First Amendment of the Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Bishop Richard Allen, 1760 – 1831
Richard Allen is an important figure in American history, especially the history of religion and civil rights in this country. He founded both the Free African Society, a “non-denominational religious mutual-aid society dedicated to helping the Black community,” and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which later spun off the A. M. E. Zion Church and the C. M. E. Church.
Richard Allen was probably born in 1760, in or near Philadelphia. He was born a slave, which means his birth was probably not recorded at the time. February 14, 1760 is given as his usual birth date, which makes today his 257th birthday, and he was born in Pennsylvania or Delaware. As a teenager he converted to Methodism and became a lay preacher. His owner, Stokeley Sturgis, also converted to Methodism, and permitted Richard Allen and his other slaves the opportunity to purchase their freedom. (He did not convert in so holy a manner and to so generous a heart that he freed them without at least partial reimbursement for the loss of their labor.) He bought his freedom in 1783 (some sources say 1780) for $2,000. In 1786, “joined St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he became active in teaching and preaching.” He often preached at all-Black services early on Sunday mornings, at 5:00 a.m. However, when he and other Black members of the congregation attended the regular services later in the day, they were required to be segregated from the white members of the congregation.
Details differ as to the great walk-out of St. George’s by the Black congregation members. It may have been in 1787 or 1792. It may have been because visitors to the church did not realize they were sitting in the “whites only” section of the church or it may have been a deliberate attempt at integration by Allen’s friend, Absalom Jones. Some versions of the story claim the church forced segregated seating on the congregation without warning, and this was the first — and last — Sabbath they did so. What is sure is this: African-Americans sat in the “white pews.” An usher tried to tell them to move, but as he was doing so, it was the time in the service to kneel for prayer. They refused to move until prayers were over and scolded the usher for interrupting the prayers. When the prayers ended, they rose to their feet and walked out of the church. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones led all the other Black members of the church out.
Absalom Jones was the first African-American to be officially ordained in the United States; he chose to join the Episcopal Church. Richard Allen did not want to leave the Methodist church, but decided that what was needed was a church where African-Americans could worship together.
“I was confident that there was no religious sect or denomination would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodist; for the plain and simple Gospel suits best for any people.”
Using his own money, Richard Allen bought an old blacksmith’s shop and established the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Bishop Francis Asbury consecrated the building. He also ordained Allen.
Richard Allen, circa 1784
Having been a slave himself, Allen naturally became an abolitionist. Both his home and Bethel Church were stops on the Underground Railroad. He worked for better conditions and civil rights for free African-Americans, especially education. He opened a school for African-American children. He wrote articles on the evils of slavery, on the brotherhood of slaves and free Blacks, on religious topics, and on African-Americans staying in the United States and improving themselves, gaining self-determination, rather than freed slaves going back to Africa.
“We will never separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population in this country; they are our brethren and we feel there is more virtue in suffering privations with them than fancied advantage for a season.”
The local white Methodist Episcopal churches tried to exercise authority over Bethel Church, but Allen fought them in court. January 1, 1816, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled the church belonged to Allen and his associates. In that same year, Allen “united four African-American congregations of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia; Salem, New Jersey; Delaware and Maryland. Together they founded the independent denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first fully independent black denomination in the United States. On April 10, 1816, the other ministers elected Allen as their first bishop.”
Bishop Richard Allen died on March 26, 1831, at his home on Spruce Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was buried under Bethel Church, which is considered the Mother Church of the AME Church.
Biographies of Bishop Richard Allen
Richard Allen, The Life, Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, Written by Himself (Philadelphia, 1793; reprinted Nashville: Abingdon, 1960)
Carol V. R. George, Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches (New York: Oxford University, 1973)
Richard Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers (NYC: NYU Press, 2008)
Happy St. Valentine’s Day.
Happy African-American History Month.
Happy Richard Allen’s Birthday.