For researchers to dub your congregation a multiethnic church, the body can’t include more than 80 percent of a given racial group. Today, only five percent of Protestant churches make this threshold.

If we applied this same 80 percent metric to American denominations, few would be considered multiethnic. (Assemblies of God and the Seventh-day Adventist Church are key exceptions, according to 2015 Pew Research data.)

This wouldn’t have necessarily been the case in colonial America. In fact, for decades, whites and blacks (some who were enslaved and others who were free) worshiped at the same churches—Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Baptist.

Not all denominations’ equally reached enslaved people with their message, says Eric Washington, a history professor at Calvin College. The “stodgy” and “erudite” tradition of Anglicanism didn’t resonate as broadly—although former Methodist Absalom Jones was ordained as the first African American Episcopalian priest by the end of the 18th century. In contrast, many African slaves were drawn to Methodism’s theological emphasis on born-again conversions and total depravity and its preachers’ open-air, multiethnic services, says Washington.

“[In Methodism,] there was no education requirement to be an exhorter or lay preacher,” said Washington, who is also the director of Calvin’s African and African Diaspora Studies. “So enslaved men who had a recognized gift to preach or exhort—they were encouraged in that.”

But congregations began to split when denominations blocked African American men from taking on more official church leadership roles—or, in the case of the Methodists, ...

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