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Research by Gordon explores how corporate law in early America granted African Americans new rights

August 01, 2016

Corporations have traditionally been used for empire, monopoly, finance, and local government, but research by Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon explains how they also held a critical place in African Americans’ spiritual life in early America.

In “The African Supplement: Religion, Race, and Corporate Law in Early National America,” published in William and Mary Quarterly, Gordon traces how incorporation granted African American churches with rights and power that they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to.

Gordon is the Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, as well as an expert on religion in American public life and the law of church and state. “The African Supplement” won the Lester J. Cappon Award, which honors the best article of the year published in William and Mary Quarterly.

In 1796, Gordon explains, the trustees of Bethel Church in Philadelphia, the first Methodist church established by African Americans, took a bold step — they incorporated their church. And then, when the main white church in Philadelphia attempted to interfere with the running of the church, the trustees fought back by submitting amended articles of incorporation. In other words, they fought for independence through corporate law.

When the attorney general, supreme court, and governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania certified these amendments, known as the African Supplement, as lawful, Bethel Church was free to manage its own affairs — a key step toward its formal separation from the white-controlled Methodist Church. The black trustees could now mortgage the church, expel or suspend current members, appoint preachers and exhorters, and refuse to accept any preacher nominated by the white Methodist minister of the nearby St. George’s Church, unless a majority of the Bethel trustees approved.

In early America, corporate law allowed black churches to create havens for spiritual life. “Incorporation created a new legal person, with the capacity to own property as well as the right to sue and defend itself,” writes Gordon. “The corporation was neither black nor white and thus, for black people in many jurisdictions, it could be deployed in otherwise inaccessible spaces (for example, courts or government administrative offices) to accomplish objectives, such as independence and ownership of property, that would otherwise be unattainable or unsustainable.”

Religious communities in early national America planted legal roots through corporate structure, Gordon writes, but incorporation wasn’t just for “the white, the wealthy, or even the legally sophisticated.”

Through the legal history of incorporation, she explains, African Americans’ struggles for religious freedom are made apparent. Corporate law gave them access to avenues of power, and they used the law with growing sophistication to support their move to self-governance.

African Americans were among the first to embrace the corporate form. “In religious life, black congregants could create and protect property and the institutional structures of a vibrant communal identify,” Gordon writes. “In this way, religious freedom provided black worshippers with powerful new legal rights to property and institutional integrity, the concrete and durable building blocks of independence.”

Within a generation, religious corporations became the standard across the United States. But while incorporation allowed congregations to invoke protection from the state, it also allowed dissenters within the church to do the same thing. Formation was possible, but so was fracture.

For almost a decade, St. George’s tried to reassert control over Bethel. St. George’s even offered the Bethel Church building for sale at a sheriff’s auction in 1815. St. George’s attempt backfired, however, when Bethel founder Richard Allen showed up at the auction and outbid the crowd, buying the church and its surrounding land.

But the victory for Bethel Church had a price. Some congregants bristled at the strict rules — sexual purity, sobriety, work on behalf of the church — that Allen demanded of his congregation.  Disaffected former member Robert Green sued Bethel — with the support of St. George’s.

These types of legal conflicts became widespread in the 1820s, Gordon explains. Congregations pushed back against central authorities, but divisions within the congregation were fostered as churches were separated from that authority.

“The lay control that was part of incorporation nurtured dissent and dissenters, who went on to form their own incorporated institutions,” Gordon explains. In 1820, former Bethel Church member Robert Green opened a rival church just down the road.

Despite the ongoing threat of schism, incorporation made the ownership of land and church buildings — as well as a form of self-governance — possible for African Americans.

“The storied power of “the black church” emerged in incorporated spaces,” writes Gordon, “where religious societies were formed and remained independent, even in the face of rising white aggression and racism.”