Allen, Richard 1760–1831
Richard Allen 1760–1831
Religious and civil rights leader
Joining with and Separation from St. George’s
The Continuing Fight for Justice
Richard Allen was one of the first African American religious and civil rights leaders in the United States. Allen discovered religion after hearing a wandering Methodist preacher at a secret gathering of slaves in Delaware. He drove a salt wagon during the Revolutionary War and purchased his freedom in 1780. In 1786, he traveled to Philadelphia to preach to the black congregation at St. George’s Methodist Church. After separating from St. George’s in 1794, Allen helped found the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and then went on to found his own Methodist congregation which he called Bethel Church. Allen became the first black deacon of the Methodist Church and eventually, after thirty years of struggle with the white Methodist congregation at St. George’s, founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Allen became the AME’s first bishop and was recognized as one of the leading voices in the free black community of the early nineteenth century.
Richard Allen was born into slavery on February 14, 1760 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Allen worked on the household staff of Philadelphia lawyer Benjamin Chew. When he was seven, he and his family were sold to a Delaware farmer named Stokley Sturgis. Allen’s work changed from that of a household servant to a field hand. Despite the hardship of the work, Allen was not bitter toward his new master. In his biography The Life Experiences and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, he portrayed Stockley as “more like a father to his slaves than anything else.”
In 1777 when Allen was seventeen years old, two events took place that were to change his life forever. Firstly, his mother and three siblings were sold. He would never see any of them again. Secondly, Allen experienced a religious awakening. He heard about a meeting where a traveling Methodist preacher was to speak and decided to attend. The results of the meeting were profound. In his biography, Allen wrote, “I was awakened and brought to see myself, poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost.” Allen joined the local Methodist Society and began to organize services with a local preacher named John Gray. The meetings were held in secret because of a Delaware law which forbade any meetings between black men without the presence of a white man. Allen was attracted to Methodism by its complete opposition to the institution of slavery and its straightforward, accessible interpretation of the Gospel.
Unlike most slaveowners of the period, Sturgis encouraged his slaves to attend religious services every two weeks. Eventually, preachers were invited to stop at Sturgis’s farm. On one occasion, Sturgis and his family came to the service to hear a preacher named Freeborn Garrettson, a former slaveowner who had become vehemently opposed to slavery. Garrettson gave a sermon using a verse from Daniel 5:27 which read, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and thou art found wanting.” Garrettson applied this passage to
At a Glance…
Born Richard Allen, February 14, 1760 in Philadelphia, PA; died March 18, 1831; married a former slave from Virginia named Sarah, 1800; six children.
Earned freedom from slavery 1780; Free African Society (FAS), co-founder, 1787; Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founder, 1794; first black deacon of a Methodist Church, 1799; first bishop of African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1816; American Society of Free Persons of Colour, president, 1830; Free Produce Society, founder, 1830.
the institution of slavery. He reasoned that when slaveowners stood before God on judgment day, they would be found wanting—that is—they would go to Hell. Sturgis was so moved by the sermon that he decided to free all of his slaves. However, his financial debts prohibited him from freeing them outright. It was agreed that Allen could purchase his freedom for the sum of ․2,000. By working extra hours doing odd jobs such as cutting cord wood, Allen saved the ․2,000 and bought his freedom in 1780 at the age of twenty.
Work for a free black man was scarce, but Allen continued to make his living cutting wood. He also drove a salt wagon during the Revolutionary War. Driving a wagon gave him the opportunity to travel to different communities, all the while developing his reputation as a preacher. Allen preached at meetings for blacks and whites in Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. It was this reputation that brought him back to the city of his birth, Philadelphia.
Joining with and Separation from St. George’s
In 1786 St. George’s, the first Methodist Church in Philadelphia, invited Allen to preach to its black congregation. Allen was given the 5:00 A.M. service, but he was soon attracting an increasingly larger black congregation. In Philadelphia at the time, 70% of the black population was free. Allen would also travel to three or four different churches during the day to preach to other congregations. His preaching was extremely effective and he quickly began to attract more black parishioners to St. George’s. However, the increasing numbers of black people in the church made the white members nervous. Eventually, the black parishioners of St. George’s were forced to relinquish their seats and sit along the wall. Allen and other black religious leaders such as Absalom Jones recognized the need for a new type of church which would serve the needs of the African members of the congregation. Allen approached the elder of St. George’s to ask to establish a separate black Methodist Church. He was denied, but as the elder’s term lasted only one year, Allen was content to wait and ask again when a new elder was installed. At the end of the year, Allen approached the new elder, whom Allen referred to as the Reverend Mr. W., and this time was rejected and also insulted. Instead of granting the black parishioners’ request to leave, the trustees at St. George’s decided to build a new balcony to segregate the black parishioners from the white ones. The desire for independence led Allen and Jones to establish the Free African Society (FAS) in April of 1787. W.E.B. Dubois called the FAS “the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life.” The FAS was established to aid the widowed, sick, and jobless. The organization also regulated marriages and attempted to improve public morals.
One day in November 1787 Absalom Jones, William White, and Allen came late to services at St. George’s and were ushered into the new gallery. They went to seats above their accustomed places in the church. They were unaware that they were not allowed to sit in the new section of the church, which they and many other black members of the congregation had helped build. As the three men were on their knees in prayer, a trustee of the church grabbed Jones by the shoulder and attempted to drag him from his knees. Steven Klot’s book Richard Allen: Religious Leader and Social Activist reported that Jones said, “wait until the prayer is over,” but the trustee insisted that the black men leave immediately. Jones again said, “Wait until the prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.” Another trustee was called and this provoked a general exodus by most of the black members of the church. Allen later said, “we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued by us in the church.”
The Founding of a Church
After the exodus from St. George’s, the black members turned to the FAS for spiritual guidance, but they soon discovered that the organization was better suited to secular concerns. Allen also was having his difficulties with the organization because he believed it was too heavily influenced by the Quakers. Allen felt that Quaker culture was too restrictive and philosophically opposed to the spontaneity and enthusiasm of a Methodist service. This difference of opinion led to Allen being “read out” of the society in 1789. Despite expulsion from the FAS, he continued to be very important to the organization. He was chosen by the FAS to find a site and purchase it for the construction of a new church. In 1791, members of the FAS broke ground for what would eventually become the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
Both Allen and Jones wanted to remain affiliated with the Methodists, but two factors influenced their decision. First, William White, the Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was a generous and enthusiastic supporter of the project. Secondly, the Methodist leaders’ heavy-handed attempts to control the worshipers who had left St. George’s continued unabated. The Reverend John McClaske threatened to expel the dissenters from the Methodist Church permanently. Time-Life’s book on African American historical figures entitled Leadership reported that Allen’s reply was to tell him, “If you deny us your name, you cannot seal up the Scriptures from us, and deny us a name in heaven.” The people of St. Thomas’s wanted to elect Allen as their first pastor, but he declined saying that “I could never be anything but a Methodist.” In 1804 Absalom Jones became America’s first black Episcopal priest when the Episcopal Church recognized the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
Allen still wanted to establish a separate place for African Methodists. Although the elders at St. George’s wanted to segregate white and black parishioners, they still preferred that both groups worship together. The thought of an entirely separate African Methodist Church beyond their control was unacceptable. Allen’s group was continually denied official acknowledgment, which would have allowed a pastor to administer sacraments to the new congregation. In 1793, a catastrophic event in Philadelphia illustrated the depth of character that Allen and the black community possessed.
The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 struck Philadelphia with a vengeance and killed 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents. Allen and Jones were asked to lend assistance, especially after much of the medical community had fled the city. At the time it was believed, erroneously, that blacks were less likely to contract yellow fever. Allen and Jones agreed to help. For the next several weeks, Allen organized crews to remove the dead while Jones found nurses to help the doctors. Despite the invaluable assistance the black community offered during the crisis, they were still criticized. Matthew Carey, a man who fled Philadelphia during the epidemic, claimed that black people had profited from the yellow fever by stealing from abandoned houses and charging exorbitant prices for corpse removal. Allen and Jones responded to these charges by publishing a pamphlet entitled A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, which defended the conduct of black people during the epidemic. The mayor of Philadelphia issued a statement supporting Jones and Allen.
In July 1794, Allen established the Bethel Church in a converted blacksmith shop on land he originally bought for St. Thomas’s. In November 1794, Allen issued a “Declaration of Independence” stating that Bethel was not simply an African branch of St. George’s, but a separate entity. He also used the name African Methodist Episcopal Church for the first time. Although Allen declared Bethel’s independence, he was still dependent on St. George’s for ministers because no black men had been ordained. A new elder at St. George’s, Ezekiel Cooper, saw an opportunity to exert control over the new congregation. Cooper threatened to take away the Methodist name from the Bethel congregation. Allen responded that they could take away the new congregation’s name, but couldn’t deny its members a place in heaven. Cooper tried a another tactic. In 1796, he proposed that St. George’s incorporate Bethel Church. Allen and the other trustees at Bethel agreed. The incorporation followed the normal Methodist model, but allowed Bethel to retain its African heritage. Allen was forced to relinquish ownership of Bethel, although he remained the owner of the land. For the next ten years, the congregation at Bethel enjoyed a period of relative peace.
Allen worked diligently to fulfill Bethel Church’s mission to “build each other up.” In the church’s first two years of existence, membership increased from 20 to 121 members. Allen also opened a children’s day school and a night school for adults. In 1799, he became the first black deacon to be ordained in the Methodist church. Allen soon turned his attention to the issue of slavery and published three pamphlets expressing his concerns. In An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice, Allen rationally confronted some widely-believed myths about slavery and compared the plight of the American slave to the plight of the ancient Israelites in Egypt. In To the People of Color, Allen tried to offer hope to all slaves and reminded free blacks of their responsibility to help those people still enslaved. His third essay, A Short Address to the Friends of Him who Hath no Helper, praised prominent white men such as Benjamin Rush and Robert Ralston for assisting the black community.
Allen did more for the abolitionist movement than write pamphlets, however. For example, the basement of Bethel Church was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Allen also collected money to help slaves escape to the North and, in 1795, he helped 30 newly-freed Jamaicans find housing. By 1805, Bethel Church had 456 registered members and Allen had married a former slave from Virginia named Sarah. He divided his time between his church, his work as a shoemaker, and his family, which would grow to include six children.
The Struggle for Independence
After approximately ten years of peace between St. George’s Church and Bethel Church, trouble arose once again. St. George’s pastor, Reverend James Smith, forbade the practice of any religious service at Bethel, claiming he had the right to suspend religious services based on the incorporation papers signed by the two churches. Allen and his congregation found this situation unacceptable and maneuvered quickly to thwart Smith’s intentions. Allen met secretly with a trusted Quaker lawyer and together they created the African Supplement. The Supplement, which gave Bethel Church independent status because of its unique position as a purely African church, was voted upon by members of the congregation and passed unanimously. Smith was furious and, in retaliation, informed the Bethel congregation that it would be charged ․600.00 per year for administration of sacraments such as communion and baptism. The people of Bethel appealed and eventually had the fee reduced to ․200.00.
Following the confrontation with Reverend Smith, Allen was faced with another disturbing incident. In 1808 a slaver, a man who captured runaway slaves and resold them in the South, claimed that Allen was a recently escaped slave. Allen sued the man for false accusation and perjury, eventually winning an ․800.00 settlement. When the slaver could not pay, he was thrown into debtor’s prison.
Although Allen was vindicated, the slaver’s claims illustrated the precarious nature of his freedom and the freedom of other blacks. He renewed his drive for independence from St. George’s and his attacks on the institution of slavery. He fought doggedly with the elders at St. George’s for the right to control Bethel Church’s destiny. In 1811, when minister Stephen Roszel refused to administer the sacraments at Bethel unless the African Supplement was repealed, Allen found ministers from another church to serve the community. In an attempt to diminish the size and influence of Bethel’s congregation, trustees from St. George’s opened another black Methodist church. The plan failed miserably. In 1813 the new elder at St. George’s, Reverend Robert Roberts, demanded the right to preach at Bethel. On one occasion, he tried to force his way to the pulpit during services. The congregation packed the church so tightly that Roberts was not able to get to the pulpit. In 1815 another elder, Reverend Robert Burch, had Bethel put up for sale at public auction. Allen was forced to buy back his own property at a cost of ․10,125, an enormous sum in the early nineteenth century. Burch eventually went to court to win the right to preach at Bethel. The judge ruled in Bethel’s favor, reasoning that Burch had no right to preach to a congregation that would not listen to him. This ruling gave Bethel de facto independence. After years of struggle, Bethel had won its freedom from the white-controlled Methodist Conference and was established as its own organization with Allen as its leader.
The Continuing Fight for Justice
The final phase of Allen’s life centered around two main goals: the expansion of the AME Church and securing the rights of black people. To build on the foundation of Bethel’s success, Allen organized a conference of black churches in April of 1816. Delegates came from Baltimore, Wilmington, Pennsylvania, and Salem. Allen was elected chairmen of the conference. The council adopted all the tenets of Methodism except the system of elders, which would again put African churches under the control of whites. Delegates also elected the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Reverend Daniel Coker of Baltimore. Coker declined and Allen was named in his place. On April 11, 1816, Allen became the first black bishop in the United States. Five ordained ministers, including Absalom Jones, participated in the ceremony. Allen remained pastor at Bethel, but focused on expansion of the AME church.
Although the AME church continued to grow steadily, it experienced growing pains. In 1820, an AME church in New York splintered and formed the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In Philadelphia, a group split from Bethel Church and formed the Wesley AME Church. The worst setback for AME expansion took place in South Carolina. A church was burned to the ground and a minister forced to flee to Philadelphia after it was revealed that the church was being used as a meeting place for a group of slaves and former slaves who were planning a revolt. As a result, the AME church was faced with virtual extinction in the South. Eventually, the AME church expanded successfully into western Pennsylvania and Ohio, and even sent a mission to Haiti.
While Allen was working to establish and enlarge the AME church, a new movement emerged that threatened the rights of all free blacks. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed soon after Allen became a bishop in December of 1816. The ACS advocated either the voluntary emigration or forced expulsion of all free blacks from the United States to Africa. Founded by the Reverend Robert Finley, the ACS believed that colonization in Africa would be beneficial for most free black men, many of whom had a very difficult time in the United States. Other members of the group included Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Madison, and Henry Clay. An article entitled “Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church” on the Historic Philadelphia Home Page quoted two prominent figures in American history who were members of the ACS. Jefferson said, “Let the ocean divide the white man from the man of color.” Clay, a United States Senator from Kentucky, expressed the beliefs of many ACS members when he described free blacks as “pernicious and useless, if not dangerous.” Allen was outraged that anyone would try to expel him and other free blacks from their own country. In response to the growing threat of the ACS, Allen organized a meeting attended by 3,000 people at Bethel Church. Allen declared that free blacks must support those blacks who were still enslaved, and furthermore, that free blacks should enjoy all the rights and privileges of any other citizen of the United States. In a Philadelphia newspaper, Allen and other black leaders addressed the place of the free black man in America. Part of their statement reads as follows: “Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first cultivators of the wilds of America, we their descendants feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant soil, which their blood and sweat manured; and that any measure, or system of measures, having a tendency to banish us from her bosom, would not only be cruel, but in direct violation of those principles, which have been the boast of the republick (sic).” Allen even argued his point in America’s first black newspaper, the Freedom Journal.
In addition to the threat posed by the ACS, Allen and other free blacks had to contend with increasingly restrictive laws. In 1827, the state of Ohio instituted the Black Code, which required each black resident to post a ․500 bond to guarantee their good behavior. Since very few people, black or white, had this sum of money, a large number of blacks were forced to leave the state, with many residing in Canada. The Black Code nearly wiped out the AME church in Ohio. To combat this rising tide of repression, Allen called another meeting of black leaders in 1830. Despite the travel restrictions imposed on black people of the time, 40 delegates from seven states attended. Allen was elected president of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour, for Improving their Condition in the United States; for Purchasing Lands; and for the Establishment of a Settlement in Upper Canada. The group’s first priority was to improve conditions for free blacks. Proposals to explore possible relocation of free blacks to Canada were also considered. Allen also led the Free Produce Society, which pledged to buy goods produced only by non-slave holders.
On March 18, 1831, Allen died at the age of 71. His funeral was widely attended by free blacks from throughout the United States. William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the abolitionist newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation that Allen was “one of the purest friends and patriots that ever exerted his energies in favor of civil and religious liberty. His noble deeds will remain cherished in the memory of mankind as imperishable monuments of eternal glory.” Richard Allen’s legacy remains strong today. His beloved AME church today has 2.5 million members with 8,000 ministers in 6,200 congregations. Perhaps more importantly, he was one of the first black voices to speak out for the rights of African Americans. He is the descendant of contemporary civil rights activists and without Allen’s pioneering efforts, their successes would not be possible. In a document now stored at the Library of Congress, a sermon given in the Allen Chapel of the AME church on February 20, 1898, by the Reverend John Palmer addressed the question of Richard Allen’s greatness. “If true greatness consists in that self sacrificing heroism and devotion which makes a man insensible and indifferent to his own personal welfare, interest, comfort, and advantages; and to deny himself of all for the sake of others, and for the elevation and advancement of others, without a single promise of reward,—we say, if these constitute greatness, then Richard Allen, the first bishop of the AME church was great.”
Allen, Richard. The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen. Nashville: Abingdon, 1960.
Klots, Steve. Richard Allen: Religious Leader and Social Activist. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.
Rollins, Charlemae H. They Showed the Way. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1964.
Papanek, John L. (ed). African Americans: Voices of Triumph. New York: Time Life Inc., 1993.
“Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.” Historic Philadel-phiaHomepage. [Online] Internet, January 9, 1997.
Palmer, John M. “Was Richard Allen Great.” Library of Congress Homepage.[Online] Internet, January 11, 1997.
“Richard Allen-African American Historical Figures.” African American Biographical Profiles Index. [Online] Internet, January 11, 1997.
Born February 14, 1760 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Died March 26, 1831 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Methodist preacher and bishop
Richard Allen was a Methodist preacher who became a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Allen was among the first black Americans to receive formal ordination (priestly authority) in any religious denomination. He was elected to serve as the first bishop of the AME Church and used his position to promote the improvement of the condition of African American people in society. Allen was a leader in organizing African Lodge #459, the first Masonic lodge for men of color in Pennsylvania. During the War of 1812 (1812–15), he also helped recruit men for the "Black Legion," a group of African American soldiers who helped defend Philadelphia. Allen believed in the benefits of education and started a number of schools. The AME Church continued operating many institutes of higher education into the twenty-first century, including Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina.
"If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children with them."
Allen was also a founder of the Free African Society (FAS), the first known organization of free blacks. Allen and his group worked to end slavery and petitioned the federal government to revoke the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The act made it easier for slave hunters to kidnap those suspected of being runaway slaves and return them to their owners. Allen took an active part in opposing the American Colonization Society of 1817, which worked to transport free blacks to Africa. Many blacks were born in America and considered it their home. Africa would be a totally unfamiliar place to them. Blacks would rather find freedom and equality in America. Beginning in 1797, Allen operated a station on the Underground Railroad, a series of routes through which slaves in the process of escaping were helped on their way to slave-free states. Allen's church continued this work until emancipation (freedom from slavery) was achieved in the late nineteenth century.
A drive to be free
Richard Allen was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in February 1760. His parents were the property of Benjamin Chew (1722–1810), a prominent lawyer and the chief justice of the state's High Court of Errors and Appeals. Around 1767, Chew's law practice experienced a decline, and Chew sold Richard's family to a farmer named Stokeley. They left their urban life in Philadelphia to settle on a plantation in Dover, Delaware. Several more children were born into Richard's family while they were living in Delaware.
Stokeley fell into financial trouble and decided to sell some of his slaves. He kept Richard and a brother and sister at the plantation but sold the rest of the family. Richard and his siblings never saw the rest of their family again.
Methodist circuit riders were active around Dover. Methodist circuit riders were preachers who rode horseback from community to community giving sermons and tending to people's religious needs. Richard was interested in hearing what they had to say. His mother was a deeply religious woman and had instilled faith in all her children from an early age. With the permission of Stokeley, Richard and his brother joined other local farmhands for religious gatherings in the woods. The message was a powerful one, combining conversion with an emphasis on personal responsibility. The preachers also made deliberate remarks against slavery and slaveholding, something the young brothers had never heard before. They continued to attend weekly meetings. However, they never allowed their spiritual life to interfere with their farm chores; that way, their master, Stokeley, could not find fault with their religion.
At the age of seventeen, Richard converted to Methodism and taught himself to read and write. Stokeley was impressed enough by the changes in the brothers that he invited Freeborn Garrettson (1752–1827), a well-known Methodist circuit preacher, to speak at his farm. Stokeley himself converted to Methodism and became convinced that slavery was wrong. He offered the brothers the opportunity to purchase their freedom for $2,000 in Continental money.
In 1780, at the age of twenty, Richard was set free. Lacking a formal education and possessing few marketable skills, he set out to support himself and earn the money to pay back Stokeley for his freedom. Richard worked as a day laborer, brick maker, and teamster as opportunities came along. Taking the surname "Allen" to signify his free status, Richard worked as a wagon driver for the Continental Army forces during the American Revolution (1775–83). At all his regular stops, Allen took the opportunity to preach to those who would listen. When the war came to an end, Allen joined the Methodist Society and traveled a circuit throughout Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Allen supported himself in a variety of trades as he walked his circuit, preaching to both blacks and whites in towns and rural areas.
The Free African Society
By February 1786, Allen had permanently settled in Philadelphia, where he was asked by St. George's Methodist Church to preach to the black members of the church. Each week, he preached in the church as well as in areas where black families lived. He often preached as many as five times a day. Allen supported himself as a shoemaker rather than accept money for his ministry. As his prayer-meeting society quickly grew in numbers, he began to see the need for a separate place of worship for people of color. The Reverend Absalom Jones (1746–1818; see entry in volume 1) and other free black leaders agreed with Allen, but the leadership at St. George's discouraged the idea.
In 1787, Allen and Jones met with others in Philadelphia to organize the Free African Society (FAS). Allen and Jones were elected as overseers of the new society. The FAS was made up of black Americans of varying religious backgrounds who sought to establish a more united black community in Philadelphia. The society grew, and other Free African societies were formed in places such as Boston, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. Originally founded on religious principles, the FAS also offered educational opportunities and financial aid to its members. It also spread political awareness among blacks as well.
In 1791, at the age of thirty-one, Richard Allen married a woman named Flora, and she joined him in his ministry. The success of Allen and Jones's ministry was soon evident as both white and black Americans crowded into St. George's church. Allen and Jones began a building campaign to add a balcony above the main floor. Early in the 1790s, the construction was complete, and on a Sunday morning a group of black worshippers joined Allen and Jones in the balcony for prayer. An usher determined they were not in the place assigned for blacks and attempted to physically move them before they had finished their prayers. The blacks left the church as a group and never returned, marking the beginning of the independent black church movement in America. The FAS began to hold regular religious services in a rented room and gradually transformed into a nondenominational "African Church." Construction of a building for the group began in 1793 but was interrupted by a yellow fever epidemic that broke out in Philadelphia.
The epidemic caused thousands to flee the city for the countryside to avoid contact with the infected, and by the time it had run its course, over four thousand people had died, both blacks and whites. Allen helped mobilize the black community to provide for the sick and dying during the epidemic, courageously serving while others fled. Despite his lack of formal medical training, Allen received praise from Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) for his services during the plague. Rush was a leading physician of the time and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
When the city returned to normal, a pamphlet began circulating that accused many in the black community of profiteering during the crisis by charging high fees for their time providing care to the sick and stealing from the homes of the sick. Allen and Jones fought back by publishing a pamphlet that refuted the claims of the earlier pamphlet. The mayor of Philadelphia also joined in the defense of the black community, acknowledging the contributions and sacrifices that local blacks had made throughout the crisis.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church
The FAS resumed construction of a meeting place for the African Church and dedicated the building on July 17, 1794. Members of the African Church then met to discuss which denomination (religious faith) most suited their beliefs. They decided to associate themselves with the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. However, Allen believed that Methodism was most suitable for black Americans and withdrew from the African Church with a few followers.
Working as a master shoemaker with journeymen and apprentices in his employ, Allen saved enough money to buy property for a new church. He purchased an abandoned blacksmith shop and moved the small building to his lot in several pieces. There, carpenters repaired it, and in the summer of 1794 Bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816; see entry in volume 1) dedicated the new building as Bethel Church, the first African Methodist Episcopal congregation in America. It was often referred to as the Mother Bethel Church.
Asbury ordained Allen as a deacon in 1799, making him one of the first black Americans to receive formal ordination in any denomination. Branches of the AME Church were set up in Baltimore, Maryland, and Wilmington, Delaware, and a number of towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. After Allen's wife Flora died, he married Sarah Bass. They would have four sons and two daughters.
By 1816, social and political discrimination had widened the gap between blacks and whites in America, and segregation was firmly entrenched, even within churches. Allen invited the loosely bound black churches to form a new national organization to build political strength and protection by working together. Sixty delegates from five black congregations met in Philadelphia on April 9, 1816. They agreed to formally separate the AME Church from the Methodist Conference and other established church organizations. The following day, Bishop Asbury ordained Allen as an elder and on April 11 consecrated him (granted him permanent religious authority) as a bishop. The African Methodist Episcopal Church followed the organizational structure of the larger Methodist denomination. It was divided into Episcopal districts, headed by bishops selected at the General Conference, which was held every four years.
Mobilizing the churches
In January 1817, Allen worked with Absalom Jones and others to organize a sizable convention to speak out against the newly formed American Colonization Society,
"Black Harry" Hosier
Harry Hosier (alternate spellings Hoosier and Hoozier) was born a slave in North Carolina around 1750. He was most often referred to as "Black Harry." Hosier acquired his freedom toward the end of the American Revolution and converted to Methodism. Methodist churches were popular among blacks because Methodist preachers spoke out against slavery and slaveholding. Francis Asbury, North America's first Methodist bishop, believed preachers should go where the Gospel (the word of God) was needed most, whether that be wilderness or populous cities. He and English clergyman Thomas Coke (1747–1814) made arrangements for the religious training of both blacks and whites. They sent out Hosier as a missionary, and he became a popular preacher with both black and white congregations.
Hosier was illiterate, but he had a musical voice and a powerful preaching style. Noted physician Benjamin Rush believed Hosier was the greatest orator in America, and the former slave was soon accompanying Bishop Asbury on his preaching circuits. Hosier often drew bigger crowds than Asbury did. "Black Harry" was also a companion of Reverend Richard Allen and Reverend Freeborn Garrettson, two popular bishops of the time. Considered one of the most popular preachers in America, Hosier stood up for the common people and recruited thousands to his ministry. He died in 1805 or 1806.
an organization dedicated to transporting free blacks to Africa. The American Colonization Society was founded by a black American sea captain named Paul Cuffee (1759–1818). Cuffee and his supporters believed that returning free blacks to Africa was the most effective way to abolish slavery in the South; they saw this work as an important step toward the emancipation of all blacks. Other supporters were more self-serving: Mostly slave owners, they favored Cuffee's emigration plan because they feared free blacks who stayed in America might inspire those still in slavery to seek their own freedom. In 1827, Allen sent a letter to the editor of Freedom's Journal, the first black American newspaper in the United States, which had begun publication that same year. In his letter, Allen voiced his opposition to the efforts of the American Colonization Society and defended the rights of blacks to remain in the country they had helped create.
Allen feared that the large-scale emigration of free blacks to Africa would harm the antislavery movement in America. The activism of free blacks in the North helped protect former slaves recently freed from the South, especially from slave catchers. Allen himself had been confronted by a slave trader who claimed Allen was a runaway slave. Because Allen was a well-known public figure and had resided in Philadelphia for more than twenty years, he was able to defend himself. He sued the slave trader, and the judge gave the man a jail sentence. After three months, Allen decided the man had learned a lesson, and he dropped the charges. Allen's prominence in the community had saved him from being kidnapped by the slave trader, but he knew less famous blacks had much to fear.
The first General Conference of the AME was held in Philadelphia on July 9, 1820. Bishop Allen presided at the conference and reaffirmed his belief that Methodism pointed the way to freedom from sin and freedom from slavery. A decade later, organizational activity continued, with Allen in the center. In September 1830, Allen oversaw the first National Negro Convention, held at Bethel Church. Two months later, in November, Allen played a leading role in the organization of the American Society of Free Persons of Color and became its first president. Also in 1830, he presided over the first meeting of the National Negro Convention Movement, which promoted abolitionism (the end of slavery).
Throughout his lifetime, Allen remained an eager activist on behalf of the local and national black community. Besides providing leadership to his congregation at Bethel Church, he was also a successful businessman. Allen owned several businesses and properties, so he never had to depend on his church for financial support. When he died in Philadelphia on March 26, 1831, Allen left his widow and six children a large estate. Allen's body was exhumed in 1901 and relocated to a tomb in a vaulted chamber under Bethel Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. The great stone building that then housed the African Methodist Episcopal Church was a fitting monument to his ministry.
For More Information
Gates, Henry L., Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
George, Carol V. R. Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches 1760–1840. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720–1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Raboteau, Albert J. A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
"Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians of the Past." The Society of Archbishop Justus.http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/98.html (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"The Pioneers, Origin and Organization of the AME Church." The African Methodist Episcopal Church.http://www.amecnet.org/history.htm (accessed on August 10, 2005).
Public Broadcasting Service. "Richard Allen." Africans in America: Brotherly Love.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p97.html (accessed on August 10, 2005).
February 14, 1760
March 26, 1831
As a reformer and institution builder in the post-Revolutionary period in the United States, Richard Allen was matched in achievements by few of his white contemporaries. At age twenty, only a few months after buying his freedom in Kent County, Delaware, Allen was preaching to mostly white audiences and converting many of his hearers to Methodism. At twenty-seven, he was a co-founder of the Free African Society of Philadelphia, probably the first autonomous organization of free blacks in the United States. Before he was thirty-five, he had become the minister of what would be Philadelphia's largest black congregation—Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Over a long lifetime, he founded, presided over, or served as officer in a large number of other organizations designed to improve the condition of life and expand the sphere of liberty for African Americans. Although he received no formal education, he became an accomplished writer, penning and publishing sermons, tracts, addresses, and remonstrances; compiling a hymnal for black Methodists; and drafting articles of organization and governance for various organizations.
Enslaved at birth in the family of the prominent Philadelphia lawyer and officeholder Benjamin Chew, Allen was sold with his family to Stokely Sturgis, a small farmer near Dover, Delaware, in about 1768. It was here, in 1777, that Allen experienced a religious conversion, shortly after most of his family had been sold away from Dover at the hands of the itinerant Methodist Freeborn Garretson. Three years later he and his brother contracted with their master to purchase their freedom.
For a short time, Allen drove a wagon carrying salt for the Revolutionary army. He also supported himself as a woodchopper, brickyard laborer, and shoemaker as he carried out a six-year religious sojourn as an itinerant Methodist preacher. In something akin to a biblical journey into the wilderness, Allen tested his mettle and proved his faith, traveling by foot over thousands of miles, from North Carolina to New York, and preaching the word to black and white audiences in dozens of villages, crossroads, and forest clearings. During this period of his life, it seems, Allen developed the essential attributes that would serve him the rest of his career: resilience, toughness, cosmopolitanism, an ability to confront rapidly changing circumstances, and skill in dealing with a wide variety of people and temperaments.
Allen's itinerant preaching brought him to the attention of white Methodist leaders, who in 1786 called him to Philadelphia to preach to black members of the Methodist congregation that worshiped at Saint George's Methodist Church, a rude, dirt-floored building in the German part of the city. Allen would spend the rest of his life there.
In Philadelphia, Allen's career was marked by his founding of Mother Bethel, the black Methodist church that opened its doors in 1794, and by the subsequent creation, in 1816, of the independent African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church). Soon after his arrival in 1786, he began pressing for an independent black church. His fervent Methodism brought him into contention with
other emerging black leaders who wished for a nondenominational, or "union," church, and thus within a few years two black churches took form. Both were guided by the idea that African Americans needed "to worship God under our own vine and fig tree," as Allen put it in his autobiographical memoir. This was, in essence, a desire to stand apart from white society, avoiding both the paternalistic benevolence of its racially liberal members and the animosity of its racially intolerant members. Allen's Bethel church, after opening its doors in a converted blacksmith's shop in 1794, grew into a congregation of more than five hundred members by 1800.
Bethel's rise to the status of Philadelphia's largest black church was accomplished amid a twenty-year struggle with white Methodist leaders. White Methodists were determined to make the popular Allen knuckle under to their authority, and this ran directly counter to Allen's determination to lead a church in which black Methodists, while subscribing to the general doctrines of Methodism, were free to pursue their churchly affairs autonomously. The struggle even involved the ownership of the church building itself. The attempts of white Methodists to rein in Allen and his black parishioners reached a climax in 1815 and was resolved when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on January 1, 1816, that Bethel was legally an independent church. Just a few months later, African-American ministers from across the mid-Atlantic region gathered in Philadelphia to confederate their congregations into the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was to spread across the United States and abroad in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Allen's epic twenty-year battle with white Methodist authorities represents a vital phase of the African-American struggle in the North to get out from under the controlling hand of white religionists. The AME Church, with Allen as its first bishop, quickly became the most important of the autonomous institutions created by black Americans that allowed former slaves to forge an Afro-Christianity that spoke in the language and answered the needs of a growing number of northern—and, later, southern—blacks. For decades the AME Church helped to heal the disabling scars of slavery and facilitated the adjustment of black southern migrants to life as citizens in the North. Allen's success at Bethel had much to do with the warmth, simplicity, and evangelical fervor of Methodism, which resonated with a special vibrancy among the manumitted and fugitive southern slaves reaching Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century.
Between the founding of Bethel in 1794 and the organization of the AME Church, Allen founded schools for black youths and mutual aid societies that would allow black Philadelphians to quash the idea that they were dependent upon white charity. A successful businessman and a considerable property owner, Allen also wrote pamphlets and sermons attacking the slave trade, slavery, and white racism. The most notable of them, coauthored with Absalom Jones in 1794, was "A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793." In this pamphlet, Allen and Jones defended the work of black citizens who aided the sick and dying during the horrendous yellow fever epidemic of 1793, but they went on to condemn the oppression of African Americans, both enslaved and free. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, almost every African-American institution formed in Philadelphia included Allen's name and benefited from his energy and vision.
In the later years of his life, Allen was drawn to the idea of colonization—to Africa, Haiti, and Canada—as an answer to the needs of African Americans who, as freed-persons, faced discrimination and exploitation. His son, John Allen, was one of the leaders of the Haitian immigrants in 1824. The capstone of Allen's career came six years later, when he presided over the first meeting of the National Negro Convention movement—an umbrella organization that launched a coordinated reform movement among black Americans and provided an institutional structure for black abolitionism. When death came to Allen shortly thereafter, his funeral was attended by a vast concourse of black and white Philadelphians.
See also African Methodist Episcopal Church
George, Carol V. R. Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Black Churches. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Wesley, Charles H. Richard Allen, Apostle of Freedom. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1969.
gary b. nash (1996)
ALLEN, RICHARD (February 14, 1760–March 26, 1831), minister and businessperson, is regarded as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—the first African American denomination. Although he is generally regarded as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, in actuality he was the second bishop. Daniel Coker was elected before Allen but was more concerned about African missions, and therefore Allen was elected as Coker's replacement.
Allen was born a slave but gained his freedom around 1781 by working during his free hours as a woodcutter, bricklayer, and wagon driver. He converted to Methodism during his late teens, and following his emancipation he began preaching during his travels around Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania while working odd jobs to support himself. In 1785 Allen was frequently assigned by Francis Ashbury to fill preach, and he also accompanied Richard Whatcoat on the Baltimore circuit.
Allen moved to Philadelphia in 1786 and began to associate with Absalom Jones (1746–1818) and other free blacks at Saint George's Methodist Church. Allen and Jones started a prayer group among the free black population and organized the Free African Society in 1787 for the purpose of mutual aid, support, and ministry to widows, orphans, and the sick. This was the first African American society organized in the United States. Philadelphia had the largest free African American population in the country, and the Free African Society was one of the major public gathering places for black people.
The success of Jones and Allen's ministry and preaching precipitated a crisis at Saint George's—what to do with the increased number of black worshippers. The white church leaders attempted to resolved the issue by segregating black worshippers in the balcony. However, on a Sunday in November 1787, after Jones seated himself in one of the front pews of the balcony, he was instructed by one of the ushers to move further to the rear of the balcony. Jones refused, and a scuffle ensued as the ushers tried to forcibly remove Jones from his seat. Jones, Allen, and the other black worshippers left the sanctuary.
Jones and Allen subsequently led regular worship services in what was called the African Church, and by 1792 their group's members were raising funds to construct a church building. The worshippers differed, however, over the choice of denominational affiliation. Most of the members voted for affiliation with the Episcopal Church. Jones went with the majority and eventually became an Episcopal priest, but Allen went with the minority that favored Methodism.
Allen reclaimed an old blacksmith's shop and renovated it into a chapel for those who preferred the Methodist style of worship. Work on the church was delayed for several months, because much of the energies of members of the Free African Society were required to help minister among the sick and tend to the dead during the yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793. Bishop Ashbury dedicated Allen's chapel as Bethel Church on July 29, 1794, twelve days after Jones's Saint Thomas African Episcopal Church was dedicated.
Because Bethel was a part of the Methodist system of government, and because Allen lacked ordination, the church was still subject to white control and influence. Even though Allen was Bethel's leader, the church had to cooperate with visiting white preachers assigned to its pulpit. Allen was ordained as a deacon in 1799, but this still restricted his authority to celebrate the Lord's Supper and perform the sacrament of baptism or weddings beyond his assignment or when the ruling white elder was absent.
A number of events arising out of the contestation for power led eventually to Allen's members securing congregational autonomy through the courts. On April 7, 1816, Allen presided over the first convention that created the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was consecrated bishop on April 11, 1816, with Absalom Jones participating in the ceremony.
Although Allen and Jones had parted ways denominationally, they continued to work closely together in many other endeavors, such as the founding of Philadelphia's African Masonic Lodge in 1798, petitioning Congress and the state legislature to end slavery in 1800, and founding of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality in 1808. In 1812 they, along with James Forten, were asked by the Vigilance Committee to organize the black Philadelphia population to help with the city defenses, and they complied by recruiting 2,500 blacks into that effort. Allen and Jones also combined their forces to organize a convention held in Philadelphia in January 1817 to oppose the goals of the American Colonization Society that had been formed to promote the emigration of blacks to Liberia.
Allen, Richard. The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen. Philadelphia, 1793; reprint, Philadelphia, 1888.
Campbell, James T. Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa. New York, 1995.
George, Carol V. R. Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches, 1760–1840. New York, 1973.
Murphy, Larry G., J. Gordon Melton, and Gary L. Ward, eds. Encyclopedia of African American Religions. New York, 1993.
Pinn, Ann H., and Anthony B. Pinn. Fortress Introduction to Black Church History. Minneapolis, Minn., 2002.
Richardson, Harry V. Dark Salvation: The Story of Methodism as It Developed among Blacks in America. Garden City, N.Y., 1976.
James Anthony Noel (2005)
Allen, Richard 1760–1831
Richard Allen was an abolitionist and the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Allen was born a slave on February 14, 1760, in Philadelphia to parents owned by Benjamin Chew, the colony’s attorney general and chief justice of the High Court of Appeals. Allen later remembered Chew as a kind master, but the attorney’s practice faltered when Allen was seventeen, and Allen, his parents, and his three siblings were sold to Stokely Sturgis, a wealthy farmer who lived near Dover, Delaware. Sturgis was far less benevolent than Chew, and after a short time he sold Allen’s parents and two of his siblings. He did allow Allen to attend local Methodist services, and Allen learned to read and write and soon began to preach at the meetings.
With the help of Freeborn Garretson, an itinerant Methodist minister, Allen was able to persuade Sturgis that the ownership of another was morally wrong. At length, Sturgis agreed to manumit Allen and his brother, provided that they were able to purchase themselves by raising either $2,000 in Continental paper or £60 in gold or silver currency. Both were able to do so by 1780, and at the age of twenty, Allen began a new life as a free day laborer, bricklayer, and wagon driver.
While working as a teamster during the last days of the Revolutionary War, Allen began to preach at regular stops around Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. His sermons attracted the attention of Bishop Francis Asbury, the leader of American Methodism. Asbury invited Allen to become his traveling companion, and for the next several years Allen traveled by foot from New York to North Carolina, often preaching to interracial groups up to five times each day. His labors earned him an invitation to return to Philadelphia to preach to black congregants at Saint George’s Methodist Church, a rustic, dirt-floored building. Allen would spend the rest of his days in the city.
During his years in Philadelphia, Allen married twice. His first wife, Flora, died shortly after their 1791 marriage, and in 1805 he wed Sarah, who bore him six children. (The surname of neither woman is known.) He also grew close with fellow Methodist Absalom Jones, who shared his interest in building a separate place of worship for blacks, free of white control. Their determination to reach out more effectively to their “African brethren,” few of whom attended public worship, only grew stronger in 1792, when white church elders yanked Jones to his feet during prayer and instructed him to retreat to the segregated pews upstairs. Allen and Jones then led a mass exodus from the church. Together, they formed the Independent Free African Society, the first mutual aid group for blacks in the United States, and then issued a plan for “The African Church.” Founded upon the belief that African Americans needed “to worship God under our own vine and fig tree,” Allen and several patrons (most notably Benjamin Rush) bought an abandoned blacksmith shop and had it moved to Sixth Street. In July 1794 the renovated building opened as the Bethel Church.
Despite the fact that a majority of his congregation opposed continued affiliation with the Methodist hierarchy due to their treatment of blacks, Allen believed that no “denomination” suited “the capacity of colored people as well as the Methodist.” But white churchmen stubbornly tried to maintain control over the popular Allen, even insisting that the Bethel structure belonged to the larger church. In response, Allen formed the first African Methodist Episcopal congregation, and in 1799 Bishop Francis Asbury ordained him as deacon. Friction with the Methodists continued until 1816, however, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the economic independence of Bethel, and official contact between the two groups finally ended.
Allen was one of the two leading freedmen in Philadelphia, and his charitable and political contributions spread far beyond theology. As a result, Bethel quickly became the focal point of the city’s emerging free black society. In the fall of 1796, Allen opened the First Day School at Bethel, and a night school for adults soon followed. Allen and Jones publicly assisted the sick and dying during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, at a time when most white politicians fled the nation’s capital. Despite a public commendation from the mayor for the charitable labors of Allen’s congregants, he later had to fight off charges that black nurses and undertakers had used the crisis to rob their patients. His 1794 Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity not only defended his churchmen but also attacked the white racism that lay beneath such charges.
As a prosperous businessman, Allen was particularly sensitive to the idea that black Philadelphians were dependent on white charity, and much of the success of Bethel was due to his adroit ability to appeal to the city’s business elite while assisting former slaves relocating into Pennsylvania from Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland. His antislavery essays and pamphlets brought him into contact with white and black abolitionists in other northern states and in Britain. Late in life, in November 1830, Allen helped to organize the American Society of Free Persons of Colour, a group dedicated to purchasing lands in the North or in Canada so that black agriculturalists might become self-sufficient. During that same year, he also cosigned the call for the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour. The conventions, which met sporadically through the Civil War, met to discuss antislavery and the possibility of emigration (although Allen generally regarded mass colonization as a mistake).
As independent black congregations emerged in urban areas along the Atlantic coast, most chose to attach themselves to the Bethel Church. Aware of the continuing friction between white and black Methodists in other cities, Allen sent an invitation for black delegates to meet in Philadelphia for the purpose of confederation, and on April 9, 1816, sixty delegates from five predominantly black churches did so. The next day, the group ordained Allen as elder, and shortly thereafter he was consecrated a bishop. Three years later, in July 1820, Bishop Allen hosted the first General Conference in Philadelphia. Allen even dispatched six ministers to Charleston to bring South Carolina’s leading black congregation into the fold. City authorities arrested the six men, however, and they finally razed the building in late 1822 after the discovery that AME member Denmark Vesey had used the church in organizing a conspiracy against slave owners, which had been revealed by an informant. But by the early 1830s, Bethel’s reach included eighty-six churches, four conferences, two bishops, and 7,594 members.
Allen died in Philadelphia on March 26, 1831. (Sarah lived another eighteen years, until 1849.) His funeral proved to be one of the largest gatherings of blacks and whites the city had yet witnessed.
SEE ALSO Antebellum Black Ethnology; Vesey, Denmark.
George, Carol V.R. 1972. Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Black Churches. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nash, Gary B. 1988. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Newman, Richard S. 2006. Black Founder: Richard Allen, African Americans and the Early American Republic. Rochester, New York: Rochester Institute of Technology.
Sernett, Milton C. 1975. Black Religion and American Evangelicalism: White Protestants, Plantation Missions, and the Flowering of Negro Christianity, 1787–1865. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Douglas R. Egerton
Allen, Richard (1760-1831)
Richard Allen (1760-1831)
Church founder and bishop
Early Life. Richard Allen was born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760 and sold to a man in Delaware while still a child. He experienced a religious conversion as a teenager, joined the Methodist Church, and began preaching the Gospel to all who would listen. Though Allen’s master was not a churchgoer, he permitted Allen and his brother to attend Methodist meetings. At Allen’s request, he also allowed a renowned Methodist preacher to speak in his house. The sermon convinced the master that slaveholding was wrong, and he gave Allen the opportunity to purchase his freedom. Allen worked at a variety of jobs and traveled extensively, preaching and offering religious counsel as he went.
Philadelphia Ministry. Once free, Allen returned to Philadelphia, where he had been asked to minister to the black members of Saint George’s Church. He was extremely successful and added many more African Americans to the church rolls. The black community in Philadelphia was largely uneducated, poor, and unchurched and included many recently freed slaves who had migrated north in search of work. Allen wanted to reach out to these “long forgotten people,” as he called them, and believed that the best way to do so would be to establish an all-black church. Although rebuffed in this effort by the white elder of Saint George’s, Allen and another black church member, Absalom Jones, decided in 1787 to organize a nondenominational religious group, the Free African Society, to serve as a mutual aid organization and a source of religious and moral guidance for African Americans. The members of the society continued to belong to the mixed-race (and white-run) Saint George’s Church until 1792, when black members were suddenly commanded to sit upstairs in the gallery instead of on their normal benches on the main floor. After Absalom Jones was forcefully relocated by white trustees during a prayer session, all of the black members of the church walked out, never to return. Some formed an Episcopal church and others, following Allen, remained Methodists and formed the Bethel African Church in 1794.
Community Leadership. Allen remained committed to Methodism because he felt its informal preaching style was suited to the unlettered men and women he hoped to reach. Furthermore, he believed that the Methodist system of discipline, in which each member kept watch over all the others, would help reform behavior and uplift people into sober and pious lives. The size of the Bethel African Church and the extent of Allen’s influence in the black community grew rapidly. Committed not only to the spiritual development of his flock but also to their moral, educational, and political improvement, Allen helped found numerous societies to pursue these goals, including the Bethel Benevolent Society and the African Society for the Education of Youth. These organizations were meant to foster community action and racial pride and to help African Americans get out of poverty through discipline and hard work. Only by leading upright lives, Allen believed, could they alter racist assumptions about their inferiority.
Formation of the A.M.E. Church. During the first decade of the nineteenth century Allen’s Bethel African Church increasingly came into conflict with the white elders of the Methodist conference to which the church belonged. The elders wanted to control the church property, as well as to determine who preached there, while the black church members sought to retain these privileges for themselves. Similar struggles were occurring in other cities, and in 1816 Allen called black Methodists from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to a convention in Philadelphia. After discussing their common problems, the delegates resolved to form a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, which they hoped would “preserve us from that spiritual despotism which we have so recently experienced.” Richard Allen was elected the church’s first bishop.
Growth of the Church. Not all church leaders supported Allen’s ideas about church structure and discipline, and many thought him overly ambitious. He was criticized for being too public in his condemnation of white people and thus promoting racial tension and was falsely accused of improper use of church funds. By 1821 two additional black denominations had been established by those who rejected Allen’s leadership. Nonetheless, the A.M.E. church prospered under his guidance. By 1826 membership in the denomination had grown to almost eight thousand people, who were served by seventeen itinerant ministers. By 1827 the church had sent missionaries west to Ohio, north to Canada, and as far south as Haiti. Allen continued his single-minded effort to improve the situation of African Americans. In 1827 he published a statement condemning colonization (the plan to send freed slaves to Africa), arguing that “this land which we have watered with our tears and our blood, is now our mother country and we are well satisfied to stay where wisdom abounds, and the gospel is free.” In 1830 he served as the president of the national Negro convention, which made recommendations to black leaders for encouraging racial unity, self-help, and education in agriculture and the mechanical arts. A year later Allen died at the age of seventy-one, having taken important steps toward making his country a place where African Americans might prosper and live with dignity.
Albert J. Raboteau, “Richard Allen and the African Church Movement,” in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
Richard Allen (1760-1831), American Methodist bishop, rose from slavery to freedom to become the first African American ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Richard Allen was born on Feb. 14, 1760, the slave of a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia who sold him to a planter near Dover, Del. While laboring on his new master's farm, he showed an interest in religion, was converted, and joined a Methodist society. His master, who encouraged his religious work, was in turn converted and allowed Richard and his brother to earn their freedom. Allen educated himself. As a free African American, he traveled through Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, preaching to both whites and blacks and maintaining himself by cutting wood, laboring in a brickyard, and driving a wagon.
The warm, informal style of early Methodism won Allen's loyalty. He was one of two African Americans who attended the organizing conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784 at Baltimore. He traveled and preached effectively with white Methodist ministers but declined to accompany Bishop Francis Asbury into the slaveholding South.
In 1786 Allen was invited to preach occasionally at St. George's Church in Philadelphia. Preaching in the early morning or evening, he had particular success among African Americans. By the end of the year his prayer meetings included 42 African American members, and he thought of establishing a separate place of worship. At first he was dissuaded by persons of both races. But when the African Americans discovered that their increasing membership was to be forcefully segregated in the new gallery of St. George's, they refused to submit to this insult and withdrew in 1787. They formed the Free African Society for economic and social reasons. The new organization solicited funds and secured a place to meet, only to find that they had divided loyalties. A minority established the African Protestant Episcopal Church and kept the building, while the majority organized an independent Methodist Church with Allen's leadership and financial undergirding.
Bishop Asbury dedicated the new building, Bethel Church, when it was completed in 1794, and 5 years later he ordained Allen as the first African American deacon in Methodist history. Despite these ties, friction continued between the new congregation and Methodist leaders over supplying ministers and ownership of the Bethel property. When a legal decision supported the congregation's independence in 1816, all official connections with the Methodist Episcopal Church were severed.
African American congregations in other cities had encountered similar problems, and in April 1816 the representatives of 16 churches met at Philadelphia to organize the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen was chosen its first bishop. In 1817 he denounced the American Colonization Society's plan to return the free African Americans in the United States to a colony in Africa. In 1830 Allen started the first national movement to resettle free African Americans in Canada. By the time of his death on March 26, 1831, his leadership had solidified the growing denomination and given it national standing. The African Methodist Episcopal Church continued to grow, becoming part of the antislavery movement and the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War.
Allen's short but essential autobiography is The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen: To Which Is Annexed the Rise and Progress of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States (1800; repr. 1960). Charles H. Wesley, Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom (1935), is a well-documented biography. Also useful are William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887; repr. 1968); Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church (rev. ed. 1921); Langston Hughes, Famous American Negroes (1954); Emory Stevens Bucke, The History of American Methodism vol. 1 (1963); and Richard R. Wright, The Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1963).
Mwadilifu, Mwalimu I. (Mwalimu Imara), Richard Allen: the first exemplar of African American education, New York: ECA Associates, 1985. □
Allen, Richard (1760-1831)
Richard Allen (1760-1831)
Founder of the african methodist episcopal church
Up from Slavery . Richard Allen’s race and his religious experiences together shaped the course of his life and allowed him to become a leader of the free African American community in the northern states in the post-Revolutionary era. Allen was born into slavery in Philadelphia on 14 February 1760. After moving with a new owner to Delaware in 1767, Allen was converted to Methodism, drawn by its message of Christian freedom, and soon began preaching. An early success was the conversion of his owner, who allowed Allen to buy his own freedom in 1781. Moving back to Philadelphia, Allen became active as a lay preacher in the Methodist Church. By 1784 he came to the attention of Francis As-bury, the first Methodist bishop, who offered Allen the opportunity to preach in the South, although not to slaves. Allen turned this offer down, preferring instead to preach to the growing free black community in Philadelphia.
A Black Church . Allen was one of several African American members of Saint George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Although the church officially allowed the mixing of races, hostility toward African Americans was very much a part of the black members’ experience, and an increasingly troubling one to Allen. Disturbed by the trend toward segregation, Allen and some companions founded the Free African Society on 12 April 1787, one of the first African American religious groups in the United States. Later that year the need for an independent black church became dramatically clear when Allen, Absalom Jones, and William White were pulled from their knees while praying in Saint George’s and told to move to the balcony, the only place blacks were allowed. Allen and the others then withdrew and centered their religious lives on the society. When that group began to adopt Quaker principles, Allen left to form a black Episcopal church. Allen left this church in turn, forming Bethel Church in 1794, the first black Methodist church. Under Allen’s leadership Bethel became the center of a network of black Methodist congregations. In 1816 sixteen of these churches joined to form the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the first African American denomination. These churches chose Allen as their first bishop, and he was installed on 11 April 1816 by the “laying on of hands” of his fellow black ministers.
Wider Visions. In keeping with the expansive goals of American evangelicalism and with the message of freedom he had found in Methodism, Allen’s work was not limited to churchly duties. He had a broad vision of his mission grounded in a desire to serve God and his followers. His church sponsored a day school for the children of its members, opening in 1795. In 1804 that activity broadened as Allen founded the Society of Free People of Colour for Promoting the Instruction and School Education of Children of African Descent. Allen was also active in the early movements promoting the abolition of slavery, both in Pennsylvania and in the nation. At his death on 26 March 1831, Allen had shaped not only the basis of independent black churches, but had made a significant contribution to the development of independent African American political life in the North as well.
Richard Allen, The Life, Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, Written by Himself (N. p., 1793; reprinted, Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1983);
Carol V. R. George, Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).