In 1787, despite its moniker as the City of Brotherly Love, relations between whites and blacks in Philadelphia were hostile. The church was no different. Black churches essentially did not exist so many blacks attended those white churches whose doors were open to them. Richard Allen and his friends Absalom Jones, Darius Jennings, and William White were among blacks who attended St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Because of their growing numbers, these black worshippers were pulled from their knees at prayer and told they could no longer kneel there. Repelled by this act of racial discrimination, this little band walked out of St. George’s. Subsequent events resulted in the formation of the Free African Society on April 12, 1787–a mutual aid society–whose mission also became that of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. One purpose is “to seek out and save the lost, and serve the needy…” Richard Allen eventually purchased a plot of land and a blacksmith shop and reconstructed a church on the site. Dedicated on July 29, 1794, this church, known as Bethel, was the beginning of the AME denomination. It became a connectional church in 1816.
Forty-seven years after that historic exodus the United States was embroiled in the Civil War. The African Methodist Episcopal Church had begun its program of expansion in many areas including sending a bishop to Tennessee. On December 5, 1863, Bishop Daniel Payne arrived in Nashville with letters of introduction from the Secretary of war and the Secretary of the Treasury. He presented them to the then Governor, Andrew Johnson who granted Bishop Payne permission to organize African Methodist Churches in the state of Tennessee. This timing coincided with some dissatisfaction among some members of Capers Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church. Capers was the first Negro meeting house in Nashville. This group of disenchanted members led by Napoleon Merry, a 39 year old free black, made application to become part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The application was accepted by Bishop Payne. Thus, St. John A.M.E. was born with Rev. Merry the first pastor. The first house of worship was at what is now Rosa Parks and Gay Streets. The current location is 1822 Formosa St.
Since its founding St. John has had 42 pastors. Their tenures ranged from a few months to 11 years. Currently, our pastor is the Rev. Lisa Hammonds. Rev. Hammonds is in her second year here and is the first female to pastor “The Mother Church of African Methodism in the state of Tennessee”. She is also a daughter of St. John. It is important to understand that ministers (Itinerant Elders) are assigned on a yearly basis. Consequently, tenures of a decade or more are not commonplace. Each pastor has left a signature at St. John. Mortgages have been burned. Parsonages have been purchased. Van ministries, homeless programs, community breakfasts have been established.
Most recently a “Blessing Box” has been placed in front of the church so that neighbors needing emergency nonperishables can come and take what they need and supply what they can.