Richard AllenJul 31st, 2010 | By BHS | Category: Faith & Religion, Social Sciences
1760-1831 Richard Allen was raised as a slave in the century leading to the American Civil War, but managed to obtain his freedom and went on to a religious career as an itinerant preacher. Later, after an experience with racism in a Philadelphia church, he embarked on a path of activism and devotion that led to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a lifetime of work in support and defense of the black community.
A Free Preacher
Allen was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1760. Little is known about his parents except that they were slaves noted as the property of a man named Benjamin Chew. In 1777, when Allen was 17, records indicate that Chew sold the family to a Delaware resident named Stokely Sturgis. Sturgis then split the family up, selling off Allen’s parents while retaining ownership of Allen himself, along with Allen’s older brother and a sister. Later, in the midst of a growing church-based antislavery sentiment in the north, Sturgis decided to let Allen purchase his freedom by working it off.
Allen fulfilled his obligations to Sturgis and became a free man in 1780. Deeply religious, he spent the next several years as an itinerant preacher in communities throughout Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Allen had attended Methodist classes and meetings while still a slave, and surrounded himself with those of a like faith. When he wasn’t preaching, Allen made ends meet with whatever work he could find, including jobs as wagon driver and woodcutter. In December of 1784, during one of the country’s periodic religious revivals, Allen is believed to have attended a historic event in Baltimore known as the Christmas Conference. The conference included key Methodist leaders and marked the founding of the new Methodist Episcopal Church, an offshoot from the Church of England. One participant was a minister named Richard Whatcoat. In 1785, Allen and Whatcoat formed a team and traveled around the Baltimore area preaching as a duo. Allen joined with another Methodist preacher, Bishop Francis, for the same purpose in 1786. During this period, Allen received little or no income from his preaching and survived by making and selling shoes.
Methodist and Bishop
In the spring of 1787, then living in Philadelphia, Allen organized a prayer meeting for the black membership of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. The leader of this group of black members was the preacher Absalom Jones. While the Methodist Episcopal Church was ostensibly receptive to African American members, the policy of racial tolerance had failed to trickle down to the majority of congregants. They not only refused Allen’s request to provide a room for the meeting, but also interrupted Jones while he knelt in prayer and ordered him to move to another part of the hall. Every member of the African American contingent, Allen included, walked out, never to return to St. George’s. It was a pivotal moment in the history of black churches in America. Allen and Jones went on to arrange the first recorded organizational meeting among African Americans on April 17, 1787. The two brought their fellow black congregants together to form the Free African Society. Its aim was to give Blacks financial and other assistance and prepare freed slaves for lives as free citizens. Observing these developments, the local Episcopal bishop suggested the formation of a church, which Allen and his fellows soon undertook under the name the African Church. Allen married a woman named Flora in 1791. After a yellow fever epidemic swept Philadelphia, Allen and Jones earned the respect of the black community at large by publicly debunking assertions that African Americans had profiteered from the disaster.
The two activist preachers remained friends and collaborators for the rest of their lives, but they parted ways when the question arose of what denomination the African Church should adopt. The majority of the congregation voted for the Church of England, but Allen and Jones were Methodists. Jones stayed, but Allen made the historic decision to establish a new, Methodist congregation in a blacksmith shop. He named the church Bethel. By June of 1794, he had secured permanent facilities for his new congregation. His church flourished, but in 1805, Allen’s wife died. He eventually married again, this time to a woman named Sara, and the two raised six children together.
In April of 1816, now head of a large congregation, Allen invited delegates from other black churches to meet at Bethel and consider a confederation of black churches. The organization they created was the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was nominated to be its first bishop. White opposition to the black churches of Allen and Jones was considerable, and St. George’s, the very church that had evicted the two preachers, levied a claim to the Bethel Church’s land and facilities. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, upheld Bethel’s independence. Allen remained dedicated to action outside of the church as well. As early as 1797, he and Jones had petitioned the government to revoke the notorious Fugitive Slave Act. In 1804, he helped found the Society for Free People of Color, and in 1830, the Pennsylvania Free Produce Association. At Bethel, Allen established day and night schools to provide additional education opportunities for African Americans. Allen passed away in Philadelphia on March 26, 1831. He had risen from slavery to become a major force in African American life, with the African Methodist Episcopal Church his great legacy. Under his leadership, it flourished, with the letters A.M.E. offering solace and community in black neighborhoods throughout the United States.