Missionary Sarah Allen (1764–1849) was one of the most famous and revered church women of her time, beloved for establishing the first recognized charity organization for female parishioners and honored as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church's first female missionary. She also aided runaway slaves through the famous Underground Railroad.
While almost nothing is definitively known about Allen's origins, scholars agree that Sarah Allen was born into slavery in 1764 in Virginia's Isle of Wight with a recorded maiden name of Bass, a detail that has led some historians to speculate about her lineage, without empirical results. Allen was eight years old when she arrived as a slave in Philadelphia, but details about her life before the year 1800 seem to have been lost in the folds of history. It is known that Allen managed to acquire her freedom somehow, because she was a free woman by 1802 when she met and married Richard Allen (1760–1831), who would later become the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church's founder and first bishop.
A young Richard Allen became interested in the Methodist faith when he heard an itinerant preacher speak. He was a 17-year-old slave at the time, and found himself so moved that he chose to devote his life to the faith. Richard Allen's master was converted as well, and agreed to allow Richard to buy his freedom. The young man worked hard, freeing himself by the age of 20, and began traveling and spreading the gospel to people of all races. Richard Allen's first wife, Flora, died as the result of a long illness on March 11, 1801.
Sarah Allen is described as a widow when she and Richard met, although nothing is recorded on the subject of her marital status prior to 1802. Richard met Sarah in Philadelphia while on a preaching circuit, and they were married within the year. The Allens had their first child a year after they were married, and three more sons and two daughters followed soon after. Their names, Richard, James, John, Peter, Sara, and Ann were the names of kings, queens and saints. Allen raised all six children, ran a tight household, managed finances, and nurtured the environment her husband required for his spiritual work.
The devout couple made a formidable team from the start, working together to earn enough money to purchase the land and building rights for an abandoned blacksmith shop that was then relocated to Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. They bought the old shop for thirty-five dollars, and it was pulled to its new location by a team of horses that the Allens owned. Next they sought the help of the community to convert it into a church. The new sanctuary was dedicated on July 29, 1794, and named Bethel, which means "House of God." The small church quickly grew to be an integral part of local parishioners' lives, and is affectionately referred to as "Mother Bethel" church to this day.
The modest Bethel church was soon joined by other black churches that sprang to the foreground thanks to the evangelical efforts of the Allens, including Baltimore, Salem, Wilmington, and Attleboro, Pennsylvania. These churches joined together to form the AME Church in 1816, the first independent black church in the United States. The church made Richard its first bishop, placing Sarah Allen in a unique position from which to do good. The blacksmith shop grew too small within 12 years, and it was replaced in 1805 by a roughcast structure, which was then replaced by a brick and stone church ten years after Richard Allen's death.
Do Unto Others
Sarah Allen's distinctive brand of charity made its debut during the AME church's first annual conference. The young church had struggled both financially and emotionally. The preachers had withstood excessive traveling and tireless work without any significant funding, and they returned for that first conference in terrible condition, with their clothes and belongings worn, and in poor physical condition from the difficulties of preaching on the road. Allen's biographical entry in Profiles of Negro Womanhood described how the clergy had returned "in a rather 'seedy' condition, whereupon the bishop refused to adjourn their subsequent meeting for the customary dinner at his home … After hearing her husband's explanation, [Allen] later saw for herself that the [preachers] had 'ventilators at their knees and ventilators in their elbows and ventilators in the seat of their trousers.'… [Allen] and the women of the church … [spent] an entire night in productive labor. By morning, the preachers all had new sets of clothes and were thus made presentable in appearance for carrying out their ministerial duties."
Allen's biographical entry in Notable Black American Women explained that Richard Allen initially referred to these women as the "'Dorcas Society,'" a title that "generally refers to a women's auxiliary group that is engaged in clothing and feeding the poor." The same entry also pointed out, however, that Allen's efforts in particular were "directed internally toward preparing good meals, repairing garments, and improving the appearance of AME pastors." This care and support went on before and during each annual conference until 1827, when Allen officially identified the group as the Daughters of Conference. Once formally organized, the group expanded, and began helping the needy outside the clergy. Allen christened this far-reaching group the Women's Missionary Society, which was described in Notable Black American Women as one which maintained "a form of children's daycare school during the daytime hours, and helped organize adult classes at night to help educate their church members. They also cooked meals, mended garments, and gathered donated clothes for the needy." This focus on education for the community had served as a foundation for the Bethel church from the beginning, and remains a strong focus to the present day.
In a review in North Star of Jualynne Dodson's book Engendering Church: Women, Power, and the A.M.E. Church, Stephen W. Angell called attention to Dodson's assertion that there were three main ways women gained power in the nineteenth-century AME Church: evangelization by word of mouth, church organizations founded and attended by women, and the accumulation of resources. Angell's review also claimed that these methods for acquiring power were "employed with most effect when used quietly and unobtrusively," an apt description of the kind of life-changing work Sarah Allen did best.
Champion of Freedom
Efforts to hide and help runaway slaves made by families like the Allens were later identified as the operation now known as the Underground Railroad. Brave individuals like Richard and Sarah were thought of as "conductors" on this dangerous journey, and Philadelphia was a main stop for slaves fleeing from the south and southeast to the northern states and Canada. Records show that the AME Church was involved in this process from as far back as 1795, when the church building became a haven for 30 runaway Jamaicans.
The Allens used their own home as well as the cellar of the church building to hide people, and earned funds that they then gave to these people to start their new lives in the north. In a Journal of Black Studies review of Allen B. Ballard's book One More Day's Journey (1984), scholar Beth Brown Utada related how Allen "became known for her courage along the Underground Railroad." Allen's obituary, recorded by Bishop Daniel A. Payne in his 1891 History of the A.M.E. Church, related that "the poor, flying slave, trembling and panting in his flight, has lost a friend not easily replaced; her purse now closed in death, kindled with peculiar brightness as she would bid them God speed to the land of liberty, where the slave is free from his master, and the voice of the oppressor is no longer heard." Richard Allen died in 1831, but Sarah Allen continued her good works, thanks in large part to the funds her husband left, which allowed her to focus on her charitable aims without having to hold another job.
Historical Gender Bias
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, in her bibliographical essay "Teaching the History of Black Women" (published in the February 1980 The History Teacher), called attention to a gulf that has formed between black history and women's history, one which often obscures the details and importance of black women's lives. This intellectual gap, Terborg-Penn argued, has resulted in a severe scarcity of secondary literary sources that deal exclusively with the unique nature of black women's history. Even more specifically, Terborg-Penn revealed that historical records have done an inadequate job of representing the black woman's religious roles, claiming that "the substantial contribution of Afro-American women to religious life certainly merits scholarly study."
Sarah Allen lived for 85 years, and died on July 16, 1849, at the Philadelphia home of her youngest daughter, Ann Adams. She and her husband were buried side by side in a tomb beneath the Mother Bethel Church, a site that has since been turned into the Richard Allen Museum.
Allen's obituary described her death as the loss of "a bright ornament—a jewel, precious—a relic of her formation when she was first seen to glide from the stormy element of oppression … a pillar from the building, a mother in Israel." The AME church's Women's Missionary Society took its founder's name, and the Sarah Allen Women's Missionary Society continues to help on local, state, country and international levels, as a testament to the influence and inspiration of Sarah Allen's life of service.
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1993.
Notable Black American Women: Book III, Thomson Gale, 2003.
Payne, Bishop Daniel A., History of the A.M.E. Church, Publishing House of the A. M. E. Sunday School Union, 1891.
Profiles of Negro Womanhood: Volume One, 1619–1900, edited by Sylvia G. L. Dannett, Educational Heritage, Inc., 1964.
History Teacher, February 1980.
Journal of Black Studies, June 1986.
North Star, Spring 2002.
"The Richard Allen Museum," Mother Bethel AME Church, http://www.motherbethel.org/museum/exhibit/panel4.html (December 22, 2006).
"Sara Allen," Africans in America, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p246.htm (December 22, 2006).