Forging Faith, Building Freedom: African American Faith Experiences in Delaware, 1800-1980, opening at the Delaware History Museum on September 27, 2013, will celebrate two important anniversaries. Two hundred years ago, in 1813, Peter Spencer founded the African Union Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States. The next year, he started the August Quarterly, the nation’s oldest African American festival.
In addition to Peter Spencer, Forging Faith, Building Freedom will honor Absalom Jones, the first black Episcopal priest in the US; Richard Allen, founder of the AME denomination; and Samuel Cornish, founder of the first black Presbyterian church in New York City and an editor of Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first black newspaper. As developers of independent African American religious institutions, these four remarkable Delawareans asserted their people’s right to liberty, autonomy, and equality. Their actions challenged the United States to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
Through objects, documents, and images, the exhibition explores the diverse faith experiences and institutions that developed from these beginnings. Historically, black faith communities have addressed many needs beyond the spiritual. They have been a key factor in education, community development, and the continuing struggle for equality for people who lacked other institutions. In the absence of other avenues for leadership, the black minister assumed many roles in addition to the spiritual. Faith communities also offered opportunities for leadership and participation to laypeople whose talents were not recognized in the mainstream community. The exhibition will introduce Michael Sterling of Wilmington—a modest man in the eyes of the world who lived a rich and useful life through service to Bethel AME Church.
This exhibition has been developed in full collaboration with the faith community in Delaware and Delaware churches, private lenders, other public collections and Delaware Historical Society collections, provide the first public presentation of a rich array of heritage materials for the exhibition. Dr. Lewis V. Baldwin of Vanderbilt University, a specialist in Peter Spencer and his churches, serves as consultant historian.