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Union United Methodist church is the oldest church that worships in the African American tradition of celebration in the New England Conference. It is the fifth oldest continuing congregation in the connection that has a predominance of Black worshippers.
Union's history dates to 1796 when a group of believers began meeting for study and worship. After the Revolutionary War, these early worshippers found their way into the Bromfield Street Methodist Episcopal Church on Beacon Hill. During this time, white congregations had segregated seating arrangements and often separate worship and communion services. Whites were uncomfortable with the African style of worship, with its vigorous singing, swaying, and hand clapping, shouting and praying aloud in the Spirit. William Thurston reports in the 1897 Souvenir History of the New England Conference "Some colored people could not be made to feel at home because they were far more sentimental in their religious worship than were their white brethren....As this particular trait in their character manifest itself only in the religious services, to the more intelligent portion of the congregation it appeared to be an abnormal one and they sought to correct it. But some of the colored people regarded the correction as criticism upon their mode of religious worship; and in order to be freed from it , they asked the Bromfield Church to give them a meeting-house of their own, where they could worship God in their own way".
In 1818, the Black members of the Bromfield Church petitioned the Bishop to send them a pastor. They asked for Samuel Snowden, an African American exhorter who worshipped with the Chestnut Street Church in Portland, Maine. And so, the first Black to pastor in the New England Conference came from the great State of Maine, from our beloved Chestnut Street Church.
That same year, Samuel Snowden drove a horse and buggy down to Boston and began the May Street Church. The May street site became a stop on the Underground Railroad during the horror of slavery.
While the May Street church grew, and moved locations and became the Revere Street church, it was not an easy time for Black worshippers.... The May Street Church was not given equal status with other Methodist Episcopal churches, its statistics were not reported in conference records and it was only in 1841 that it was even listed with the other churches and then as "the colored church". Moreover, its activities and significant advocacy work went unreported in conference journals. For instance, there is no mention of David Walker, a free Black man and member of the congregation in the 1820's who wrote the historic David Walker's Appeal which eloquently argued against slavery. During the 1830's two groups of members from the May Street church became frustrated with the oversights, slights and continuing racism and separated from the congregation to form what would become the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and AME Zion churches of Boston. There was considerable pressure from Blacks in Boston for all of the members of May Street to follow. However, they chose to stay.
This congregation that began gathering in 1796 was again challenged when it lost its building to disrepair and saw it sold in 1904 with no replacement in sight. As the members continued meeting, feeling a lack of support from the conference, they asked to be transferred (in name only) to the Delaware Conference, one of several all Black Conferences within the connection. It was a burden to have a church located in Boston and administratively joined with the Delaware region. After several years, the church returned to the authority of the New England Conference. The 1909 conference records report" The old Revere Street church is again restored to its mother conference after a visit of a few years to the Delaware Conference".
In 1939, most of the denomination's African American members were segregated in churches that were grouped into one non-geographical unit called the Central Jurisdiction. Bishop Leontyne Kelly concluded that African Americans were singled out to be a church within a church, denied full entry to the newly formed Union of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Bishop Kelly reports that her father argued for remaining in the denomination, stating "you don't win the battle by leaving the battle field". Oddly, Union was not forced into the Central Jurisdiction as were other churches with majority Black memberships, and despite the struggle, remained active in the conference. It was during this time that its pastor Sumpter Riley fought to acquire rights for blacks to enter New England's Methodist retirement facilities just as white Methodists were doing. These were certainly discouraging times.
The story of Union has been an incredible journey filled with growth, challenges and the constant presence of God. In 1910, it became Fourth Methodist Church. After several decades of growth and increasing membership, In 1949, Union again changed addresses with a prayerful celebration that included a march through the streets of Boston from "Old Fourth" to its current site in the South End. That evening, the keynote speaker was the distinguished Mary McLeod Bethune, advisor to several U.S. Presidents and founder of Bethune Cookman College. In the 1960's, the church hosted the Duke Ellington Orchestra in one of his Sacred Concerts. The great opera singer Shirley Verette offered a recital at Union in the 1970's and in the early 1980's, protesting the evil of South African Apartheid laws, Union joined other churches in a national call for divestiture. In 2000, under the leadership of the Reverend Ted Lockhart, Union became the first Black congregation in United Methodism to declare itself reconciling and thus welcoming to all of God's children without exception to sexual orientation.
Today, Union still worships in the African American tradition of celebration and folk sing and shout when the Spirit says sing and shout. Union is a richly diverse congregation with members from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, Korea, China, and from Spanish speaking nations. Many are from shared cultures. As a church located in the historic South End, Union is a frequent place of worship for the many tourists that visit Boston.
[The above cited information includes comprises the research efforts of: Union UMC former pastor, Reverend Martin McLee; the archival records of Reverend Dr. Charles Copher; N.E.U.M.Conference Historian, Reverend Patricia Thompson; and former Conference Archivist, Steven Pentek.]