Mother Emanuel AME Church, the historic Charleston congregation founded in 1818, was the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, and from the beginning it was consumed by politics.

One of its founders was the slave Denmark Vesey, who in 1822 organized a revolt, but it was disrupted before it could begin. The plot was leaked to authorities, who charged 131 men with conspiracy, convicted 67 and to set a strong example hanged 35, including Vesey.

Despite the failed rebellion and severe punishment meted out, Vesey's efforts triggered panic among the white population throughout the region. Mother Emanuel became the target of an investigation, prompting its pastor, the Rev. Morris Brown, to flee north to Philadelphia, the seat of the AME denomination. Brown would become the Church's second bishop after founder Richard Allen.

Mother Emanuel, originally at Reid and Hanover streets, was burned to the ground. Its parishioners rebuilt the church and continued to worship together until 1834, when all-black churches were outlawed. In 1865, at the close of the Civil War, the congregation was reorganized and the name "Emanuel" adopted.

Today, it has a new pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

And the new pastor, like many black pastors before him, also is a state legislator.

Grand inheritance

The black church in America has evolved from a nascent incubator of rudimentary Christian ideas mixed with African religious traditions to a full-throated evangelical and missionary institution focused primarily on domestic issues.

It draws its theological strength from two primary biblical sources: the stories of Moses, who led the Israelites to freedom, and Jesus, who preached good news to the poor, according to scholars.

In South Carolina, and elsewhere in the South, the black church has, since Reconstruction, played a central role in the lives of black Americans, who have found in it a source of strength.

Pinckney is inheriting a church with a legacy of traditional worship and civic engagement, a congregation that has seen its ups and downs over the decades. He replaces the Rev. Stephen Singleton, who is returning to Columbia after a two-year stint at Mother Emanuel.

Pinckney, 37, was born in Jasper County. In his family, on his mother's side, are four generations of AME pastors. His great-grandfather, the Rev. Lorenzo Stevenson, sued the Democratic Party in the state to end whites-only primaries. His uncle, the Rev. Levern Stevenson, who pastored at Macedonia AME Church in Charleston, was involved with the NAACP in the 1960s and 1970s fighting to desegregate school buses in Jasper County, and sued Gov. John C. West to create single-member voting districts that would open the door to blacks who wanted to serve in the Legislature.

In the state Senate, Pinckney is one of eight black legislators, including one other pastor, the Rev. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. The House has 27 black members. Four of them are ministers.

Pinckney served in the House 1997-2000 before being elected to the Senate in 2001.

He said public service is an extension of his church ministry; his political concerns include improving public education, economic development that creates jobs and finding a balance between development and environmental protection.

His whole experience as a boy was shaped by his church life and his extended family, which was so active in it, and in the political realm. He began preaching at 13, joined the AME Conference at 14 under a missionary rule and soon was appointed by the AME bishop to an apprenticeship. At Allen University, which is run by the AME Church, Pinckney pastored during his freshman year. He was also a page at the Statehouse while a college student.

The church, he said, was a focal point for much of what he considered important: family life, social outreach, mission work abroad, health ministries, civic engagement and the fostering of community. Combining faith and service is part of the fabric of who he is.

"Loving God is never separate from loving our brothers and sisters," Pinckney said. "It's always the same."

Slave Christianization

The Rev. Nelson Rivers III, who is pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston and serves as national vice president of stakeholder relations for the NAACP, said the black church, which first gained traction in the 18th century during the height of slavery, is rooted in the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 4, Verse 18: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."

Christianity, Rivers said, clearly is about justice first and foremost.

But during the period of Christianization, when slaves first were drawn to the messages of Scripture, the Bible was also a "double-edged sword," simultaneously appeasing weary souls by promising salvation and empowering black populations, Rivers and others have observed.

And it prompted a serious theological dilemma for whites: How can an individual deemed worthy of God's grace be considered inferior? How can he be kept enslaved?

The answer, often, was to withhold education and literacy itself and to keep an eye on black preachers to ensure they did not recite those passages from the Bible that might incite parishioners.

"It has been alleged that Christianity, with its otherworldly, compensatory emphasis, is a religion particularly fitted for slaves," writes Albert Raboteau in his book, "Slave Religion."

"Yet Christians individually and in groups have disagreed, sometimes violently, with their rulers, ecclesiastical and political, about what was legitimately (their ruler's) and what (was) God's. Revolutionary interpretations of the Bible by such slaves as Vesey and (Nat) Turner were proof to American slaveholders that slave Christianity could become a double-edged sword."

Many blacks, meanwhile, remained suspicious of the "white man's religion," according to history texts such as "Down by the Riverside," by Charles Joyner. They avoided Christianity or, in any case, adapted it to their needs.

It took a long time for the "black church" to assert itself as a social and political force in the community. It was not a particularly messianic or militant institution that prompted slaves to fight back. On the contrary, preachers told their congregations that "the deliverer of the people was to be God Himself," according to Eugene D. Genovese, author of "Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made."

"The preachers could have done no more," Genovese writes. "Their power did not rest on a charisma that made them direct political leaders; if anything, it rested on a willingness to forgo that role for a more practicable one. They could not possibly create such a role in the dangerous and fragmented condition of slave life. Their great accomplishment was to bend to the actual conditions of slave life and to transform themselves into teachers and moral guides."

The fortitude of the civil rights movement, therefore, developed over time, Genovese writes. Only after the Civil War did black preachers begin to exercise political power overtly, and to gain a newfound respect from the black community.

Authentic witness

The Rev. Joseph Darby, senior pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, said there was a clear link between education, family, religion and civic engagement when he was growing up in Columbia.

Two uncles were AME clergy. The church was keenly attuned to the racial tensions and social conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a center of activity, a "public square," for blacks. ("The first time I kissed a girl was at a church event," Darby said.) It was a place where people could talk about the issues of the day, and it was an incubator of political action, he said.

It was one of four main pillars of the black community through the 1960s, Darby said. The others were the public schools, black-owned businesses and black neighborhoods, each of which provided young people a clear frame of reference and encouraged advancement. Darby said he was a victim of peer pressure, "not to be a jock, but to be part of the Honors Society."

In the years since desegregation, however, three of these black institutions -- schools, businesses and neighborhoods -- have been significantly weakened both from within the community and because of external economic forces, limiting their ability to bear witness to injustice and speak with a loud voice, he noted.

"The church is the last remaining pillar of that authentic witness," Darby said.

By the time he was 14, Darby was marching in the streets. Civic engagement was inevitable. "You could not help but be active if you were alive, black and living in South Carolina," he said.

He was president of his high school student council. He was active in church, but disappointed with its management and thought he could do a better job. "Well, why don't you?" asked a small voice.

He was in his early 20s when he began preaching, and the first nine years of his career were bivocational: He also was working as a state probation counselor.

The political situation in South Africa during the 1980s was intensifying. Nelson Mandela would be released in 1990 after 27 years in prison. Darby tuned in. At the same time, South Carolina's politics was shifting to the right.

Darby joined the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Greater Columbia, became its president and grappled with a variety of social issues affecting the Midlands.

Later, troubled by the Confederate flag that waves on Statehouse grounds, he would help draft the sanctions imposed by the NAACP on the state and become one of South Carolina's most forceful advocates of reform -- not only feeding and clothing people, but "changing the conditions of humanity."

To build a house for someone who needs it is good and helpful and right, Darby said. But the true reformer will ask: Why must we build this house? Why is there this need?

To address the whole person, a minister must consider the circumstances in which the person finds himself, including political and economic conditions, Darby went on.

"The church in many ways has to be the moral conscience of the community," he said.

Spirit and society

Rivers, a voracious reader when he was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, was an "achiever" who became aware of politics early, in no small measure because of religion.

He said he took note of what he saw as the difference between what whites preached in church and what they did outside church. Books -- biographies and histories mostly -- helped form his worldview. When he turned 12, a history class in which the U.S. Constitution was discussed radicalized him, he said. He read the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and understood unequivocally that the system of segregation was simply, egregiously wrong. The Constitution made it clear, he said.

Then, on the day of his 13th birthday, President John Kennedy was assassinated, heightening Rivers' sense of injustice.

His paternal grandfather was a Baptist deacon. His maternal grandfather was an AME pastor.

His Baptist minister, the Rev. James A. Williams, thrilled him with his rhetorical gifts and impressive message. Rivers already was contemplating a career in the church at age 12, he said. "I would go home and try to do what he did."

When he entered the ministry years later, he joined a number of prominent black Lowcountry church leaders active in civic life: the Rev. B.J. Whipper at St. Matthew's Baptist Church, the Rev. Fred Dawson at Calvary Baptist, the Rev. A.R. Blake at Morris Street Baptist, the Rev. Alphonso Coleman at Mother Emanuel AME and the Rev. McKinley Washington Jr. at Edisto Presbyterian.

They all shared the same view of the church and its role, Rivers said: to engage the individual spirit and advocate for a better society.

The black church in the U.S. arose from a unique set of circumstances, influenced by African religious traditions, sometimes set in opposition (or at least as an alternative) to white Protestantism and providing a safe meeting place where a community's ideas could be expressed freely. For these reasons, it assumed a central role in black society, especially in the South, historians have noted.

The black church long has served as the most independent, stable and dominant institution in black communities, write C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiva in "The Black Church in the African American Experience."

This was the experience of Rivers, Darby and Pinckney. "There was no institution in the South where black people were more free than the church," Rivers said.

The pastor is empowered to represent others. He can open the building to the community and sponsor discussions that lead to civic engagement, he said. He is the central figure of a central institution.

All three pastors insisted that the church will continue to play a vital role, both spiritual and public, perhaps even gaining in moral influence as America works through its political differences.

"I always felt God had called me to serve within the church because of what the church stands for," Pinckney said. "This has always been home."

The intersection between religion and politics is well-trod and often controversial territory. To what degree does the law permit religious institutions to engage in political discourse and action? Are politicians permitted to use the church pulpit?

Two laws primarily provide the framework for answering these and other related questions: The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses, and the U.S. tax code.

The Revenue Act of 1954 established the 501(c) nonprofit corporation and provided a set of rules by which it must abide in order to preserve its tax-exempt status.

'Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations' religious, educational, charitable and a few others 'are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.'

But this rule does not exclude a variety of political activities, including certain voter education activities such as public forums, the publication of voter guides and get-out-the-vote drives, according to the IRS. Even campaign activity is not forbidden as long as it remains nonpartisan. For example, churches can advocate for tax reform or improved public services or environmental conservation.

'On the other hand, ... activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention,' the IRS states.

Constitutional law professor John Simpkins, who teaches at the Charleston School of Law, noted the leeway provided to nonprofits, including religious institutions. It is not necessarily a breach of their nonprofit status to invite a partisan politician into the pulpit as long as invitations were extended to other politicians. Problems can arise, Simpkins said, when church officials betray obvious partisan preferences.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.