In 1815, whites in Charleston discovered that black Methodists had been secretly pooling money to buy freedom for enslaved congregants. Whites moved to restrict black autonomy. They planned to construct a hearse house on top of a black burial ground, a move Charleston blacks saw as a final insult. Over 4,000 black members left white churches in protest, and formed an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Denmark Vesey followed them, leaving the segregated Second Presbyterian Church, where slaves were taught the words of St. Paul: "Servants, obey your masters." In the AME Church, Vesey found the freedom to preach his beliefs.
At weekly AME "class meetings" held in his home, Vesey taught a radical new liberation theology. He spoke only from the Old Testament, particularly Exodus, casting his followers as the new Israelites, whom God would lead to freedom. In 1818, white authorities disrupted an AME service attended by free black ministers from Philadelphia and arrested 140 people. Vesey considered leaving Charleston for Africa, but he decided to stay and "see what he could do for his fellow creatures." With a new urgency, he preached that freedom for slaves would be realized, and he began plotting a rebellion.
Following the 1818 raid on the African Church, Vesey enlisted Gullah Jack, a Church member and an Angolan priest and healer, to recruit native Africans to join his rebellion. As a conjurer who could control the supernatural world, Jack was respected among the slaves working on Charleston's plantations. At secret nighttime meetings, Jack led men in prayer, singing and ritual meals that transformed them from powerless slaves to rebels with a common purpose. He prescribed a special diet and gave them crab claws as amulets to protect them in battle. Through Jack, Vesey was able to reach many more recruits.
Like Denmark Vesey, George Wilson was a class leader in the AME Church, but he followed the Christian doctrine of loving one's neighbor, and was devoted to his master. When fellow slave Rolla Bennett told him of the rebellion, Wilson pleaded with him "to let it alone." Five sleepless nights later, on June 14, Wilson told his master of the plot, confirming the confession of another man and leading to the arrest and execution of Rolla Bennett and his conspirators. Although he was granted his freedom as a reward, Wilson eventually lost his sanity and committed suicide.
After the executions of Denmark Vesey and 34 others, Charleston authorities exiled the African Church leaders and razed the building. Although devastated by the destruction of their church, black Charlestonians continued to honor Vesey's revolutionary Old Testament theology in secret. For abolitionists such as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Vesey became a symbol of resistance and an inspiration in their writings. White Charleston responded by increasing efforts to convert slaves to New Testament Christianity, and by passing legislation to further restrict the rights of slaves. This increasingly militant path eventually led to the Civil War.