the church was attempting to address larger social issues. In addition, the scourge of hurricanes and yellow fever and citrus crop freezes affected church fortunes. By 1905, when the governor urged the expulsion of all African-Americans from Florida and when state laws mandated racial segregation on public transportation, the era of lynching, discrimination, and disfranchisement already had begun and the period of AMEZ decline had commenced.
In this remarkable yet virtually unknown story, the coauthors capture the mood of the post-Civil-War period in Florida, when blacks faced the obstacles and the opportunities that accompanied their new freedom. This work adds significantly to the growing body of literature on African-Americans in Florida and offers keen insights into the nature of institution building within the black community and the greater society.
Canter Brown Jr. is professor of history at Florida A&M University. Larry E. Rivers is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and distinguished professor of history at Florida A&M University.
"A carefully researched account."
"Brings a heretofore overshadowed denomination to light."
"This history of Florida AMEZ beginnings gives the first account of the role of black AMEZ churchmen in the struggle for the civic participation of Florida's African American population through Reconstruction and the era of 'Jim Crow.'"
"Brown and Rivers have provided an invaluable service to historians of religion, African Americans and Florida, in their painstaking documentation of the AMEZ Church's formative years in the sunshine state."
"The AMEZ Church, though small, exhibited with courage and grace a vital role in meeting the spiritual needs of many black Floridians. Its history is one of triumph of the human spirit against great difficulties."
"Through a blend of denominational sources, newspapers, and public documents, the authors have reconstructed the Florida history of a significant but little-known religious body. Their narrative tells as much about the AMEZ Church as it does about the broader black experience in the postbellum South."
--The Journal of American History
"This book breaks new ground as the first state study of the Zion church."
"An important contribution to the historical understanding of African American religion in the South and Florida."
--Journal of Southern History
"With the publication of their rich and informative work, For a Great and Grand Purpose, the gap in literature on the black church experience has become a little less conspicuous."
"Brown and Rivers have broken new ground in African American church and religious history."
--The Journal of Southern Religion
"Provides students of Florida and African American religious history with an informative account of black religious self-determination and institution building in the Deep South."
--The Journal of African American History
"For a Great and Grand Purpose and its companion volume, Laborers in the Vineyard of the Lord, begin to fill a serious void in the literature on black churches. Indeed, these books are the only two of their kind. No other state benefits from such closely detailed histories of black Methodism. Moreover, their careful eye to competition between churches and denominational distinctives caution us to avoid casting varied and contested forms of African-American Protestantism as a monolithic "black Church.""
--Florida Historical Quarterly