Delegates to the general conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church elected the Rev. Vashti McKenzie of Baltimore to one of four bishop positions on the second ballot.
"Because of God's favor, the stained glass ceiling has been pierced and broken," McKenzie said.
The Rev. Richard Norris of Philadelphia, the Rev. Preston Williams of Atlanta, and the Rev. Gregory G.M. Ingram of Detroit were also elected bishops in balloting that went late into the night.
McKenzie was one of two women among 42 candidates for bishop.
Approximately 1,800 delegates are attending the general conference and were eligible to vote.
The two female candidates were McKenzie, pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore, and the Rev. Carolyn Tyler Guidry, a presiding elder and former pastor who supervises 19 AME churches in the Los Angeles area. Guidry ran unsuccessfully for bishop at the last general conference in 1996, while McKenzie was a first-time candidate.
The election was originally scheduled for Monday but was delayed by other church business and discussions about how the balloting would be conducted.
It marked the first time in the denomination's 213-year history that the general conference has ever voted electronically for bishops and other church officers. In the past, voting was on paper ballots that were counted by hand, often causing bishop elections to run into the early morning hours.
The AME Church has never had any women among the 20 bishops that govern it during the four-year intervals between general conferences. It is the oldest U.S. black denomination and has 2.3 million members in the United States, Canada, England, Africa, and the Caribbean region.
Last weekend, AME delegates rejected a resolution that would have required election of a woman as one of the new bishops. Critics of the proposal said bishops should win on their merits, not because of their gender. Supporters argued, however, that the male-dominated church's history of failing to elect female bishops made it necessary to boost their chances of winning.
Women have run for 20 years for AME bishop without winning. Guidry said her 1996 showing, in which she won 200 votes on the first ballot and 193 on the second, before withdrawing, was the best that a female candidate had made.
Male and female activists attending this year's general conference have argued that the church should have a female bishop because women have served it capably for years as pastors and supervising elders, and because they are the majority of its membership. Guidry noted that 16 of the 19 pastors she supervises are men.
Women make up about 70 percent of the denomination.
The AME Church is the first of three large, historically black Methodist denominations to elect a female bishop. The other two are the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
AME was founded in Philadelphia in 1787 after a group of black worshippers were forced out of a segregated church while praying on their knees.