Black History Month Week 1


Richard Allen (1760-1831)

Founder and First Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church

Richard Allen and his associate Absalom Jones were the leaders of the black Methodist community in Philadelphia in 1793 when a yellow fever epidemic broke out. Many people, black and white, were dying. Hundreds more fled the city. City officials approached Allen and asked if the black community could help serve as nurses to the suffering and help bury the dead.

Allen and Jones recognized the racism inherent in the request: asking black folks to do the risky, dirty work for whites. But they consented—partly from compassion and partly to show the white community, in one more way, the moral and spiritual equality of blacks.

Allen was born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760. He was converted at age 17 and began preaching on his plantation and at local Methodist churches, preaching whenever he had the chance. "Sometimes, I would awake from my sleep preaching and praying," he later recalled. His owner, one of Allen's early converts, was so impressed with him that he allowed Allen to purchase his freedom.

In 1781, Allen began traveling the Methodist preaching circuits in Delaware and surrounding states. "My usual method was, when I would get bare of clothes, to stop travelling and go to work," he said. "My hands administered to my necessities." Increasingly, prominent Methodist leaders, like Francis Asbury, made sure Allen had places to preach. In 1786 the former slave returned to Philadelphia and joined St. George's Methodist Church. His leadership at prayer services attracted dozens of blacks into the church, and with them came increased racial tension.

Though Methodist leaders resisted Allen and Jones, threatening them with expulsion from the Methodist Conference (while at the same time pleading for their help during the 1793 epidemic), Allen went ahead and, in 1794, purchased an old frame building, formerly a blacksmith's shop, and created the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Bishop Francis Asbury dedicated the building and, in 1799, ordained Allen as a deacon.

For the next 15 years, white Methodist leaders in Philadelphia tried to keep Allen's congregation and property under its jurisdiction. But on the first day of 1816, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the church belonged to Allen and his associates.

A denomination quickly came together. In April, delegates from several black Methodist churches convened in Philadelphia and drew up an "Ecclesiastical Compact" that united them in the independent African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Allen was ordained an elder and then consecrated as bishop—the first black to hold such an office in America.

Blacks in Baltimore, Wilmington, Attleboro, and Salem followed Allen's example and established independent African Methodist churches. Allen oversaw the rapid growth of the AME's mother church in Philadelphia, which grew to 7,500 members in the 1820s. The denomination became by all accounts the most significant black institution in the nineteenth century, and today has over 6,000 churches and over 2 million members.

Loving God, your servant Richard Allen was born a slave, but in you he learned that he was your beloved child by adoption in Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit was led to proclaim liberty to his captive people: Give us strength to proclaim your freedom to the captives of our world; through Jesus Christ, Savior of all, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(The Daily Office Network)

(Biographical excerpts taken from christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/richard-allen.html)

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