Richard Allen (February 14, 1760 – March 26, 1831) was a minister, educator, writer, and one of America’s most active and influential black leaders. In 1794, he founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent black denomination in the United States. He opened his first AME church in 1794 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Elected the first bishop of the AME Church in 1816, Allen focused on organizing a denomination in which free blacks could worship without racial oppression and slaves could find a measure of dignity. He worked to upgrade the social status of the black community, organizing Sabbath schools to teach literacy and promoting national organizations to develop political strategies.
He was born into slavery on February 14, 1760, on the Delaware property of Benjamin Chew. When he was a child Allen and his family were sold to Stokeley Sturgis, who had a plantation in Delaware. When Sturgis had financial problems he sold Richard’s mother and two of his five siblings. Allen had an older brother and sister left with him and the three began to attend meetings of the local Methodist Society, which was welcoming to slaves and free blacks. They were encouraged by their master Sturgis although he was unconverted. Richard taught himself to read and write. He joined the Methodists at 17. He began evangelizing and attracted criticism from local slave owners.
Allen and his brother redoubled their efforts for Sturgis so that no one could say his slaves did not do well because of religion.
The Reverend Freeborn Garrettson, who had freed his own slaves in 1775, began to preach in Delaware. He was among many Methodist and Baptist ministers after the American Revolutionary War who encouraged slaveholders to emancipate their people. When Garrettson visited the Sturgis plantation to preach, Allen’s master was touched by this declaration and began to give consideration to the thought that holding slaves was sinful. Sturgis was soon convinced that slavery was wrong and offered his slaves an opportunity to buy their freedom. Allen performed extra work to earn the money and bought his freedom in 1780 when he changed his name from “Negro Richard” to “Richard Allen.”
Marriage and family
Allen’s first wife was named Flora. They were married on October 19, 1790. She worked very closely with him during the early years of establishing the church, from 1787 to 1799. They attended church school and worked together purchasing land, which was eventually donated to the church or rented out to families. Flora died on March 11, 1801, after a long illness. Scholars do not know if they had any children. After moving to Philadelphia, Allen married Sarah Bass, a freed slave from Virginia. She had moved to Philadelphia as a child and the couple met around 1800. Richard and Sarah Allen had six children. Sarah Allen was highly active in what became the AME Church and is called the “Founding Mother.”
Allen was qualified as a preacher in 1784 at the Christmas Conference, the founding of the Methodist Church in North America in Baltimore, Maryland. He was one of the two black attendees of the conference along with Harry Hosier, but neither could vote during deliberations. Allen was then allowed to lead services at 5 a.m., which were attended mostly by blacks. Eschewing Asbury and Hosier’s circuit riding practices, he moved to Philadelphia, a center of free blacks.
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 ordered them to be in a separate area for worship. Allen regularly preached on the commons near the church, 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’ segregation of blacks for worship and prayer. They decided to leave St. George’s to create independent worship for African Americans. That brought some opposition from the white church as well as 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 that 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, it is the oldest parcel of real estate in the United States that has been owned continuously by African Americans.
Over time, most of the FAS members chose to affiliate with the Episcopal Church, as many blacks in Philadelphia had been Anglicans since the 1740s. They founded the African Church with Absalom Jones. It was accepted as a parish congregation, and opened its doors on July 17, 1794 as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1795, Absalom Jones was ordained as a deacon. In 1804, he became 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). Converting a blacksmith shop on Sixth Street, the leaders opened the doors of Bethel AME Church on July 29, 1794. At first affiliated with the larger Methodist Episcopal Church, the church had to rely on visiting white ministers for communion. In recognition of his leadership and preaching, Allen was ordained as the first black Methodist minister by Bishop Francis Asbury in 1799. He and the congregation still had to continue to negotiate white oversight and deal with white elders of the denomination. A decade after its founding, the AME Church had 457 members, and in 1813, it had 1,272.
In 1816, Allen united five African-American congregations of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia; Attleborough, Pennsylvania; 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, the other ministers elected Allen as their first bishop. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest and largest formal institution in black America.
From 1797 until his death, in 1831, Allen and Sarah operated a station on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves.
The social themes of Bishop Allen’s preaching were abolition, colonization, education, and temperance. The preaching style was almost never expository or written to be read, but the subject delivered in an evangelical and extemporized manner that demanded action, rather than meditation. The tone was persuasive, not didactic.
In September 1830, black representatives from seven states convened in Philadelphia at the Bethel AME church for the first Negro Convention. A civic meeting, it was the first on such a scale organized by African-American leaders. Allen presided over the meeting, which addressed both regional and national topics. The convention occurred after the 1826 and 1829 riots in Cincinnati, when whites had attacked blacks and destroyed their businesses. After the 1829 rioting, 1200 blacks had left the city to go to Canada. As a result, the Negro Convention addressed organizing 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 in the black community. Conventions were held regularly nationally.
Death and burial place
Allen died at home on Spruce Street on March 26, 1831. He was buried at the church that he founded. His grave remains on the lower level.