A Vision of Faith
18th c. minister, educator, writer, and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen rose from bondage to form the first independent black religious denomination in the United States.
Founder and first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen spent his early life in Philadelphia as a slave to Benjamin Chew, the attorney general of Pennsylvania. Financial difficulties forced Chew to sell Allen and his family to Delaware plantation owner Stokeley Sturgis, who Allen later referred to in his 1833 memoir as "a very tender, humane man." Sturgis, himself not a practicing Christian, allowed his slaves to attend Methodist meetings every two weeks. These early experiences led to Allen's conversion to Christianity at the age of 17, and became the foundation for his belief that faith should be accessible to anyone who wished to worship.
The painting Black Methodists Holding a Prayer Meeting by Pavel Petrovich Svinin depicts early 19th-century worship among African American Methodists.
Svinin, Pavel Petrovich, Black Methodists Holding a Prayer Meeting, 1811–ca. 1813, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org
Allen continued to experience a deepening faith, which he shared with fellow slaves. But Sturgis faced vocal disapproval from neighboring slave owners who felt that allowing slaves to engage in religious observation would eventually lead to Sturgis's downfall. Hearing this criticism, Allen determined he would prove by example that the observation of faith improved, not worsened, the behavior and work ethic of those in bondage. He and his brother devised a way to demonstrate the positive effects of faith.
An illustration By the light of the fire, and drew out his bible from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom's Cabin.
By the light of the fire, and drew out his bible, 1897, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org
Our neighbours, seeing that our master indulged us with the privilege of attending meeting once in two weeks, said that Stokeley's negroes would soon ruin him; and so my brother and myself held a council together that we would attend more faithfully to our master's business, so that it should not be said that religion made us worse servants, we would work night and day to get our crops forward, so that they should be disappointed.
A congregation of African Americans gathered in the interior of a church, c. 1860.
Osborn & Durbec, Plantation no. 7 Rockville Plantation Negro church, Charleston, S.C., 1860, Charleston, S.C. : Osborn & Durbec's Southern Stereoscopic & Photographic Depot, 223 King Street. Retrieved from www.loc.gov
This image of African American congregants sharing worship with white plantation owners originally appeared in the Illustrated London News.
Mason Jackson and Frank Vizetelly, Family worship in a plantation in South Carolina, December 5, 1863, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org
Allen's tactic was persuasive, leading Sturgis to boast to others that religion improved the honesty and industry of his slaves. Allen requested that he be able to bring Methodist ministers like Francis Asbury and Freeborn Garrettson to preach for both the slave and free members of the Sturgis home, and his impressed master easily consented. Sturgis, hearing a particularly moving sermon from Garrettson regarding the book of Daniel, interpreted the scripture to mean that God would find slaveholders and slavery as immoral on Judgement Day. A humbled Sturgis denounced slavery, and converted to the Methodist faith. He decided to free his slaves, and helped Allen to purchase his own freedom.
In pointing out and weighing the different characters, and among the rest weighed the slave-holders, my master believed himself to be one of that number, and after that he could not be satisfied to hold slaves, believing it to be wrong.
At the age of 22, a free Allen began a career as a traveling Methodist preacher. He ministered across South Carolina, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, working manual labor jobs when he ran out of money. Yet even during times of hard labor, Allen's mind remained on the practice of his faith. "I used oftimes to pray sitting, standing, or lying; and while my hands were employed to earn my bread, my heart was devoted to my dear Redeemer," he later said of this time in his life. "Sometimes I would awake from my sleep preaching and praying."
In 1786, a Methodist elder at St. George's Church in Philadelphia asked Allen to minister to the city's expanding free, African American community. He agreed. Allen held services for black congregants, led prayer groups, and evangelized the blacks of the community. During his time at St. George's, Allen assembled a group of 42 loyal congregants, often leading worship at 5 a.m. and preaching four or five times a day.
But Allen's presence at St. George’s was not met without controversy. While whites and blacks often worshiped together, blacks were typically segregated to specific seating in the church. During one particular service in 1787, a group of black congregants unintentionally sat in new pews reserved for white congregants. While they were kneeling in prayer, a white church member pulled Allen's friend Absalom Jones off his knees, demanding he move. Jones requested to wait until prayer had finished, but the white member continued to insist on his compliance. The incident inspired a mass walkout from the black congregants. “We all went out of the church in a body,” Allen wrote, “and they were no more plagued with us in that church.”
Portrait of Absalom Jones by Raphaelle Peale, 1810.
Raphael Peale, Portrait of Absalom Jones, 1810, Delaware Art Museum. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1882.
St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA, 1882, Matthew Simpson, Editor, Cyclopedia of Methodism; Embracing Sketches of Its Rise, Progress, and Present Condition, with Biographical Notices and Numerous Illustrations–Fifth Revised Edition. Retrieved from https://neatnik2009.wordpress.com
Allen was undeterred. The walkout motivated him to push forward on the establishment of an independent African American church. With Jones's help, a new church was established in a crowded storeroom, with plans to buy land for a building of their own. Methodist leaders resisted Allen and Jones' attempts to establish their own congregation, and threatened them repeatedly with expulsion from the Methodist Conference.
An interior shot of the nave of Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan, c. 1930.
Siegfried, Matthew, AME Church Interior, c 1930, South Adams Street @ 1900 and Ypsilanti Historical Society. Retrieved at https://southadamstreet1900.wordpress.com
Here we were pursued with threats of being disowned, and read publicly out of meeting if we did continue worship in the place we had hired; but we believed the Lord would be our friend.
Desiring different expressions of worship, Allen and Jones cordially parted ways. Absalom Jones led a faction into the Episcopal denomination, forming a new congregation, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, in 1792. Allen remained leader of the Methodists. In 1794, Allen’s congregation dedicated a relocated and repurposed blacksmith’s shop for worship services, despite pressures from the white Methodist opposition. The building became the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Methodist church in the United States specifically for African American worshipers. Five years later Bishop Francis Asbury ordained Allen, making him the first African American to be officially ordained as a deacon in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Still subject to the control of white leaders in Philadelphia, however, Allen fought for more than 15 years to gain full control of the building and his congregation. Finally, in 1816, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on behalf of Allen and his associates. With this victory and the support of representatives from other black Methodist churches, Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)—the first national black church in the United States. On April 10, 1816, Allen was consecrated as bishop, becoming the first African American in the United States to hold the office.
I believe, O Lord, that thou hast not abandoned me to the dim light of my own reason, to conduct me to happiness; but that thou hast revealed in the holy Scriptures whatever is necessary for me to believe and practice, in order to my eternal salvation.
Allen watched the church membership grow quickly through the early 19th-century. By the time of Allen’s death in 1831, the AME Church had grown to nearly 10,000 members, with congregations spanning across every Northern state, as well as several Southern states. Today, the AME has more than 6,000 churches and over 2 million members. Their growth and vision could never have been achieved without Allen's deeply held belief that every person, black or white, slave or free, deserves the right to observe their faith—a legacy that his church still carries to this day.
An interior shot of the nave and galleries of Mother Bethel AME Church in the present day.
R. Kennedy, Mother Bethel Church, Visit Philadelphia. Retrieved from www.visitphilly.com.