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Allen, Richard

black church white methodist

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.

Allen,SirThomas(Boaz) [next] [back] Allen, Paul - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Paul Allen

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