Richard Allen (February 14, 1760 – March 26, 1831) was a minister, educator and writer, and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME), the first independent black denomination in the United States in 1816. He opened his first church in 1794 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was elected the first bishop of the AME Church. Allen had started as a Methodist preacher, but wanted to establish a black congregation independent of white control. The AME church is the oldest denomination among independent African-American churches.
Early life and freedom
Richard Allen was born on February 14, 1760, in Germantown, Pennsylvania (now a part of Philadelphia.) Allen’s biracial mother and African father were both held as slaves by Quaker-born lawyer and jurist Benjamin Chew, so Allen himself was born into slavery; After Chew suffered a financial setback, he sold Allen’s parents and their four children to Stokeley Sturgis, whose plantation was near Dover, Delaware.
As Allen and his brother grew older, they attended meetings of the local Methodist Society. Richard had taught himself to read and write. Converted early, he joined the Methodists at age 17. He began evangelizing and attending services so regularly that he attracted criticism from local slave owners. Allen and his brother redoubled their efforts for Sturgis.
Reverend Freeborn Garrettson, who had freed his own slaves in 1775, began to preach in Delaware. When Garrettson visited the Sturgis plantation to preach, “Allen’s master was touched by this declaration… began to give consideration to the thought that holding slaves was sinful…” Sturgis soon was convinced that slavery was wrong, and offered his slaves an opportunity to buy their freedom. In 1780, Richard was able to get a slavery agreement from his master Stokeley.
Marriage and family
Allen married Sarah Bass. Born into slavery in 1764 in Virginia’s Isle of Wight County, she was brought to Philadelphia at age 18. She was free by 1800, when they met. They were married within a year. They had six children: Richard, Jr.; James, John, Peter, Sarah and Ann.
In addition to the work of the family, Sara actively assisted Allen in the church and supported work to take care of runaway slaves, including feeding and clothing them. In 1827, seeing that the ministers coming to conference looked bedraggled, she organized Daughters of Conference as a women’s organization to assist the church with their skills. Initially they mended garments and helped provide material support to the ministers. The women’s organization continued after her death, taking on more social welfare issues for church members and the community.
Allen was qualified as a preacher in 1784, at the first conference of the Methodist Church in North America, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was allowed to lead services at 5 a.m.
In 1786, Allen became a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but was restricted to early morning services. As he attracted more black congregants, the church vestry voted to build a segregated gallery for the use of blacks. Allen also regularly preached on the commons, slowly gaining a congregation of nearly 50, and supporting himself with a variety of odd jobs.
Allen and Absalom Jones, also a Methodist preacher, resented the white congregants’ forcing them to a segregated section for worship and prayer. They decided to leave St. George’s to create independent worship for African Americans. This brought some opposition from the white church and the more established blacks of the community. In 1787, Allen and Jones led the black members out of St. George’s Methodist Church.
They formed the Free African Society (FAS), a non-denominational mutual aid society, which assisted fugitive slaves and new migrants to the city. Allen, along with Absalom Jones, William Gray and William Wilcher, found an available lot on Sixth Street near Lombard. Allen negotiated a price and purchased this lot in 1787 to build a church, but it was years before they had a building. Now occupied by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, this is the oldest parcel of real estate in the United States owned continuously by black people.
Over time, most of the FAS members went with Absalom Jones to form a new congregation. They were drawn to the Episcopal Church and founded the African Church. This was accepted as a parish in the Episcopal Church and opened its doors on July 17, 1794 as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Many blacks had been familiar with the Episcopal denomination, which shared common roots with Methodism in the Church of England. In 1795, Absalom Jones was ordained as a deacon, and in 1804 as a priest, becoming the first black ordained in the United States as an Episcopal priest.
Allen and others wanted to continue in the Methodist practice. Allen called their congregation the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Using a converted blacksmith shop which they moved to the site on Sixth Street, they opened the doors of Bethel AME Church on July 29, 1794, and were affiliated with the larger Methodist Episcopal Church. In the beginning, they had to rely on visiting white ministers. In 1799, Allen became the first black Methodist minister, ordained by Bishop Francis Asbury, in recognition of his leadership and preaching. He and the congregation still had to continue to negotiate white oversight and deal with white elders of the denomination.
In 1816, Allen united four African-American congregations of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Salem, New Jersey; Delaware, and Maryland. Together they founded the independent denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first fully independent black denomination in the United States. On April 10, 1816, Allen was elected its first bishop. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest and largest formal institution in black America.
At first, Allen supported the “back to Africa” movement, and a plan for emigration to Haiti. After Haiti achieved independence in 1804, its government had appealed to American blacks to immigrate there. In the face of strong opposition by Philadelphia’s black community, Allen dropped ideas of emigration. Blacks disagreed with the white-led American Colonization Society that organized the movement. They simply wanted rights in what they considered their own country. Allen, Jones, and James Forten, a successful businessman and sail maker, were acknowledged leaders of the free black community in Philadelphia.
In September 1830, black representatives from seven states convened in Philadelphia at the Bethlehem AME church for the first Negro Convention. A civic meeting, it was the first on such a scale of African-American leaders. Allen presided over the meeting, which addressed both regional and national topics. The convention came after the 1829 riots in Cincinnati when blacks were attacked, after which 1200 blacks left the city to go to Canada. The convention focused on aid to such settlements in Canada, among other issues. The 1830 meeting was the beginning of an organizational effort known as the Negro Convention Movement, part of 19th century institution building.
From 1797 to his death at home on March 26, 1831, Allen operated a station on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves. This work was continued by Mother Bethel Church until the Emancipation. During and after the Civil War, the congregation aided blacks migrating to Philadelphia to live, helping them learn its urban ways.
In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante named Richard Allen as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans.
Allen is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on March 26.
Bishop Richard Allen was honored in June 2010 with the naming of a park in Radnor Township. Radnor is situated approximately 15 miles west of Philadelphia.
The Richard Allen homes were named after Richard Allen, and are the home of the Fictional Fat Albert Crew. Fat Albert’s creator Bill Cosby was raised in the Richard Allen homes Public Housing.
1. “Bishop Richard Allen”. Jones Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church website. 2005. http://www.jtamec.org/allen.htm. Retrieved 2009-03-26. “Bishop Richard Allen died at his home located at 150 Spruce Street on Saturday, March 26, 1831.”
2. “Richard Allen”, Africans in America, PBS
3. Wesley, Charles H., Richard Allen, suuwooo Associated Publishers, 1935. pp. 9–11
4. Wesley, Charles H. Richard Allen, Associated Publishers, 1935. pp. 15–18
5. “Sara Allen”, Brotherly Love, PBS
6. Carter G. Woodson, Charles Harris Wesley, The Negro in Our History, Associated Publishers, 1922, p. 140 (digitized from original at University of Michigan Library
7. Wesley, Charles H., Richard Allen, Associated Publishers, 1935. pp. 234–238.
8. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books