African Methodist Episcopal Church

Richard Allen was born February 14, 1760 to a bi-racial mother and a pure African father. Allen, his parents and two other siblings were slaves on the plantation of Benjamin Chew (William Penn's lawyer; one of the commissioners who supervised the survey of the Mason-Dixon Line; later appointed Register General, Attorney General and Chief Justice of Pennsylvania). The plantation was located on the Westside of 3rd Street between Willings Alley, now Walnut Street, and Spruce Street, immediately next door to the home of Samuel Powel (one of Philadelphia's wealthiest men; last colonial mayor of Philadelphia before the Revolution and first mayor after the Revolution).

At approximately seven years of age, Allen and his family was sold to Stokley Sturgis, a wealthy plantation owner near Dover, Delaware. Soon after this time, Mrs. Allen bore three additional children. Later, she and three of her six children were sold away; Allen, his older brother and a sister remained at the plantation. There is no record of Allen’s father after this time.

Allen began his fellowship work on the plantation when he joined the Methodist Society of preachers. He was converted in 1777 at the age of 17. At some point, Sturgis became convinced that slavery was wrong, thus he proposed that the Allens buy their freedom for $2,000 Continental money. And so Allen labored on the Sturgis plantation and engaged in a variety of additional handy work including hauling salt during the Revolutionary War. In 1780 at the age of 20, Allen became licensed to preach and lead church numerous meetings, but also, he paid his last installment and purchased his freedom! He immediately set about preaching in and around Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

In the winter of 1784, Allen attended the first General Conference of Methodists in America. This historical event was held in Baltimore, Maryland and the church established itself as a denomination separate from the Church of England, where John Wesley founded Methodism. In February 1786, Allen was appointed assistant minister at St. George’s (a Philadelphian mixed-race congregation; the first and oldest Methodist Church in the U.S.) and accepted an invitation to preach the 5:00 A.M. worship service. Within a short time, Allen so drastically increased St. George's black membership that the building could no longer accommodate the growing congregation. He met with other blacks to discuss the possibility of organizing a church of their own, but was met with opposition with the exceptions of Absalom Jones (First African American ordained Priest in the Episcopal Church), William White and Darius Jinnings. Church elders also rejected Allen's request and chose instead to have black members construct a balcony within the church. So they went about the construction unaware that they would be required to sit there, segregated from their white brethren. To agitate the situation even further, Allen witnessed an unbelievable tragedy one Sunday morning at St. George’s that would shape the future of his Christian walk forever. The following is his account:

"He told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took those seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and just as we got to the seats, the elder said, 'Let us pray.' We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H-- M--, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him off of his knees, and saving, 'You must get up--you must not kneel here.' Mr. Jones replied, 'Wait till prayer is over.' Mr. H-- M-- said, 'No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.' Mr. Jones said, 'Wait until prayer is over and I will get up and trouble you no more.' With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees, Mr. L-- S-- to come to his assistance. He came, and went to William White to pull him up. By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church."

Thus, the majority of the body of black Methodists left St. George’s and organized The Free African Society on April 12, 1787, a non-denominational mutual aid society.

Over time, the Free African Society began taking on a Quaker-style of worship by having a period of silence before service. Unable to accept these new practices, Allen was "read out" of the Society on June 20, 1789. Also around this time, the Society sought land to build an African church for its members. And although Allen was disassociated from the Society, he wholeheartedly supported their plans, so he was given charge by Jones to purchase land. Using his own money, Allen purchased a plot of land from Mark Wilcox located at 6th and Lombard Street, which then was a very over-populated black community. Members then decided they wanted a church built at 5th Street, south of Walnut Street--a white community. Also, the church denomination was still uncertain; members voted to be Episcopalian while though Allen and Jones sought Methodism.

Nevertheless, Allen purchased a blacksmith shop and had it hauled by a team of his own horses to his land on Lombard Street. Bishop Francis Asbury (credited with introducing Methodism to America) opened, preached the first sermon and dedicated the new place of worship on July 29, 1794. The Reverend Dickins of St. George's suggested the name Bethel, meaning “The house of the Lord”. By 1795, Bethel’s congregation had numbered 121; one decade later membership was 457. In 1799 at age of 30, Allen was ordained a deacon, the first such in the Methodist Church by Bishop Asbury. Then Bethel added an "African Supplement" to its articles of incorporation in 1807 and, on April 9, 1816, the church won legal recognition to exist as an independent church. In the same year, Allen and representatives from other black Methodist congregations in Baltimore, Maryland, Wilmington, Delaware, Salem, New Jersey and Attleboro, Pennsylvania convened the first General Conference at the Bethel Church to organize the first fully independent black denomination in America, The African Methodist Episcopal Church. By this time, membership was more than 1,200.

“The People of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and all other places, who shall unite with them, shall become one body under the name and style of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States of North America, and that the book of Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church be adopted as our Discipline until further orders, excepting that portion relating to Presiding Elders.”

At this first conference, Daniel Coker was elected Bishop. The next day, he was charged with divulging A.M.E. business outside of the conference and expelled from the Connection. Subsequently, Allen was consecrated the first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal at the age of 56. A year later, Coker was reinstated and served as a pastor in Baltimore. In 1821, Coker sailed to Liberia, West Africa where he spent many years and became very instrumental in the growth of African Methodism.

Still Bethel experienced discrimination and prejudice from their white Methodist brethren. Ironically, St. George’s sought to require payment in exchange for sending their clergy to preach for Bethel, and to have Bethel’s land transferred into the Methodist Conference. Allen became even more dissatisfied as white ministers retreated from their antislavery principles and attempted to thwart the sovereignty of black congregations. Whites later devised a plan to settle free blacks in Sierra Leone, an independent state founded on the west coast of West Africa. However, Allen and many other African Americans rejected this colonization plan. In response, the black community petitioned the state and federal governments to end slavery, the slave trade and repeal the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. (This act allowed slave-owners to seize blacks without a warrant). Allen was temporarily seized in 1806, but was released when anti-slavery organizations testified on his behalf. Finally in 1815, St. George's successfully managed to auction off Bethel, and Allen was required to buy back his own church for $10,125.

Throughout it all, Bishop Allen became a very important figure in African Methodism and in the City of Philadelphia. He was especially noted for helping to bury the dead during the city’s 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic, which took the lives of more than 4,000 persons. It was thought that blacks were immune from the epidemic because few if any died from it. So at the request of Dr. Benjamin Rush, founder of Pennsylvania Hospital, Bishop Allen and Rev. Jones were asked to assist with the removal and burial of the dead. Although charges of theft were later brought against Allen and Jones (Whites claimed that the two overcharged for the removal of the dead and stole valuables), Dr. Rush, Mayor Matthew Clarkson and others publicly came to their defense by proclaiming their innocence.

Interestingly enough, Bishop Allen refused to take a salary from the church after 1821, choosing instead to engage in his hauling, trading and shoemaking business. More than ever, he began to devote a large portion of his time to education and spreading African Methodism. In 1824, he sent his brother, Henry Allen, and others, at the request of the President of Haiti, to establish a church there. He also opened a school for sixty children and organized the Society of Free People of Colour for Promoting the Instruction and School Education of Children of African Descent. By 1811, there were at least 11 black schools in Philadelphia. He tried unsuccessfully to foster a union between the A.M.E. Church and the A.M.E. Zion Church. He did however manage to organize the New York Conference in 1820 and the Pittsburgh Conference in 1830. Today, more than 2.5 million members are still carrying out his original programs in more than 6,200 A.M.E. churches worldwide. The Bishop was a member of the First African Independent Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons and served as treasurer. (His great friend and brother in the ministry, Absalom Jones, served as the Right Worshipful Grand Master.

Bishop Richard Allen passed away at his home located at 150 Spruce Street on Saturday, March 26, 1831. It is said that he was sitting at his front window in a rocking chair.

The Bishop was twice married. He married his first wife, Flora, on October 19, 1790. She was a very dependable helpmate during the Bishop’s early years of establishing the church from 1787 to 1799. They attended church school and worked together purchasing land, which was eventually donated to the church or rented out to families. Flora Allen died on March 11, 1801. The couple bore no children. The whereabouts of Flora’s remains are unknown.

His second wife, Sarah Bass, was a widow. She was born a slave in the Isle of Wright County, Virginia and came to Philadelphia at the age of eight. Richard and Flora Allen were her former class leaders. Sarah was said to be a “faithful counselor” to the young and old, and did much to assist the Bishop in his ministry.

Bethel had become a pillar in the Philadelphia community. In fact, the church was used regularly as a stop on the Underground Railroad, which assisted escaped slaves to freedom. Sarah was personally known for hiding, feeding and clothing runaway slaves. It is suggested that the initial work of the Missionary Society of the A.M.E. Church was born from Sarah’s hands. The story is that Bishop Allen sent out his first preachers for a period of six months to witness and grow the A.M.E. Church. Upon their return, Bishop Allen thought their physical condition to be too “seedy” for an invitation to supper, thus he joined them later that night. When Sarah inquired of their whereabouts, the Bishop related the condition of their clothes. She was quoted as saying “…they had ventilators in their elbows, knees and trousers!” Sarah and other women from the church spent the entire night sewing and repairing the preachers’ clothes. Mother Sarah Allen lived to be 85 years old. She passed away July 16, 1849. She and the Bishop bore six children: Richard Jr., James, John, Peter, Sarah and Ann.

Bishop Richard Allen’s remains, along with those of Sarah and Bishop Morris Brown, are entombed together at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Jones Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church
2021 West Diamond St. (215) 236-3028
Philadelphia, PA. 19121
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