Canter Brown, Jr. and Larry E. Rivers. For a Great and Grand Purpose: The Beginnings of the AMEZ Church in Florida, 1864-1905. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004. 252 pages. ISBN 0-8130-2778-0. Reviewed by Lewis V. Baldwin, for the Journal of Southern Religion.


One of the most recent and significant trends in African American church historiography has been the appearance of solid works that treat local and regional developments. Canter Brown, Jr. and Larry E. Rivers, professors of history at Florida A&M University, are among those scholars who have contributed immeasurably to this enterprise. With the publication of their rich and informative work, For a Great and Grand Purpose, the gap in the literature on the black church experience has become a little less conspicuous. 

For a Great and Grand Purpose is a companion volume to Brown and Rivers' earlier work, which appeared under the title, Laborers in the Vineyard of the Lord: The Beginnings of the AME Church in Florida, 1865-1895 (2001).  Both works are part of the University of Florida Press's The History of African-American Religions Series, and they should be read together if one is to get anything like a complete picture of the many challenges and struggles that marked the rise and spread of African Methodism in Florida in the periods of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow.  But the latter piece, For a Great and Grand Purpose, also merits special attention on its own terms, as a single volume, because it provides its own unique story about the ways in which regional, cultural, social, political, and ecclesiastical forces interacted in the lives of a despised and abused people.


 
"For a Great and Grand Purpose connects the origins of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) in Florida to the tragic circumstances surrounding the Civil War and to the eventual demise of slavery."  

 

For a Great and Grand Purpose connects the origins of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) in Florida to the tragic circumstances surrounding the Civil War and to the eventual demise of slavery.   Such an approach is fairly standard among scholars who explore black church developments in the American South in the late nineteenth century.  As Brown and Rivers have noted, the many changes wrought by the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, and ultimately by the Reconstruction era, created the climate for AMEZ leaders such as Wilbur Garrison Strong and Joseph Jackson Clinton to start churches in Key West and other parts of Florida.  The meager resources and lack of numerical strength which characterized early AMEZ developments in Florida also receive considerable attention, and there is some focus on the AMEZ's  competition with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), their efforts to create vigorous, educated leadership, their educational work and other programs of outreach to newly-freed persons, and their southern missionary endeavors.

Brown and Rivers carefully note how local AME Zion Churches in Florida provided newly-freed African Americans with not only a familiar religious environment, but also with institutions which they operated and controlled.  Nothing could have been more important to people who had to learn how to be economically self-sufficient and to take control of their destiny.  Moreover, AME Zion congregations engaged in projects for the economic and political betterment of black Floridians through their sponsorship of fraternal and benevolent societies.  Here one senses the extent to which these institutions functioned as early expressions of black power or nationalism in the South, a point not particularly emphasized by Brown and Rivers.  While the authors are obviously interested in the ways in which the AME Zion Church found a unique expression in Florida, their discussion reveals perhaps a deeper interest in how that body rose from a small, struggling institution to become one of the largest black ecclesiastical institutions in the state.

The efforts of AMEZs in Florida to establish a presence and a significance beyond their own regional context course through parts of Brown's and Rivers' work.  They not only treat the rise of the Florida Conference of the AME Zion Church in the period from 1868 to 1875, but also connect this development to Bishop Joseph J. Clinton's determination to build stronger links between local AME Zion congregations in the state and the national church body of that denomination.  The involvement of AME Zion clergymen in politics during Reconstruction, a subject skillfully explored by Brown and Rivers, further enhanced the profile of their church even as it reflected its tendency to combine religion and politics.   

Generally speaking, Brown and Rivers skillfully explain how the rise and development of the AME Zion Church in Florida were consistently challenged by both internal and external problems and difficulties.  Evidently, the church's intense struggle with racial segregation figured prominently in the definition of its character and mission priorities, but no less significant were its internal struggles with issues such as women's ordination, idiosyncratic leadership, unscrupulous competition and rivalries between local clergypersons and bishops, and sharp differences over politics.   In this regard, the history of the AME Zion Church in Florida from 1864 to 1905 mirrors that of other African American Churches of that period, irrespective of their denominational identifications.

Brown and Rivers have broken new ground in African American church and religious history.  Hopefully, they have helped establish a trend that other African American church historians might follow; namely, tracing the origins and rise of black churches in specific regional contexts.

For a Great and Grand Purpose has much to offer scholars and students in the field, especially from the standpoint of methodology, conceptual framework, and interpretive models.  The book is quite useful for courses in American history and religion, African American religion and history, and religion and culture in the American South.  

Lewis V.Baldwin, Vanderbilt University

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