The Reverand Richard Allen (1760-1831), Picture by Daniel Payne (Original Source)
On Being First
To be the first to do something in history is often seen as a sign of greatness surrounded by glory. The first man on the moon, the first man to break the sound barrier, the first woman to hold elected office, the first African American president. Yet we must not forget the difficulty and struggle of being the first to break barriers of injustice set up by systems of inequality and oppression over long periods of time. Richard Allen was a such a man who showed great strength and courage in his life. He did not choose a path of division and strife, but he firmly walked forward with a gospel call on his life, caring deeply for the souls of his fellow Africans in America. Rev Allen was one of the founding fathers of America that too few have heard about. He was a man who worked diligently for King Jesus and his Kingdom in the early days of American experience.
The Story of Richard Allen
Richard was born a slave in Philadelphia on February 14th 1760.1He was born into the household of one Benjamin Chew who was an influential attorney and at a time was chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.2 When Allen was a young boy he and his family were sold to a farmer just outside of Dover, Delaware. At the age of seventeen he had a profound conversion to Jesus Christ and began to preach the gospel to those with whom he worked as well as in surrounding Methodist churches. His ministry was so powerful his owner actually was converted to Christ through his witness. This eventually led to Allen being permitted to work to purchase his freedom by a process known as gradual manumission.3
During the revolutionary war years Allen drove a wagon delivering salt an occasion which he used as opportunity to preach the gospel as a traveling evangelist. As was the practice of Methodist founder John Wesley, Allen preached a circuit whereby he would travel place to place proclaiming the salvation of Jesus Christ. He preached throughout Delaware and other Mid Atlantic states including the great state of New Jersey. 4
After the revolutionary war many important changes happened in the Methodist church of which Allen was a part. First, in 1784 John Wesley established the Methodist Episcopal Church in America with Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as its overseers.5 This united the Methodists as one church and a separate entity from its Anglican (Church of England) roots. Allen was also befriended by Asbury who even invited him to travel on the road and preach with him. Though they remained deeply connected, Allen declined the more extensive travel due to segregated and harsh living conditions which were imposed upon blacks at the time.6
In 1786 he completed the process of manumission and purchased his freedom for $2,000. In the same year he returned to Philadelphia as a free man and became a member of St. George’s Methodist Church. His faithful ministry and leadership began to draw many more black members into the congregation. It was at this time that racial discrimination began to assert its head inside the church of Jesus Christ. A sinful policy of segregated seating (see James 2:1-9) was implemented pushing black members to the side walls and into the balcony while giving privileged seating to whites. Though this idea was opposed by both black and white members, a direct contradiction to the gospel was made policy at St. Georges.7 These tensions were to come to a point of clarity for Allen and many of his friends at a sobering occurrence in 1787. In the very same year the US constitution was being worked on in the city of Philadelphia where slaves were to be treated numerically as 3/5ths of a man.
Some black members of the church were kneeling in prayer along with Absalom Jones. Jones, along with Allen, was a recognized leaders in the church. During the service one of the white trustees interrupted their prayers telling them they had to move from where they had already been directed to sit. The following is one recounting8 of the interaction that took place:
“You must get up” the trustee said. “You must not kneel here”
“Wait until prayer is over” Jones answered.
“No you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away”
“Wait until prayer is over” Jones repeated, “And I will get up and trouble you no more.”
The incident ended with the trustee forcibly removing their praying brothers. At this, Allen and the black members of St. George walked out of its doors. Though Jones would leave to form an African American congregation in the Episcopal church, Allen was a Methodist through and through and had no desire to leave the denomination. His opinion was that the Methodist church was the best place for he and other black Christians because, in his words, “the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people.”9
Allen’s desire to see blacks in America worship without hindrance and hear the gospel clearly finally persuaded him to act. In 1794 he purchased an old blacksmith building and converted it to a place of worship. Bishop Francis Asbury consecrated the building and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was born.10 Yet the inequality persisted as they had to depend on white ministers until Allen was ordained as a deacon by Asbury in 1799.11From 1800-1816 the Methodists attempted to control Allen and Bethel. These difficulties culminated with Allen and Bethel winning a case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which ruled the real property of the church belonged to the congregation.12Allen was ordained an elder in the Methodist church in 1816 yet he knew they could not freely worship and determine their own affairs while under the thumb of a paternalistic and controlling white influence.
In the spring of 1816 black congregations of Methodists in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland banded together to form the first black Christian denomination in America. Allen was voted its first bishop and, true to his Methodist roots and convictions, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was born.13The denomination experienced rapid growth throughout the 1800s and in the post Civil War years. Today it is estimated that AME church has approximately 2.5 million members and some 7000 congregations.14
The Legacy of Richard Allen
Allen has left many things for us as we look back upon his life and actions in history. First, Allen was first and foremost a Christian and follower of Jesus Christ. He experienced a great gospel awakening that set him forth on the mission of Jesus in his time. We would be wise to follow his example. Second, he stood for justice and equality among all people and races. He worked in the cause of abolition and was a leader for civil rights. This was because of his conviction that Jesus Christ was creator and savior of all people not some. Equality came from God it was not granted by other men. Third, he was an advocate for black people to receive an equal hearing of the gospel and would not stand for subjugation within the churches. He saw this as an affront to the gospel and he labored many years to stay “together” with his white sisters and brothers in Christ. He left when their racial discrimination blatantly contradicted the message of the gospel.
The black churches in America have a great history and legacy of gospel ministry and social change in America. The church’s continued influence for justice in our country still runs deep. We thank God for the life, labor and vision of traditionally black denominations in our land. We also live in a time where the vision of heaven, one people from many tribes, tongues, ethnicities together, is an opportunity here on earth. We have the joy to worship freely in unity on the earth as a foretaste to how we will spend eternity. It is a great joy that Jacob’s Well has among its members Asians, Indians, African Americans, Latinos, Whites and many beautiful combinations of each. It is our hope that Richard Allen’s passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ and his unwavering commitment to justice would live on among us today at Jacob’s Well.
1. Marvin A. McMickle, An Encyclopedia of African American Christian History (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2002), 2.
2. Curtis, Lang and Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History (Grand Rapids: Revel, 1991) 150. For a brief treatment on Benjamin Chew, see his wiki at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Chew
3. See Gali and Olsen, 131 Chritians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000) 187 and McMickle, 2.
4. Curtis, Lang and Peterson, 150.
5. See Gali and Olsen, “Francis Asbury”, 185.
6. McMickle, 2.
8. Curtis, Lang and Peterson 149.
9. Gali and Olsen, 188.
11. Curtis, Lang and Peterson, 151.
12. Gali and Olsen.
13. Curtis, Lang and Peterson.
14. McMickle, 3.
15. See World Council of Churches AME page