Richard Allen is known as the flaming apostle of freedom, the trailblazer for truth and justice. Richard Allen was the founder and chief promoter of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the first church established by people of African Descent for people of African Descent. His objective was to establish a church where men might worship and have fellowship in complete freedom and equality ( from an African Methodist Primer by SS Morris, Jr, 2nd edition)
Richard Allen was born a slave to a Mr. Benjamin Chew, February 14, 1760 in Philadelphia. He was later sold along with his mom and 3 siblings to a Mr. Stockley whose plantation was near Dover, Delaware. At age 17 he was converted. At that time, they were allowed to attend religious meetings once every 2 weeks. Occasionally, Mr Stockley permitted Methodist preachers to come to hishome.
1777 Richard and his brother were able to buy their freedom. Thanks to Mr Stockley, he had learned to read and to write and was in a better position than most free blacks. He had learned many valuable lessons from his own experiences : that until the Negroes were educated, they could never hold their own with white folks. He knew that knowledge was power. Education was not the only answer. The blacks needed to learn trades--like tanning, or shoe-making, or cabinetry. Why should they continue in domestic service when they were capable of being their own bosses?
Richard Allen liked living in Dover. He had a job hauling bags of salt for the army from Rehoboth to Dover, 40 miles one way. He saw first hand the loose-living, drinking, and fighting that went on in Negro Quarters. He was happy to tell them that he was a preacher and wanted to preach to them. Soon he was making regular stops and preaching to black and white people. He noticed that the whites who had been indentured servants had some of the same problems as the blacks. He preached in several places where people were willing to listen. At this point, there was no money to pay a licentiate. This didn't deter him. He walked from place to place and he depended on the generosity of the farmers for food and shelter ( often in barns). He often went many hour without food. Occasionally, a generous farmer would let him have one of his horses.
By 1786. Richard Allen began preaching at St.George's Methodist Episcopal Church and at other places in the city. He drew large numbers of colored people at St George's , but the attitudes of whites became unfriendly. Negroes here were required to sit in the rear and in galleries. Special periods were set aside for their class and prayer meetings. the blacks were told they could worship there at 5:30 AM. That was really a witching hour.
There are different versions of why the blacks left St. George's ME Church. I think that they were becoming too numerous--thanks to Richard Allen who invited everyone to come to St George's .Richard Allen's job as a driver of a wagon had led him down many paths where he preached and he invited blacks to attend his church. Soon, the gallery was filled and the aisles down the sides of the church were also filled with black worshippers. At one point, the white officers decided that the blacks would sit in a different areas of the church. As Rev. Absalom Jones and his group were being led to the new place, they heard, "let's pray" coming from the pulpit. They dropped down on to their knees for prayer. Rev. Absalom Jones was pulled off his knees by an usher , "You must getup--you must not kneel here." He begged them to wait for prayer to be over and I will get up and trouble you no more. They all left in a body and never went back.
The First African Society was organized in 1787. No drunken or disorderly person would be allowed to join. The Society was to be a model of Christian behavior. They hoped that the people would grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christian virtues. They held their early meetings in a place owned by the Quakers, and they would have a 15 minute period of silent prayer and meditation before the meeting. Richard Allen didn't like being under the influence of the Quakers. A short period of meditation was not a religions service, to him. He believed in the simple gospel that the Methodists preached. He felt this was best for the black people.
By 1791 they were ready to organize a Negro church and purchased a lot to built it on. What denomination? The majority wanted to join the Episcopalians but Richard Allen wanted to join Methodism, since it had given him his beginning in Christianity.
Allen and his group met from house to house and in 1793 they were able to purchase a piece of land at the corner of 6th & Lombard Street in Philadelphia. An old blacksmith shop was moved to this spot and used as their first church. This building, Bethel, was dedicated by Bishop Asbury in 1794. This was the oldest piece of real estate owned by a group of African Americans.
In 1799 He was ordained a deacon by Bishop Asbury, a year before the General Conference ( white) agreed that Africans might be ordained. In 1805, Rev. James Smith appointed elder of Bethel Church, laid down the law as to when and for what reasons they could hold meetings. When they demanded the keys, the prayer books and forbade them to meet without his consent, they said, "no way!". Richard Allen hired a lawyer and discovered that their church had not been deeded to the trustees of the African Methodist Church but to the conference. They had been tricked. The Legislature of Pennsylvania was petitioned for a Supplement which would transfer the control of the property from the elders to the trustees and give the trustees power to appoint an African to preach in Bethel or in any other church which might become their property. Many of them signed with an "X". Illiteracy was not indicative of a lack of intelligence, but of the meager opportunity. In 1816 he was ordained an elder, the highest ministerial order.
At this time, other colored people were following the examples of Richard Allen and organizing their own churches in Baltimore, Wilmington, New York and New Jersey. In 1816 representatives from these groups were invited by Richard Allen to meet in Philadelphia in order to form a national organization.
Religion was the main focus of Richard Allen's life. The church provided not only religious instruction but was often the only legal meeting place of Negro social life. Life was influenced by (1) Methodism and (2) the American Revolution.. In 1830, Richard Allen was head of the Free Produce Society. He encouraged the blacks to purchase produce grown by free labor only. This was an act of self-determination. This was his means of attacking slavery. He fought lessen oppression through economic, political, social and educational elevation because he believed in the unity of man and the worth of every individual. His ultimate responsibility was to God. April 11, 1816 he was consecrated Bishop and July 9, 1820 he held the first General Conference. In 1830 he presided over the first meeting of the National Negro Convention.
There is a lot to learn about Richard Allen. We've only touched the surface. For more information onRichard Allen & the AME church, see:
(1) Morris, SS, "An African Methodist Primer", 1963, (2) Matthews, MM, "Richard Allen". (3) Griffin, Eunice, "The Rise of American Missions: The AME Church", 1960, (4) George, Carol VR "Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Black Churches, 1790-1840," 1973, (5)Woodson, Carter G, "The History of the Negro Church,", 1921, (6)Wesley, Charles, "Richard Allen, Apostle of Freedom," 1935, (7) DuBois, WEB, "The Philadelphia Negro", Tanner, Benjamin, "An Outline of History & Government for African Methodist Churchmen, " 1884, Philadelphia, (8)Frazier, EF, "The Negro Church in America," 1970, (9) McClain, WB, "Black People in the Methodist Church."
Richard Allen expired at the age of 71 on March 26, 1831.