'Amen corner' in reference works
The extension of amen to use in nonreligious (or at least nonprayerful) contexts goes back several centuries. Albert Hyamson, A Dictionary of English Phrases (1922) offers this entry for the idiomatic expression “to say amen to”:
Amen to, To say : to approve of. (Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)}
Given this early figurative usage, we can’t safely assume that “amen corner” originated in reference to a locality within a church—though we can hardly rule out the possibility of such an origin either.
With regard to the slang term amener, Albert Barrère & Charles Leland, Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, volume 1 (1889), includes this entry:
Amener (old), a regular amener, one who says yes to everything.
The sardonic edge in this usage is unmistakable, and the fact that the term was “old” in 1889 suggests that it may have been known and used in the defined sense at least a generation earlier.
Gilbert Tucker, American English (1921) devotes a chapter of his book to a critique of J. Redding Ware, Passing English of the Victorian Era, a Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase (ca. 1913), which Tucker finds riddled with erroneous guesses as to the meaning of various U.S. English phrases (Ware was an Englishman). Here is Tucker’s quotation of Ware’s entry for “amen corner” followed by Tucker’s assessment of that entry:
"AMEN CORNER, A church." This is a pure guess. The Amen Corner was a seat in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, often occupied by gentlemen who were far from being regular church attendants.
But in a contemporaneous review of Tucker’s book, Frank Mott takes him to task for disputing the church focus of the expression. From The Grinnell [Iowa] Review (July–August 1921):
One matter may perhaps be mentioned. The author finds fault, justly, with the Englishman Ware's definition of "amen corner, a church." "This is a pure guess," says Mr. Tucker, and continues, "The amen corner was a seat in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, often occupied by gentlemen who were far from being regular church attendants." This observation may have some bearing on the subject, but the term is almost always used with reference to its meaning as certain pews near the pulpit of a church in which sit pious persons who lead in the ejaculatory responses during prayer and preaching.
From Robert Hendrickson, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1998):
amen corner. A group of fervent believers or ardent supporters is called an amen corner, after the similarly named place near the pulpit in churches occupied by those who lead the responsive “amens” to the preacher’s prayers. The term may come from the Amen Corner of London’s Paternoster Row, but it is an almost exclusively American expression today.
From Lawrence Urdang, Walter Hunsinger & Nancy LaRoche, Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary (1985) [combined snippets]:
amen corner A coterie of fervent believers or ardent followers, so-called from the place in a church, usually near the pulpit, occupied by those who lead the responsive amens. A person in the amen corner is, figuratively speaking, a disciple or devotee; often a yesman or sycophantic toady. The expression is now thoroughly American, but it may well derive from the Amen Corner of London's Paternoster Row, the supposed point at which the Corpus Christi procession reached the "Amen" of the "Pater Noster."
From Stephen Calt, Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary (2006):
There’s a preacher in the pulpit, Bible in his hand
And the sister’s way back in the amen corner hollerin’: “That’s my man!”
—Papa Charlie Jackson, “I’m Alabama Bound,” 1925
In black Fundamentalist usage, (1) a section of the church set aside for repentant sinners, equivalent to the mourner’s bench of white churches; (2) a claque engaged by a minister to act as a cheering section in order to impress the congregation with his authority (Evans). As a black idiom, the term is found in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus (1880) in the form of a dialectal variant, amen cornder. In white Southern speech, amen corner connotes a vocally responsive group of churchgoers (WD) and dates in print to 1860 (DARE).
Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951) has this entry for the term:
amen corner, in some Protestant churches the corner immediately to the right of the pulpit formerly occupied but hoe who often expressed assent to the preacher’s utterances. Also transf. and fig[urative].[First cited occurrences:] 1860 Harper’s Mag[azine] Jan 279/2 The Rev. Judson Noth, local Methodist preacher, ... was one of the best ‘scotchers’ that occupied the ‘Amen Corner.’ 1884 Cong[ressional] Rec[ord] 24 April 3207/1 When commiserated upon the fact that he was compelled to go to what is commonly known here as the amen corner, [he] frankly said that any seat in the Senate was better than none. 1894 Cong[ressional] Rec[ord] 24 Jan. 1502/2 One of those saintly Republican monopolists who sit in the ‘Amen corner’ of protected privilege.
'Amen corner' in England
An explanation of London’s “Amen corner” appears in George Cooke, Walks Through London: Or, A Picture of the British Metropolis (1833):
But the derivation of this [Paternoster row] and the adjoining streets, is to be satisfactorily found in the Romish processions on Corpus Christi day, or Holy Thursday, which may be thus traced: The processioners mustered at the upper end of Paternoster-row, next to Cheapside; thence they commenced their march westward, and began to chant the "Paternoster;" which chanting continued through the whole length of the street, thence called Paternoster-row. On arriving at the bottom of that street, they entered what is now called Ave-Maria-lane, at the same tome beginning to chant the salutation to the virgin "Ave Maria," which continued until reaching Ludgate-hill; then crossing over to Creed-lane, they there commenced the chant of the "Creedo," which continued until reaching the spot now called Amen-corner, where they sang the concluding “Amen.”
A very similar account appears in a letter from John Carey to The Gentlemen’s Magazine* (March 1828). A slightly revised version of that story appears in “Nooks and Corners of Old England,” in Punch (1844):
This pleasant little cranny of our “right little island” nestles almost under the shadow of St. Paul, and is a sort of offshoot or runner from Paternoster Row, where the ancient clerici used to meet to repeat their paternosters. In the days of monkish error it was a superstition that while the frères or friars were at their paternosters, those who got into a corner and said “Amen,” would be fortunate for a whole year—(vide Brand)—and hence the corner itself got the name of Amen, from the use it was devoted to.
That “Amen Corner” in London is an old name is evidenced by a report in John Entick, A New and Accurate History and Survey of London (1766) reports that "Dr. Harvey, who found out the circulation of the blood in 1652, built a library and a public hall, which he granted for ever to the college [of physicians], and endowed it with his estate, which he resigned to them in his life-time. ... The building perished in the flames in 1666." If the description of the Catholic processions through the area are accurate, the name must date to the early 1500s at least.
'Amen corner' in the United States
The earliest match I could find for “amen corner” in the context of U.S. usage involves an anecdote set in a Methodist church near Baltimore, Maryland. A pious member of the congregation says “Amen” when the preacher says “I, your speaker, may be dead before another morning dawns,” and again “Amen!” after he says “Before another hour your speaker may be in eternity.” The story—“An Uncalled for Amen,” from the Canton [Mississippi] Creole (April 6, 1849)—then concludes:
”Brother ———,” said the preacher, next day, to his kind-hearted friend of the amen corner, “what did you mean by saying amen to my remarks last night! Did you wish I was dead?”
“Not at all,” said the good brother “not at all. I thought if you should die you would go straight to glory, and I meant amen to that!”
The joke appears to hinge in part on the reputation of Methodist congregations of that era for freely and enthusiastically expressing their assent to ongoing sermons.
Next appears this item headed “Ludicrous,” in the Evansville [Indiana] Daily Journal (October 26, 1850), reprinted from the Cincinnati [Ohio] Nonpartisan:
A young itinerant preacher, in the constant habit of declaiming a great deal about the CREATION, and especially about the first getting up of man, ... was one day holding forth to a mixed congregation in a country school house. Becoming warm and enthusiastic as he proceeded, it was not long before he reached his favorite theme, and started off in something like the following style:
”And when the world was created, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, were pronounced very good, God said, let us make man. And he formed man after his own likeness, and declared him to be the noblest of all works of his hands! And he made woman also, and fashioned her in the exact image of man, with a little variation——“
“Thank the Lord for the little variation!” shouted an old sinner who sat over in the amen corner of the room, at this interesting juncture of the discourse.
Both of these anecdotes reappeared multiple times over the course of several years in newspapers across the United States.
A nonhumorous item titled “Characteristic Sketches: Father Jones,” about an old former preacher, in the [Brookville,] Indiana American (October 1, 1853) starts with this sentence:
As we turn around and look to the “amen corner” we recognize an old familiar face.
An incident involving disruptive mockery of vocal piety is treated with serious disapproval in “Indecorum in Church,” in the Washington [D.C.] Sentinel (September 10, 1854):
With the proceedings [of the disruptive person] at the third or fourth church which he visited we are perfectly familiar, having been one of the congregation. He hurried in at a brisk trot, and proceeded to what is known as the “amen corner.” There he first drew the attention of the people by his groanings, and suddenly an “amen!” was heard, alarming everybody—reminding us of Ned Brace, whom, perhaps, the adventurer had selected as his unworthy pattern. The brethren who had been indulging in heartfelt “amens!” were silenced, and [g]lances were exchanged, and there was not a little tittering by the boys and girls and whisperings among the men and women. ... Now and then he [the preacher] would pause, and look directly at the noisy man in the corner; but all to no purpose. At last his patience was exhausted and his “forbearance” had “ceased to be a virtue;” so he directly and pointedly said, addressing himself to the disturber: “It is not respectful, sir, thus to act in the house of God.”
The man, recovering from the reproof, hurried on his hat, and, leaving his snug retreat, posted himself near the alter for a few moments. It was now his turn to say something. The sleepers had aroused themselves, and every ear was open to hear him. “It didn’t use to be out of order to cry ‘amen’ in a Methodist church before,” he exclaimed, addressing himself to the minister; and immediately turned his face to the door; and, as a consequence, his heels to the pulpit; and before the word “amen” could be uttered, he was beyond the threshold.
The reporter concludes, “He was amusing himself at the expense of decency and good order.”
And from “Grog-Selling Christians (?) ”in the [Raleigh, North Carolina] Spirit of the Age (December 20, 1854):
Just think of it. A man to stand behind his grog board, and pass the quart pot and brandy bottle all day on Saturday, until late Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, (just because it is customary, I suppose) go to church, and with a long face and sanctified countenance, take a seat well up near the ‘Amen corner,’ and try to look as innocent and harmless as if he never had put a three-cent tickler of nasty whiskey out of the back door of his shop on Sunday in his life.
The earliest Google Books match for “Amen corner” in the United States appears to be the first one cited in Mathews’d A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles. From “Editor’s Drawer,” in Harper’s Magazine (January 1860):
The Rev. Judson Nott, a local Methodist preacher in the town of ———, in Southern Kentucky, possessed many characteristics which, in his church, made him a good and useful member. He was a good singer, could pray long and loud, and was one of the best “scotchers” that occupied the “Amen corner.”
The next is from Richard Devens, The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion (1867):
But there was no doubt that one of his [the “fighting parson’s”] injunctions to his regiment sounded marvellously like a fervent ejaculation swelling up from the depths of the "Amen" corner in an old fashioned Methodist church. This fact must be imagined, that the anecdote may be appreciated. The Colonel's mind was saturated with piety and pugnacity. He praised God and pitched into the rebels alternately.
From History of the Pan-Handle; Being Historical Collections of the Counties of Ohio, Brooke, Marshall and Hancock, West Virginia (1879):
During the early days of the first church [in Wheeling, built in 1819], which stood upon the present site of the Fourth street Methodist Episcopal church, there sat in the north-east corner of the building William Wilson, an old Marylander, with a most stentorious voice; the McCullochs, of Short creek; John List, father of the present List family, and Dana Hubbard—all of whom were very sincere in their devotions, and the frequent “amens” that arose from them, added to the extraordinary audible emphasis invariably applied to the word, earned for that particular location in the sacred edifice the name of “amen corner.”
Early associations of 'amen corner' with African American congregations
An African American church is identified as having an amen corner in “Practical Preaching,” originally published in the New York Exchange, and reprinted in the [Ravenna, Ohio] Portage Sentinel (May 30, 1855), in which a preacher describes his effort to chop down a fine-looking tree in order to create a new leaf for a broken table:
”Den I cut into de trunk, and made de chips fly like de mighty scales drooping from Paul’s eye. Two three cut I gave dat tree and alas, it was hollow in the but!
”Dat tree was much like you my friends—full of promise outside, but holler in de butt!”
The groans from the amen corner of the room, were truly contrite and affecting; but we will venture a small wager that that was the most practical sermon preached in the city, on that day at least.
This sermon is said to have occurred at “an African meeting-house in the outskirts of the city” (evidently New York City, since the item originally appeared in the New York Exchange) almost six years before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. Another interesting report—this one from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, less than a year before the war began—appears in “Southern Sketches,” in the [Winchester,] Randolph County [Indiana] Journal (April 28, 1859):
Sunday, Jan. 30th.—We attended Methodist Church this morning, and heard a good, plain sermon. The congregation was small, the house only about one fourth full, and to the sermon was paid but very little attention. The discourse lasted about half an hour: the women did all the singing. In the afternoon he preached to the colored people. The house was full, and only about twenty whites present. I remember, when a boy, of hearing a good old man say, while reproving his congregation for their coldness that if he had a good “Amen” corner, he could preach a thousand times better. Whether the hearty “Amens” of his colored flock was the cause or not, the minister preached a much better sermon than in the morning, did it with greater ease and with much more life and energy. I was told the next day that the reason why he preached so much better to the colored than the white church was, that it was easier to preach to people who had religion than to those who had none.
Early in the Civil War, this item appears under the heading “Queer Advertising,” in the Cincinnati [Ohio] Daily Press (September 12, 1861):
A Methodist paper containing an advertisement of a camp meeting over in Michigan: “A cordial invitation is extended to all to come and work for God and the salvation of souls in the wilderness.” And it is added: “The presence of Jesus is expected.”
Those protracted meetings are often very ludicrous, or rather ludicrous scenes are enacted in connection with them. It is said that a preacher was once praying lustily against the works of the devil, asking the Lord to “curtail the works of the devil.” A colored person becoming somewhat excited, in the “amen corner,” cried out, in loud tones:
”Yes, Lord, curtail him right away; cut his tail smack smoove off!”
From “Local Mush,” in the [Lexington, Missouri] Weekly Caucasian (November 30, 1872):
Responses from the “amen corner” are good enough when in the right place; but to roar out “bless God,” “thank God,” at everything said, is calculated to disconcert the calmest of preachers. Lately when a colored pastor said, “I invited Brother Ham to preach, but he declines,” it sounded awkward in Deacon Middling to shout out, “Thank God!”
And from Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894):
She [Roxy, a former slave, now in her forties] was a more rabid and devoted Methodist than ever, and her piety was no sham, but was strong and sincere. Yes, with plenty of creature comforts and her old place in the amen-corner in her possession again, she would be perfectly happy and at peace thenceforward to the end.
Although these early instances—some serious, others merely occasions for old-fashioned racist humor—indicate that some black religious services were marked by enthusiastic vocal assent from worshippers, the choice of “amen corner” to describe where the zealous participants sat is in each case the (white) reporter’s; it isn’t clear that the term was used originally by black parishioners themselves.
Early figurative use of 'amen corner'
The earliest occurrence that I found of “amen corner” in a figurative sense (that is, not involving an actual church setting) is from “The Situation,” in the [Columbia, South Carolina] Yorkville Enquirer (April 12, 1866):
The Connecticut elections have been decided in favor of the Republicans. The vote was extremely close, and in moral effect counts but little for the successful party. Its practical results are damaging to the administration, and the restoration of quiet and prosperity to the country. It repudiates the President’s policy, condemns his veto, and encourages the further proscription of the South. It gives backbone to the radicals, and is an emphatic response from the “amen corner” of puritanism in favor of the rabid policy of the leaders of that body. Its results are unfortunate for us.
Here, “the ‘amen corner’ of puritanism” doesn’t refer to religious Puritanism, but to ideological extremism; it is a figurative characterization (by a Southern newspaper shortly after the North’s victory in the Civil War) of supporters of Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress.
From “Home Correspondence: From Sinking Spring,” in the [Hillsboro, Ohio] Highland Weekly News (October 20, 1870):
Several business changes have taken place in our village. Messrs. Elliott & Wickerham have dissolved partnership, or rather Mr. Elliott has sold out to Mr. W. Mr. W. and T. J. McKeehan have united their stores, and are doing business in McKehan’s corner, formerly known as Amen’s corner.
“Amen’s corner” may have previously been a place where like-minded Sinking Springers of leisure gathered to discuss (and agree with one another about) the events of the day.
From “Red-Hot Meeting in the Twenty-First District,” in the [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star (October 13, 1871):
A meeting of the Workingmen’s Club of the Twenty-first district was held last night at the Lincoln Institute, corner of 14th and C streets. ...
The sergeant-at-arms (Perry) attempted to quiet Brown, but the latter let out his right and left bunches of fives, and amid yells and screams some went over the back benches, while Mr. M. Bradshaw got into the amen corner and opened a window to let in fresh air, and let out the crowd.
Here the “amen corner” refers to a particular area of the meeting room at the Lincoln Institute; the institute is surely not a church.
From “Class Day, ’73” in The [University of Michigan] Palladium for 1873–4 (1874):
The orator launches out and sails majestically along through his rounded sentences and graceful gestures. The audience is “wrapt” and when the speaker’s voice ceases to echo through the hall he takes his seat amid the acclamations of the populace. The poet is seen to advance, he moves his lips and his arms in an unexceptional way, but his words only reach the "amen corner" and the "anxious seats."
There is no clear connection between the geographical term “Amen corner” as used in England since the 1500s and the descriptive term “amen corner” used in the United States since the mid-1800s.
The U.S. term referred originally to an area of a (usually) Methodist church, as described in “Priscilla,” in the Columbia [Tennessee] Herald (November 10, 1871), speaking of “the Methodist puritanism of a generation ago in the West [that is, the Ohio Valley of the United States],” as follows:
As eleven o’clock drew on; the little church filled with people. The men sat on one side of the aisle and the women on the other. The old brethren and sisters, and generally those who prayed in prayer-meeting and spoke in love-fest sat near the front, many of them on the cross seats near the pulpit, which were thence said by scoffers to be the “Amen corners.”
Figurative use of “amen corner” in the sense of “area of reliable and perhaps unthinking support” followed fairly quickly, with examples going back to 1866.
Instances where “amen corner” appears in the context of African American worshippers go back to 1855, but it isn’t clear whether the term was being used at that date in the church itself. In any case, the earliest uses of the term (from 1849–1850) appear to involve white Methodist congregations.