The earliest recognized Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) church in Tennessee is Capers Memorial CME Church in Nashville. It dates to 1866, and its leaders had a prominent role in the creation of the formal CME convention in 1870. In that year Capers members along with about forty black Methodists in West Tennessee broke from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and formed an independent denomination more reflective of issues central to the black community. Advanced education, community involvement through outreach, and spiritual growth were just a few of the tenets of the founding group which became the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America (CME).
On December 21, 1870, William Miles and Richard Vanderhorst, both former slaves, were ordained as bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the General Conference of the MECS held in Memphis. Led by these two bishops, the black members of the MECS announced their decision to form their own denomination, which would be known as the “Colored Methodist Episcopal Church,” an acknowledgment and acceptance of the MECS religious heritage. Although the ordination of Miles and Vanderhorst signified the exodus of the African American members, it represented a peaceful and harmonious transition. CME was one of the first religious denominations developed by southern blacks and consisted almost solely of former slaves. Unlike the northern-based AME churches, CME stressed its religious history with MECS, while acknowledging cultural and racial differences.
Compared to the earlier African American Methodist organizations, the AME and AME Zion churches, the new CME church was more conservative. Old segregated “colored churches” within the white Methodist Church, South, comprised its initial members. White conservatives within the Methodist Church, South, had urged their black brethren not to join the AME or AMEZ movements. They encouraged, however, the creation of another separate black Methodist organization for several reasons. First, increasing white racial prejudice during the Reconstruction years meant that white members wanted the black churches out of their organization. Second, a separate black organization eliminated white financial responsibility for black Methodist activity.
Due to its historical relationship with the white Methodist church, the CME church was sometimes derisively referred to as the “old slave church.” Other African American churches frowned upon the new CME church and its close relationship with the white MECS. They called it the “kitchen church” or “slavery church” and accused the former slaves of still doing the bidding of their former masters. CME remained the smallest of the African American churches, but many former slaves identified more closely with CME leaders, who were also newly emancipated, than the northern, educated leaders of other black churches. In the establishment of CME, ex-slaves consciously broke with white churches, but refused to join northern-based separate African-American churches. At the same time, the creation of CME churches represented one of the first institutional foundations of racial segregation in the South.
From its inception, the CME Church eschewed political activity in favor of a devotion to spirituality in what members considered to be a more black-controlled and -dominated church and services. In county seats and larger towns in West Tennessee, the church became popular with middle-class and professional African Americans. CME congregations mushroomed from 1870 to 1880, claiming 78,000 members by 1880. Early bishops included Miles, Vanderhorst, Lucius H. Holsey, and Joseph A. Beebe.
The key church leader in Tennessee was Bishop Isaac Lane, the fourth bishop of the CME. Born a slave in Madison County, Lane established the CME school that later became Lane College in Jackson in 1882. His daughter, Jennie Lane, was its first teacher and principal. His son, James Franklin Lane, became the college's president in 1907 and served in that role for the next thirty-seven years.
Church membership by 1890 totaled 103,000, the vast majority of whom were in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. The Great Migration and missionary activities during the first half of the twentieth century led to the church's establishing congregations in eighteen states by 1945. The broadening of the membership base also coincided with a broadening of the church's mission and its level of activism in community affairs. In the 1920s, for instance, Bishop Charles H. Phillips led the church to become more activist in the region-wide antilynching campaigns of that era. CME colleges and churches supported the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s by providing meeting sites and voter registration centers and supporting activist ministers. It was also during this period that the CME Church changed its name from the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1954) and moved its headquarters from Jackson to Memphis (1970).
During its first fifty years the CME Church promoted the foundation of twelve colleges, four of which are still in operation: Lane College (Jackson), Paine College (Augusta, Georgia), Texas College (Tyler, Texas), and Miles College (Birmingham). Lane College graduates have especially influenced the church's development and persistence in Tennessee. The vast majority of CME churches in the state are located in West Tennessee, with many of those located in Jackson and the surrounding counties. Memphis's oldest African American congregation is the Collins Chapel CME Church, which traces its roots to 1841. Dickerson Chapel CME in Madison County dates its beginnings to 1845.
The modern CME church operates missions and relief agencies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia. Outreach within the United States has continued to focus on the strong support of scholastic endeavors, culminating in the “One Church, One School” project, initiated in 1994, which pairs churches with schools to fund school programs. Women have always played an important part in the missionary societies of the CME Church and are now beginning to be represented in the clergy as well. Today the CME Church has more than three thousand congregations with over 800,000 members in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. Memphis is the location of the church headquarters and its publishing house.
Katherine Dvorak, An African American Exodus: The Segregation of Southern Churches (1991)