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African-American
Churches
in Maryland

Northern Methodist Episcopal Church

St. John's
African Methodist Episcopal Church
Ruxton
Baltimore County

St. Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal Church
Unionville
Talbot County

 

 

 

For the black community, the day of Sabbath was not only a day of rest, but also a day for men, women, and children to come together in the house of God to worship, to sing, and to praise the Lord. A high sense of spirituality was deeply engrained in Africans who came to America through the slave trade system, and religion is still a critical component of the African-American community to this day. The connection between slavery and religion, ironically, was heavily intertwined throughout the eighteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century. Several prominent denominations, such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, divided over the issue of slavery: was the peculiar institution sanctioned by divine will or was it a social evil? In the North, small African-American congregations blossomed throughout the Antebellum period in free black communities. Most notably, by the 1820s both the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Zion were created and began to attract large black congregations in major cities on the eastern seaboard, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore. In the South, however, slaveholders wanted to take more personal responsibility to spread spiritual belief among their own bondspeople, and restricted slaves from independently performing any religious activities on plantations. The debate over slavery continued until 1865, when the thirteenth amendment outlawed the practice in the United States. No longer physically enslaved, African-Americans still faced social ostracism by whites across the nation, and the institution of the church allowed blacks an outlet to seek comfort, safety, and more importantly, to identify leaders for their community in tumultuous times. The church was (and still is) a tangible example of stability and strength in the black community.


The three churches in this study -- Northern Methodist Episcopal, St. John's African Methodist Episcopal, and St. Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal -- came into existence in the mid to late nineteenth century. The roots of St. John's extend back to 1835, when it was nothing more than a log building in Baltimore County, built under the leadership of the Scott family. The new chapel, built in 1886, testifies to the commitment of the Scotts and other members of St. John's to keeping their church alive. Although the exact date of the formation of the congregation or of the construction of the church at Northern Methodist Episcopal is unknown, its very name alludes to the sectional conflict leading to the Civil War. Located in a border state, white Marylanders were divided over the issue of slavery, a debate that often came alive in church congregations. The members of Northern, where it was likely that blacks and whites worshipped together, championed the side of abolitionism. The eighteen men responsible for the development of the town of Unionville, where St. Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal was one of forty buildings constructed after the Civil War, were African-Americans who fought on the Northern side to end the practice of slavery in the South.


Just as each church has a different past, the three buildings are currently in diverse phases of utilization and preservation. Northern is no longer occupied as a church; instead the current owners use it as a storage space with future plans to restore the deteriorating building. St. John's no longer holds regular Sabbath services every Sunday, but opens its doors to the public several times a year and for special events, such as weddings. Over the past two decades, major renovation efforts at St. John's have brought the chapel into a fairly stable condition. Regular church services are performed every Sunday at St. Stephen's; beginning in the late 1990s, the building went through renovations to improve its structural condition and efforts to preserve the church are on-going.


The appearance of each individual church is unique in its own way, but there are many similarities between the three buildings. St. John's Chapel has more ornate detail and is a good example of the Carpenter Gothic style, while Northern and St. Stephen's fall into the Folk Victorian category. All three churches are one story in height and gable-roofed. Both St. Stephen's and Northern have a front vestibule; the latter building also has a rear vestibule. Northern, however, has two alcove areas, created by tall arches measuring 4’5” by 11’10”. The same two churches have horizontal board siding covering the exterior, while vertical board and batten embellishes the outside of St. John's. Symmetrically placed windows can be found on all churches, but the types vary: lancet windows at St. John's, pointed arch windows with colored glass at St. Stephen's, and pointed arch windows with stained glass at Northern. The interior layout of the both St. John's and St. Stephen's churches is typical (Northern’s interior has mostly been gutted). After entering through front doors, a center aisle between two rows of pews clears a straight path through the sanctuary to the altar and pulpit. A chair rail and wainscoting adorn the painted interior walls. Northern also has wainscoting, found directly below a pressed tin wall treatment. Wooden floors are in all three buildings; however, the flooring and carpeting are modern renovations at St. Stephen's. The large central open space is heated by two wood/coal burning stoves, the location of which was staggered to provide warmth for the congregation. Only one chimney stack exists at Northern. Only St. Stephen's provided an upper balcony with additional space for its worshippers. In addition, the same church also has a choir loft, which is found behind the altar, and a 20’8” by 49’8” modern fellowship hall addition. A surrounding cemetery can be found at both St. John's and St. Stephen's, while a parsonage/caretaker’s house is located at Northern and St. John's.

 

 
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