You are here
2/14/1760 - 3/26/1831
The first black bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Richard Allen compiled the hymnal Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1760, Richard Allen became an influential religious leader. While a slave on a Delaware farm, Allen was converted to Methodism. After buying his freedom, Allen traveled through several states, preaching his religion. Finally settling in Philadelphia, Allen began preaching at St. George's Methodist Church. Upon being discriminated against by the Church, Allen separated and formed his own congregation. In 1816, Allen became one of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was also an influential author, writing such works as the preface to The Doctrine and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a defense of the black community during the yellow fever epidemic: A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793 and A Refutation of Some Censures Thrown upon them in some late Publications. Reverend Allen died in 1831.
On February 14, 1760, Richard Allen was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Allen was born a slave of Benjamin Chew, a lawyer and Chief Justice of the Commonwealth from 1774-1777. As a child, Allen, with his parents and his three siblings, was sold to Stokeley Sturgis, a farmer who lived near Cover, Delaware. Allen described his master as kindhearted and he permitted Allen and his brother to attend Methodist meetings and classes. In 1777, Allen was converted to the Methodist religion by preacher Freeborn Garretson, who also converted Richard's master.
Garretson convinced Sturgis that slaveholders would pay on Judgment Day, and Sturgis then offered his slaves the chance to purchase their freedom for $2,000. In 1783, Allen purchased freedom for both himself and his brother. For the following six years, Allen traveled through Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and South Carolina, preaching his religion. In 1800, Allen met former slave Sara Bass and they were soon married. The couple had six children: Richard Jr., James, John, Peter, Sara, and Ann.
After traveling the state and preaching, Allen settled in Philadelphia where he worked as a shoemaker to support himself. In 1786, after being invited by a Methodist elder, Allen began preaching at St. George's Methodist Church as an assistant minister. In addition, Allen would preach publicly in areas of Philadelphia where black families resided. In this manner, Allen gradually built a following. Eventually the black congregation at St. George's began growing in number and the white congregation of St. George's made attending services more and more difficult for them. The need to build a church for his followers soon became apparent to Allen and he was joined in this mission by Absalom Jones, William White, and Dorus Ginnings. Meanwhile, Allen and Jones tackled other ventures.
In 1787, along with a few Quakers, they formed the Free African Society, a non-denominational, semi-religious society that offered aid to the black community, particularly ex-slaves and widows. In 1789, the Free African Society began adopting Quaker practices, and Allen split from the group, along with those who preferred Methodist practices. In July 1794, after various battles with St. George's, Allen and his followers separated and formed their own congregation in an old blacksmith's shop they rented. Eventually the congregation raised enough money to purchase a lot and build their own church. Allen named it Bethel Church (also known as Mother Bethel). Here, Allen's sermons were so exceptional that he was ordained as the first black deacon of the Methodist Church in 1799.
Over time, Allen became displeased with Methodism and the manner in which black congregations were treated by the white ministers. In 1816, Allen met with members of black congregations from other cities to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination, and won legal recognition. Allen was appointed the first bishop of the church on April 11, 1816. Allen was also a leader in education. In 1795 he opened a school for children and in 1804 he founded the Society of Free People of Colour for Promoting the Instruction and School Education of Children of African Descent. He also operated night school classes, which emphasized self-help in his students. This emphasis is still a strong part of the church today.
In 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever struck Philadelphia. Many believed that the black community was immune to the disease and called for them to assist the sick and clear the dead. Although appalled at first, Allen and Jones decided to mobilize the black community to help. After the outbreak subsided, Mathew Carey wrote A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, a pamphlet attacking the black community and their response to the epidemic. The pamphlet contained accusations of blacks not contributing enough to the cause and even profiting from it. In response to Carey's accusations, Allen and Jones wrote and published a pamphlet entitled A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793 and A Refutation of Some Censures Thrown Upon Them in Some Late Publications. This pamphlet was a defense of the community's efforts to battle the epidemic and even described financial details, so as to refute any claims of profiting from the disaster. It also criticized those who fled the city (including Carey) as well as those who remained but did not help the sick.
In 1801, Allen compiled and published A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns, Selected From Various Authors, a collection of fifty-four hymns. The hymnal, like most others of the time, was pocket-sized and printed exclusively the words of the hymns. Allen chose selections that were well-known at the time. In 1817, the year after the African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed, Allen, along with Jacob Tapisco, another member of the Church, published The Doctrine and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Along with publishing the doctrine, Allen also co-authored the preface. The preface describes the need for, and development of, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, discussing the difficulties the black congregations met at St. George's as well as the meeting where several churches from various cities decided to form their own denomination. The doctrine itself lays out the beliefs on various topics that Allen and the other founders wished to acknowledge. The Church's stance is noted on issues such as purgatory and original sin. The rest of the doctrine reads like a question and answer session on general life topics, such as marriage and gambling, and addresses how members of the Church should handle these issues. The doctrine also outlines the procedures for ordaining bishops and other clergy. Allen continued his work as a bishop and as an educator for many years. He died on March 26, 1831, in Philadelphia, following an illness. Allen's tomb, along with that of his wife, is located in the lower level of Mother Bethel Church.
- A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793 and A Refutation of Some Censures Thrown Upon Them in Some Late Publications. Philadelphia: Woodward, 1794.
- A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns, Selected From Various Authors. Philadelphia: Ormrod, 1801.
- The Doctrine and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Philadelphia: Cunningham, 1817.
- The Life, Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen: To Which is Annexed The Rise and Progress of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Containing a Narrative of the Yellow Fever in the Year of Our Lord 1793. With an Address to the People of Color in the United States. Philadelphia: Lee and Yeocum, 1887.
- "Africans in America." PBS. 2005.6 Nov. 2005. <>http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p97.html>.
- Henretta, James. "Richard Allen and African-American Identity: A Black Ex-Slave in Early America's White Society Preserves His Cultural Identity by Creating Separate Institutions." The Early America Review. 1997. 1 Nov. 2005. <>http://earlyamerica.com/review/spring97/allen.html>.
- "Historical Perspective." African Methodist Episcopal Church. 1984. 5 Nov. 2005.
- Stanley, Kathryn V. "Our Treasured Hymnals: A Revered Publishing Tradition in Black Religious Music, Started in 1801, Continues Today." Find Articles. 2004. 1 Nov. 2005.
For More Information:
- George, Carol V. R. Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches, 1760-1840. New Cork: Oxford UP, 1973.
- Mathews, Marcia M. Richard Allen. Baltimore: Helicon, 1963.
- Wesley, Charles H. Richard Allen, Apostle of Freedom. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1969.
Photo Credit: C.M. Bell. "Richard Allen, founder of A.M.E. Church." Photography. Licensed under Public Domain. cropped to 4x3. Source: Online Resource. Library of Congress: C.M. Bell Studio Collection.