Bishop Richard Allen

Richard Allen was one of the first African American religious and 

civil rights leaders in the United States. Allen discovered religion

after hearing a wandering Methodist preacher at a secret gathering

of slaves in Delaware. He drove a salt wagon during the Revolutionary

War and purchased his freedom in 1780. In 1786, he traveled to

Philadelphia to preach to the black congregation at St. George’s

Methodist Church. After separating from St. George’s in 1794, Allen

helped found the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and then

went on to found his own Methodist congregation which he called

Bethel Church. Allen became the first black deacon of the Methodist

Church and eventually, after thirty years of struggle with the white

Methodist congregation at St. George’s, founded the African Methodist

Episcopal (AME) Church. Allen became the AME’s first bishop and was

recognized as one of the leading voices in the free black community of

the early nineteenth century.

Richard Allen was born into slavery on February 14, 1760 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Allen worked on the household staff of Philadelphia lawyer Benjamin Chew. When he was seven, he and his family were sold to a Delaware farmer named Stokley Sturgis. Allen’s work changed from that of a household servant to a field hand. Despite the hardship of the work, Allen was not bitter toward his new master. In his biography The Life Experiences and GospelLabors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, he portrayed Stockley as “more like a father to his slaves than anything else.”

In 1777 when Allen was seventeen years old, two events took place that were to change his life forever. Firstly, his mother and three siblings were sold. He would never see any of them again. Secondly, Allen experienced a religious awakening. He heard about a meeting where a traveling Methodist preacher was to speak and decided to attend. The results of the meeting were profound. In his biography, Allen wrote, “I was awakened and brought to see myself, poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost.” Allen joined the local Methodist Society and began to organize services with a local preacher named John Gray. The meetings were held in secret because of a Delaware law which forbade any meetings between black men without the presence of a white man. Allen was attracted to Methodism by its complete opposition to the institution of slavery and its straightforward, accessible interpretation of the Gospel.

Unlike most slaveowners of the period, Sturgis encouraged his slaves to attend religious services every two weeks. Eventually, preachers were invited to stop at Sturgis’s farm. On one occasion, Sturgis and his family came to the service to hear a preacher named Freeborn Garrettson, a former slaveowner who had become vehemently opposed to slavery. Garrettson gave a sermon using a verse from Daniel 5:27 which read, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and thou art found wanting.” Garrettson applied this passage to

At A Glance…

Born Richard Allen, February 14, 1760 in Philadelphia, PA; died March 18, 1831; married a former slave from Virginia named Sarah, 1800; six children.

Earned freedom from slavery 1780; Free African Society (FAS), co-founder, 1787; Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founder, 1794; first black deacon of a Methodist Church, 1799; first bishop of African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1816; American Society of Free Persons of Colour, president, 1830; Free Produce Society, founder, 1830.

the institution of slavery. He reasoned that when slaveowners stood before God on judgment day, they would be found wanting—that is—they would go to Hell. Sturgis was so moved by the sermon that he decided to free all of his slaves. However, his financial debts prohibited him from freeing them outright. It was agreed that Allen could purchase his freedom for the sum of ․2,000. By working extra hours doing odd jobs such as cutting cord wood, Allen saved the ․2,000 and bought his freedom in 1780 at the age of twenty.

Work for a free black man was scarce, but Allen continued to make his living cutting wood. He also drove a salt wagon during the Revolutionary War. Driving a wagon gave him the opportunity to travel to different communities, all the while developing his reputation as a preacher. Allen preached at meetings for blacks and whites in MarylandNew YorkNew Jersey, and Pennsylvania. It was this reputation that brought him back to the city of his birth, Philadelphia.

 

Joining With And Separation From St. George’s

In 1786 St. George’s, the first Methodist Church in Philadelphia, invited Allen to preach to its black congregation. Allen was given the 5:00 A.M. service, but he was soon attracting an increasingly larger black congregation. In Philadelphia at the time, 70% of the black population was free. Allen would also travel to three or four different churches during the day to preach to other congregations. His preaching was extremely effective and he quickly began to attract more black parishioners to St. George’s. However, the increasing numbers of black people in the church made the white members nervous. Eventually, the black parishioners of St. George’s were forced to relinquish their seats and sit along the wall. Allen and other black religious leaders such as Absalom Jones recognized the need for a new type of church which would serve the needs of the African members of the congregation. Allen approached the elder of St. George’s to ask to establish a separate black Methodist Church. He was denied, but as the elder’s term lasted only one year, Allen was content to wait and ask again when a new elder was installed. At the end of the year, Allen approached the new elder, whom Allen referred to as the Reverend Mr. W., and this time was rejected and also insulted. Instead of granting the black parishioners’ request to leave, the trustees at St. George’s decided to build a new balcony to segregate the black parishioners from the white ones. The desire for independence led Allen and Jones to establish the Free African Society (FAS) in April of 1787. W.E.B. Dubois called the FAS “the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life.” The FAS was established to aid the widowed, sick, and jobless. The organization also regulated marriages and attempted to improve public morals.

One day in November 1787 Absalom Jones, William White, and Allen came late to services at St. George’s and were ushered into the new gallery. They went to seats above their accustomed places in the church. They were unaware that they were not allowed to sit in the new section of the church, which they and many other black members of the congregation had helped build. As the three men were on their knees in prayer, a trustee of the church grabbed Jones by the shoulder and attempted to drag him from his knees. Steven Klot’s book Richard Allen: Religious Leader and Social Activist reported that Jones said, “wait until the prayer is over,” but the trustee insisted that the black men leave immediately. Jones again said, “Wait until the prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.” Another trustee was called and this provoked a general exodus by most of the black members of the church. Allen later said, “we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued by us in the church.”

The Founding Of A Church

After the exodus from St. George’s, the black members turned to the FAS for spiritual guidance, but they soon discovered that the organization was better suited to secular concerns. Allen also was having his difficulties with the organization because he believed it was too heavily influenced by the Quakers. Allen felt that Quaker culture was too restrictive and philosophically opposed to the spontaneity and enthusiasm of a Methodist service. This difference of opinion led to Allen being “read out” of the society in 1789. Despite expulsion from the FAS, he continued to be very important to the organization. He was chosen by the FAS to find a site and purchase it for the construction of a new church. In 1791, members of the FAS broke ground for what would eventually become the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.

Both Allen and Jones wanted to remain affiliated with the Methodists, but two factors influenced their decision. First, William White, the Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was a generous and enthusiastic supporter of the project. Secondly, the Methodist leaders’ heavy-handed attempts to control the worshipers who had left St. George’s continued unabated. The Reverend John McClaske threatened to expel the dissenters from the Methodist Church permanently. Time-Life’s book on African American historical figures entitled Leadership reported that Allen’s reply was to tell him, “If you deny us your name, you cannot seal up the Scriptures from us, and deny us a name in heaven.” The people of St. Thomas’s wanted to elect Allen as their first pastor, but he declined saying that “I could never be anything but a Methodist.” In 1804 Absalom Jones became America’s first black Episcopal priest when the Episcopal Church recognized the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.

Allen still wanted to establish a separate place for African Methodists. Although the elders at St. George’s wanted to segregate white and black parishioners, they still preferred that both groups worship together. The thought of an entirely separate African Methodist Church beyond their control was unacceptable. Allen’s group was continually denied official acknowledgment, which would have allowed a pastor to administer sacraments to the new congregation. In 1793, a catastrophic event in Philadelphia illustrated the depth of character that Allen and the black community possessed.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 struck Philadelphia with a vengeance and killed 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents. Allen and Jones were asked to lend assistance, especially after much of the medical community had fled the city. At the time it was believed, erroneously, that blacks were less likely to contract yellow fever. Allen and Jones agreed to help. For the next several weeks, Allen organized crews to remove the dead while Jones found nurses to help the doctors. Despite the invaluable assistance the black community offered during the crisis, they were still criticized. Matthew Carey, a man who fled Philadelphia during the epidemic, claimed that black people had profited from the yellow fever by stealing from abandoned houses and charging exorbitant prices for corpse removal. Allen and Jones responded to these charges by publishing a pamphlet entitled A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, which defended the conduct of black people during the epidemic. The mayor of Philadelphia issued a statement supporting Jones and Allen.

In July 1794, Allen established the Bethel Church in a converted blacksmith shop on land he originally bought for St. Thomas’s. In November 1794, Allen issued a “Declaration of Independence” stating that Bethel was not simply an African branch of St. George’s, but a separate entity. He also used the name African Methodist Episcopal Church for the first time. Although Allen declared Bethel’s independence, he was still dependent on St. George’s for ministers because no black men had been ordained. A new elder at St. George’s, Ezekiel Cooper, saw an opportunity to exert control over the new congregation. Cooper threatened to take away the Methodist name from the Bethel congregation. Allen responded that they could take away the new congregation’s name, but couldn’t deny its members a place in heaven. Cooper tried a another tactic. In 1796, he proposed that St. George’s incorporate Bethel Church. Allen and the other trustees at Bethel agreed. The incorporation followed the normal Methodist model, but allowed Bethel to retain its African heritage. Allen was forced to relinquish ownership of Bethel, although he remained the owner of the land. For the next ten years, the congregation at Bethel enjoyed a period of relative peace.

Allen worked diligently to fulfill Bethel Church’s mission to “build each other up.” In the church’s first two years of existence, membership increased from 20 to 121 members. Allen also opened a children’s day school and a night school for adults. In 1799, he became the first black deacon to be ordained in the Methodist church. Allen soon turned his attention to the issue of slavery and published three pamphlets expressing his concerns. In An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice, Allen rationally confronted some widely-believed myths about slavery and compared the plight of the American slave to the plight of the ancient Israelites in Egypt. In To the People of Color, Allen tried to offer hope to all slaves and reminded free blacks of their responsibility to help those people still enslaved. His third essay, A Short Address to the Friends of Him who Hath no Helper, praised prominent white men such as Benjamin Rush and Robert Ralston for assisting the black community.

Allen did more for the abolitionist movement than write pamphlets, however. For example, the basement of Bethel Church was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Allen also collected money to help slaves escape to the North and, in 1795, he helped 30 newly-freed Jamaicans find housing. By 1805, Bethel Church had 456 registered members and Allen had married a former slave from Virginia named Sarah. He divided his time between his church, his work as a shoemaker, and his family, which would grow to include six children.

 

The Struggle For Independence

 

After approximately ten years of peace between St. George’s Church and Bethel Church, trouble arose once again. St. George’s pastor, Reverend James Smith, forbade the practice of any religious service at Bethel, claiming he had the right to suspend religious services based on the incorporation papers signed by the two churches. Allen and his congregation found this situation unacceptable and maneuvered quickly to thwart Smith’s intentions. Allen met secretly with a trusted Quaker lawyer and together they created the African Supplement. The Supplement, which gave Bethel Church independent status because of its unique position as a purely African church, was voted upon by members of the congregation and passed unanimously. Smith was furious and, in retaliation, informed the Bethel congregation that it would be charged ․600.00 per year for administration of sacraments such as communion and baptism. The people of Bethel appealed and eventually had the fee reduced to 200.00.

Following the confrontation with Reverend Smith, Allen was faced with another disturbing incident. In 1808 a slaver, a man who captured runaway slaves and resold them in the South, claimed that Allen was a recently escaped slave. Allen sued the man for false accusation and perjury, eventually winning an 800.00 settlement. When the slaver could not pay, he was thrown into debtor’s prison.

Although Allen was vindicated, the slaver’s claims illustrated the precarious nature of his freedom and the freedom of other blacks. He renewed his drive for independence from St. George’s and his attacks on the institution of slavery. He fought doggedly with the elders at St. George’s for the right to control Bethel Church’s destiny. In 1811, when minister Stephen Roszel refused to administer the sacraments at Bethel unless the African Supplement was repealed, Allen found ministers from another church to serve the community. In an attempt to diminish the size and influence of Bethel’s congregation, trustees from St. George’s opened another black Methodist church. The plan failed miserably. In 1813 the new elder at St. George’s, Reverend Robert Roberts, demanded the right to preach at Bethel. On one occasion, he tried to force his way to the pulpit during services. The congregation packed the church so tightly that Roberts was not able to get to the pulpit. In 1815 another elder, Reverend Robert Burch, had Bethel put up for sale at public auction. Allen was forced to buy back his own property at a cost of ․10,125, an enormous sum in the early nineteenth century. Burch eventually went to court to win the right to preach at Bethel. The judge ruled in Bethel’s favor, reasoning that Burch had no right to preach to a congregation that would not listen to him. This ruling gave Bethel de facto independence. After years of struggle, Bethel had won its freedom from the white-controlled Methodist Conference and was established as its own organization with Allen as its leader.

 

The Continuing Fight For Justice

 

The final phase of Allen’s life centered around two main goals: the expansion of the AME Church and securing the rights of black people. To build on the foundation of Bethel’s success, Allen organized a conference of black churches in April of 1816. Delegates came from Baltimore, Wilmington, Pennsylvania, and Salem. Allen was elected chairmen of the conference. The council adopted all the tenets of Methodism except the system of elders, which would again put African churches under the control of whites. Delegates also elected the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Reverend Daniel Coker of Baltimore. Coker declined and Allen was named in his place. On April 11, 1816, Allen became the first black bishop in the United States. Five ordained ministers, including Absalom Jones, participated in the ceremony. Allen remained pastor at Bethel, but focused on expansion of the AME church.

Although the AME church continued to grow steadily, it experienced growing pains. In 1820, an AME church in New York splintered and formed the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In Philadelphia, a group split from Bethel Church and formed the Wesley AME Church. The worst setback for AME expansion took place in South Carolina. A church was burned to the ground and a minister forced to flee to Philadelphia after it was revealed that the church was being used as a meeting place for a group of slaves and former slaves who were planning a revolt. As a result, the AME church was faced with virtual extinction in the South. Eventually, the AME church expanded successfully into western Pennsylvania and Ohio, and even sent a mission to Haiti.

While Allen was working to establish and enlarge the AME church, a new movement emerged that threatened the rights of all free blacks. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed soon after Allen became a bishop in December of 1816. The ACS advocated either the voluntary emigration or forced expulsion of all free blacks from the United States to Africa. Founded by the Reverend Robert Finley, the ACS believed that colonization in Africa would be beneficial for most free black men, many of whom had a very difficult time in the United States. Other members of the group included Thomas JeffersonAndrew JacksonJames Madison, and Henry Clay. An article entitled “Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church” on the Historic Philadelphia Home Page quoted two prominent figures in American history who were members of the ACS. Jefferson said, “Let the ocean divide the white man from the man of color.” Clay, a United States Senator from Kentucky, expressed the beliefs of many ACS members when he described free blacks as “pernicious and useless, if not dangerous.”Allen was outraged that anyone would try to expel him and other free blacks from their own country. In response to the growing threat of the ACS, Allen organized a meeting attended by 3,000 people at Bethel Church. Allen declared that free blacks must support those blacks who were still enslaved, and furthermore, that free blacks should enjoy all the rights and privileges of any other citizen of the United States.

 

In a Philadelphia newspaper, Allen and other black leaders addressed the place of the free black man in America. Part of their statement reads as follows: “Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first cultivators of the wilds of America, we their descendants feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant soil, which their blood and sweat manured; and that any measure, or system of measures, having a tendency to banish us from her bosom, would not only be cruel, but in direct violation of those principles, which have been the boast of the republick (sic).”Allen even argued his point in America’s first black newspaper, the Freedom Journal.

In addition to the threat posed by the ACS, Allen and other free blacks had to contend with increasingly restrictive laws. In 1827, the state of Ohio instituted the Black Code, which required each black resident to post a ․500 bond to guarantee their good behavior. Since very few people, black or white, had this sum of money, a large number of blacks were forced to leave the state, with many residing in Canada. The Black Code nearly wiped out the AME church in Ohio. To combat this rising tide of repression, Allen called another meeting of black leaders in 1830. Despite the travel restrictions imposed on black people of the time, 40 delegates from seven states attended. Allen was elected president of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour, for Improving their Condition in the United States; for Purchasing Lands; and for the Establishment of a Settlement in Upper Canada. The group’s first priority was to improve conditions for free blacks. Proposals to explore possible relocation of free blacks to Canada were also considered. Allen also led the Free Produce Society, which pledged to buy goods produced only by non-slave holders.

On March 18, 1831, Allen died at the age of 71. His funeral was widely attended by free blacks from throughout the United States. William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the abolitionist newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation that Allen was “one of the purest friends and patriots that ever exerted his energies in favor of civil and religious liberty. His noble deeds will remain cherished in the memory of mankind as imperishable monuments of eternal glory.” Richard Allen’s legacy remains strong today. His beloved AME church today has 2.5 million members with 8,000 ministers in 6,200 congregations. Perhaps more importantly, he was one of the first black voices to speak out for the rights of African Americans. He is the descendant of contemporary civil rights activists and without Allen’s pioneering efforts, their successes would not be possible. In a document now stored at the Library of Congress, a sermon given in the Allen Chapel of the AME church on February 20, 1898, by the Reverend John Palmer addressed the question of Richard Allen’s greatness. “If true greatness consists in that self sacrificing heroism and devotion which makes a man insensible and indifferent to his own personal welfare, interest, comfort, and advantages; and to deny himself of all for the sake of others, and for the elevation and advancement of others, without a single promise of reward,—we say, if these constitute greatness, then Richard Allen, the first bishop of the AME church was great.”

Sources Books

 

Allen, Richard. The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen. Nashville: Abingdon, 1960.

Klots, Steve. Richard Allen: Religious Leader and Social Activist. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Rollins, Charlemae H. They Showed the Way. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1964.

Papanek, John L. (ed). African Americans: Voices of Triumph. New York: Time Life Inc., 1993.

Online Databases

 

“Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.” Historic Philadel-phiaHomepage. [Online] Internet, January 9, 1997.

Palmer, John M. “Was Richard Allen Great.” Library of Congress Homepage.[Online] Internet, January 11, 1997.

“Richard Allen-African American Historical Figures.” African American Biographical Profiles Index. [Online] Internet, January 11, 1997.

—Michael Watkins

Contemporary Black Biography Watkins, Michael

Allen, Richard

 

Richard Allen

 

Born February 14, 1760 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Died March 26, 1831 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Methodist preacher and bishop

Richard Allen was a Methodist preacher who became a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Allen was among the first black Americans to receive formal ordination (priestly authority) in any religious denomination. He was elected to serve as the first bishop of the AME Church and used his position to promote the improvement of the condition of African American people in society. Allen was a leader in organizing African Lodge #459, the first Masonic lodge for men of color in Pennsylvania. During the War of 1812 (1812–15), he also helped recruit men for the "Black Legion," a group of African American soldiers who helped defend Philadelphia. Allen believed in the benefits of education and started a number of schools. The AME Church continued operating many institutes of higher education into the twenty-first century, including Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina.

"If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children with them."

Allen was also a founder of the Free African Society (FAS), the first known organization of free blacks. Allen and his group worked to end slavery and petitioned the federal government to revoke the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The act made it easier for slave hunters to kidnap those suspected of being runaway slaves and return them to their owners. Allen took an active part in opposing the American Colonization Society of 1817, which worked to transport free blacks to Africa. Many blacks were born in America and considered it their home. Africa would be a totally unfamiliar place to them. Blacks would rather find freedom and equality in America. Beginning in 1797, Allen operated a station on the Underground Railroad, a series of routes through which slaves in the process of escaping were helped on their way to slave-free states. Allen's church continued this work until emancipation (freedom from slavery) was achieved in the late nineteenth century.

A Drive To Be Free

Richard Allen was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in February 1760. His parents were the property of Benjamin Chew (1722–1810), a prominent lawyer and the chief justice of the state's High Court of Errors and Appeals. Around 1767, Chew's law practice experienced a decline, and Chew sold Richard's family to a farmer named Stokeley. They left their urban life in Philadelphia to settle on a plantation in Dover, Delaware. Several more children were born into Richard's family while they were living in Delaware.

Stokeley fell into financial trouble and decided to sell some of his slaves. He kept Richard and a brother and sister at the plantation but sold the rest of the family. Richard and his siblings never saw the rest of their family again.

Methodist circuit riders were active around Dover. Methodist circuit riders were preachers who rode horseback from community to community giving sermons and tending to people's religious needs. Richard was interested in hearing what they had to say. His mother was a deeply religious woman and had instilled faith in all her children from an early age. With the permission of Stokeley, Richard and his brother joined other local farmhands for religious gatherings in the woods. The message was a powerful one, combining conversion with an emphasis on personal responsibility. The preachers also made deliberate remarks against slavery and slaveholding, something the young brothers had never heard before. They continued to attend weekly meetings. However, they never allowed their spiritual life to interfere with their farm chores; that way, their master, Stokeley, could not find fault with their religion.

At the age of seventeen, Richard converted to Methodism and taught himself to read and write. Stokeley was impressed enough by the changes in the brothers that he invited Freeborn Garrettson (1752–1827), a well-known Methodist circuit preacher, to speak at his farm. Stokeley himself converted to Methodism and became convinced that slavery was wrong. He offered the brothers the opportunity to purchase their freedom for $2,000 in Continental money.

In 1780, at the age of twenty, Richard was set free. Lacking a formal education and possessing few marketable skills, he set out to support himself and earn the money to pay back Stokeley for his freedom. Richard worked as a day laborer, brick maker, and teamster as opportunities came along. Taking the surname "Allen" to signify his free status, Richard worked as a wagon driver for the Continental Army forces during the American Revolution (1775–83). At all his regular stops, Allen took the opportunity to preach to those who would listen. When the war came to an end, Allen joined the Methodist Society and traveled a circuit throughout Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Allen supported himself in a variety of trades as he walked his circuit, preaching to both blacks and whites in towns and rural areas.

The Free African Society

By February 1786, Allen had permanently settled in Philadelphia, where he was asked by St. George's Methodist Church to preach to the black members of the church. Each week, he preached in the church as well as in areas where black families lived. He often preached as many as five times a day. Allen supported himself as a shoemaker rather than accept money for his ministry. As his prayer-meeting society quickly grew in numbers, he began to see the need for a separate place of worship for people of color. The Reverend Absalom Jones(1746–1818; see entry in volume 1) and other free black leaders agreed with Allen, but the leadership at St. George's discouraged the idea.

In 1787, Allen and Jones met with others in Philadelphia to organize the Free African Society (FAS). Allen and Jones were elected as overseers of the new society. The FAS was made up of black Americans of varying religious backgrounds who sought to establish a more united black community in Philadelphia. The society grew, and other Free African societies were formed in places such as Boston, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. Originally founded on religious principles, the FAS also offered educational opportunities and financial aid to its members. It also spread political awareness among blacks as well.

In 1791, at the age of thirty-one, Richard Allen married a woman named Flora, and she joined him in his ministry. The success of Allen and Jones's ministry was soon evident as both white and black Americans crowded into St. George's church. Allen and Jones began a building campaign to add a balcony above the main floor. Early in the 1790s, the construction was complete, and on a Sunday morning a group of black worshippers joined Allen and Jones in the balcony for prayer. An usher determined they were not in the place assigned for blacks and attempted to physically move them before they had finished their prayers. The blacks left the church as a group and never returned, marking the beginning of the independent black church movement in America. The FAS began to hold regular religious services in a rented room and gradually transformed into a nondenominational "African Church." Construction of a building for the group began in 1793 but was interrupted by a yellow feverepidemic that broke out in Philadelphia.

The epidemic caused thousands to flee the city for the countryside to avoid contact with the infected, and by the time it had run its course, over four thousand people had died, both blacks and whites. Allen helped mobilize the black community to provide for the sick and dying during the epidemic, courageously serving while others fled. Despite his lack of formal medical training, Allen received praise from Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) for his services during the plague. Rush was a leading physician of the time and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

When the city returned to normal, a pamphlet began circulating that accused many in the black community of profiteering during the crisis by charging high fees for their time providing care to the sick and stealing from the homes of the sick. Allen and Jones fought back by publishing a pamphlet that refuted the claims of the earlier pamphlet. The mayor of Philadelphia also joined in the defense of the black community, acknowledging the contributions and sacrifices that local blacks had made throughout the crisis.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church

 

The FAS resumed construction of a meeting place for the African Church and dedicated the building on July 17, 1794. Members of the African Church then met to discuss which denomination (religious faith) most suited their beliefs. They decided to associate themselves with the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. However, Allen believed that Methodism was most suitable for black Americans and withdrew from the African Church with a few followers.

Working as a master shoemaker with journeymen and apprentices in his employ, Allen saved enough money to buy property for a new church. He purchased an abandoned blacksmith shop and moved the small building to his lot in several pieces. There, carpenters repaired it, and in the summer of 1794 Bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816; see entry in volume 1) dedicated the new building as Bethel Church, the first African Methodist Episcopal congregation in America. It was often referred to as the Mother Bethel Church.

Asbury ordained Allen as a deacon in 1799, making him one of the first black Americans to receive formal ordination in any denomination. Branches of the AME Church were set up in Baltimore, Maryland, and Wilmington, Delaware, and a number of towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. After Allen's wife Flora died, he married Sarah Bass. They would have four sons and two daughters.

By 1816, social and political discrimination had widened the gap between blacks and whites in America, and segregation was firmly entrenched, even within churches. Allen invited the loosely bound black churches to form a new national organization to build political strength and protection by working together. Sixty delegates from five black congregations met in Philadelphia on April 9, 1816. They agreed to formally separate the AME Church from the Methodist Conference and other established church organizations. The following day, Bishop Asbury ordained Allen as an elder and on April 11 consecrated him (granted him permanent religious authority) as a bishop. The African Methodist Episcopal Church followed the organizational structure of the larger Methodist denomination. It was divided into Episcopal districts, headed by bishops selected at the General Conference, which was held every four years.

Mobilizing The Churches

 

In January 1817, Allen worked with Absalom Jones and others to organize a sizable convention to speak out against the newly formed American Colonization Society,

"Black Harry" Hosier

Harry Hosier (alternate spellings Hoosier and Hoozier) was born a slave in North Carolina around 1750. He was most often referred to as "Black Harry." Hosier acquired his freedom toward the end of the American Revolution and converted to Methodism. Methodist churches were popular among blacks because Methodist preachers spoke out against slavery and slaveholding. Francis AsburyNorth America's first Methodist bishop, believed preachers should go where the Gospel (the word of God) was needed most, whether that be wilderness or populous cities. He and English clergyman Thomas Coke (1747–1814) made arrangements for the religious training of both blacks and whites. They sent out Hosier as a missionary, and he became a popular preacher with both black and white congregations.

Hosier was illiterate, but he had a musical voice and a powerful preaching style. Noted physician Benjamin Rush believed Hosier was the greatest orator in America, and the former slave was soon accompanying Bishop Asbury on his preaching circuits. Hosier often drew bigger crowds than Asbury did. "Black Harry" was also a companion of Reverend Richard Allen and Reverend Freeborn Garrettson, two popular bishops of the time. Considered one of the most popular preachers in America, Hosier stood up for the common people and recruited thousands to his ministry. He died in 1805 or 1806.

an organization dedicated to transporting free blacks to Africa. The American Colonization Society was founded by a black American sea captain named Paul Cuffee (1759–1818). Cuffee and his supporters believed that returning free blacks to Africa was the most effective way to abolish slavery in the South; they saw this work as an important step toward the emancipation of all blacks. Other supporters were more self-serving: Mostly slave owners, they favored Cuffee's emigration plan because they feared free blacks who stayed in America might inspire those still in slavery to seek their own freedom. In 1827, Allen sent a letter to the editor of Freedom's Journal, the first black American newspaper in the United States, which had begun publication that same year. In his letter, Allen voiced his opposition to the efforts of the American Colonization Society and defended the rights of blacks to remain in the country they had helped create.

Allen feared that the large-scale emigration of free blacks to Africa would harm the antislavery movement in America. The activism of free blacks in the North helped protect former slaves recently freed from the South, especially from slave catchers. Allen himself had been confronted by a slave trader who claimed Allen was a runaway slave. Because Allen was a well-known public figure and had resided in Philadelphia for more than twenty years, he was able to defend himself. He sued the slave trader, and the judge gave the man a jail sentence. After three months, Allen decided the man had learned a lesson, and he dropped the charges. Allen's prominence in the community had saved him from being kidnapped by the slave trader, but he knew less famous blacks had much to fear.

The first General Conference of the AME was held in Philadelphia on July 9, 1820. Bishop Allen presided at the conference and reaffirmed his belief that Methodism pointed the way to freedom from sin and freedom from slavery. A decade later, organizational activity continued, with Allen in the center. In September 1830, Allen oversaw the first National Negro Convention, held at Bethel Church. Two months later, in November, Allen played a leading role in the organization of the American Society of Free Persons of Color and became its first president. Also in 1830, he presided over the first meeting of the National Negro Convention Movement, which promoted abolitionism (the end of slavery).

Throughout his lifetime, Allen remained an eager activist on behalf of the local and national black community. Besides providing leadership to his congregation at Bethel Church, he was also a successful businessman. Allen owned several businesses and properties, so he never had to depend on his church for financial support. When he died in Philadelphia on March 26, 1831, Allen left his widow and six children a large estate. Allen's body was exhumed in 1901 and relocated to a tomb in a vaulted chamber under Bethel Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. The great stone building that then housed the African Methodist Episcopal Church was a fitting monument to his ministry.

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