Peter Spencer was born into slavery in 1779 in Kent County Maryland, but he became one of the great leaders in the cause of religious liberty. While he was still a slave he accepted the invitation to join the Christian community. He lived in slavery until the death of his owner, when he gained his freedom.
When Peter moved to Wilmington, Delaware he sought Christian fellowship at Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church. They welcomed him with open doors but not with open hearts nor with open minds. It was alright for him to be seen in worship, but he was not given the dignity of full participation in the life of the church. The Holy Spirit would not allow Peter Spencer to remain silent. He expressed his disapproval of the racism that he experienced in the church. He believed that people of color were entitled to religious equality.
The church refused to listen to Peter’s protests and there came a time when he was no longer willing to submit to the discrimination that existed in the church. Peter Spencer asked permission to build a church where he and his followers could worship freely. He wrote: “In the year, 1805 we, the colored members of the Methodist Church in Wilmington, thought that we might have more satisfaction of mind than we then had if we were to untie together and build a house for ourselves, which we did the same year. The Lord gave us the favor and the good will of all religious denominations, and they all freely did lend us help, and by their good graces we got a house to worship the Lord in.”
Peter’s followers succeeded in getting their own church and holding separate worship, but because of the color of their skin, they were denied any say in the business affairs of their new church. Peter Spencer did not want to start an independent church. It was his intention to only to worship separately in a Methodist Episcopal denomination. However, these faithful African Americans were told they had no rights to conduct any of the business in their church and would have to remain under white control. This seemed unreasonable and unfair to them.
They continued to struggle over their civil rights. Some were expelled from the church membership and others went to court to protect their right to oversee their own affairs as free people. Finally in December of 1812, when Peter’s group realized that the forces against them were more than they could overcome, they decided to organize a free and independent church of their own.
On June 1, 1813, Peter Spencer (known as “Father Spencer”) and his flock left the church they had built and began worshiping as a free and independent church. The church became legally recorded in Dover, Delaware, September 18, 1813 under the title of the Union Church of Africans. This was the first free and independent church entirely under the control of African American people in the United States. It pre-dated the famous beginning of the African Methodist Episcopal Church under Rev. Richard Allen.
Father Spencer died July 25, 1843, after thirty years of service to his church and people. His character, veracity and honor were beyond reproach.
Father Spencer’s fight continues in the church today. We still have open doors, but not always open hearts or minds. There are still those that are kept from being full participating members of our church. They may speak a different language, have a different ethnicity or different political views. Let us not force brothers and sisters of God out of God’s church. Let us learn from the past, repent, and show greater hospitality to all.