Richard Allen and Absalom Jones

A free black sawyer in New York City


  Richard Allen was one of the greatest Black religious leaders in American history. His leadership and organizational skills were phenomenal. Born of slave parents in 1760 in Philadelphia, Allen taught himself to read and write after having been sold to another master in Dover, Delaware. There, with the permission of his master, he joined the Methodist Society and was soon heading the Society’s meetings. His owner’s offer to allow Allen to purchase his freedom spurred Allen to work as a day laborer, brick maker, and teamster. He worked until he had earned the 2000 Continental dollars it took to make good the offer. Allen served as a wagon driver during the Revolutionary War and in 1786, after serving as an itinerate preacher, he returned to Philadelphia to begin his ministry.

When Allen and Rev. Absalom Jones went to Philadelphia’s St. George Methodist Episcopal Church on a Sunday in November 1786, a new chapter in Black history unfolded. Allen had been organizing Black prayer meetings and encouraging greater Black attendance at St. George’s. As he told it: “when the colored people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, ... and told us to go in the gallery. [The] meeting had begun and . . . just as we got to the seats, the elder said, ‘Let us pray.’ We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees ... having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up - - you must not kneel here.’” Mr. Jones replied, “Wait until the prayer is over.’” The trustee would not wait. Before the service ended, every Black man, woman, and child, led by Allen, walked out of the church. It was the first mass demonstration staged by Blacks in America! As news of the demonstration spread, Blacks in Boston, New York, and other northern cities walked out of segregated White institutions and created their own. Five months later, in April 1787, AlIen and Jones responded by creating the Free African Society. The Society’s varied features were those of a mutual aid society, a church, a political structure, and an insurance company.

Five years afterwards, its membership decided to build a church. This decision was not immediately acted upon, because a severe yellow fever epidemic in 1793 interrupted the plan. As others fled the city, Allen focused the Free American Society on the dreary business of recruiting Blacks to serve as nurses and undertakers. After the epidemic had run its course, the church building plan was resumed and on July 17, 1794, the Bethel Church, which later became the first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation, was established. Under Allen’s organization and leadership, by 1816, the AME church boasted a national membership, with Allen ordained as bishop - - the first Black bishop in America

Allen was a staunch supporter of the Anti-Slavery societies, president of the first Negro Convention, and a contributing correspondent to the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. Writing for the Journal, he eloquently opposed the American Colonization Society on the basis that “its philosophy of removal of Afro-Americans from the United States was based on racial prejudice rather than benevolence:” Yet another of Allen’s major accomplishments was the organizing of the Society of Free People of Color for Promoting Instruction and School Education of Children of African Descent.

Bishop Richard Allen died on March 26, 1831. Throughout his life, Allen continued to press vigorously for the abolition of slavery. He established himself as one of the giants of Black history and, indeed, of American history. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he founded, is today the oldest and largest formal institution in Black America.

EXCERPT from A Salute to Historic Black Abolitionists