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People & Ideas: Richard Allen

Richard Allen

Born into slavery in 1760, Richard Allen became a Methodist preacher, an outspoken advocate of racial equality and a founder of the African Methodist Church (AME), one of the largest independent African American denominations in the country.

As a slave, Allen had neither freedom nor a last name. He was known simply as "Negro Richard." At age 17, Allen converted to Methodism after hearing a white itinerant Methodist preacher. Allen's owner, a Delaware planter, also converted and allowed Allen to buy his freedom in 1783. Allen bought his freedom for $2,000 and received a bill of manumission. He gave himself a last name, "Allen."

In 1786, Allen settled in Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania established by William Penn as a "Holy Experiment." Here, Allen sold dry goods, worked as a shoemaker and managed a successful chimney-sweeping company. He attended St. George's, the city's leading Methodist church where blacks and whites were allowed to worship together. Allen became an assistant minister, preaching at an early-morning service which attracted a large following. The church constructed a balcony to accommodate its growing membership.

Discrimination as well as a concern for the welfare of freed blacks led Allen to consider the possibility of an all-black church to serve the city's 1,600 African Americans. As a preliminary step, he and several colleagues formed the Free African Society, an association that offered mutual aid and fellowship. With the help of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician and leading citizen of Philadelphia, they drafted a plan for church government.

In November 1787, Allen and other blacks were instructed to move into the balcony during a Sunday service at St. George's. They refused and walked out. Allen's friend and collaborator Absalom Jones left the Methodist Church entirely, establishing a black Episcopal meeting with oversight from the white bishop. But Allen and 10 other black Methodists stayed within the Methodist Church, founding the Bethel Church in an old blacksmith's shop. In July 1794, Bethel opened with a ceremony led by Bishop Francis Asbury.

Bethel Church was enormously successful. By 1810, membership rose from the original 40 members to almost 400. The church had become black Philadelphia's most important institution. The success of Bethel angered and worried white Methodist preachers, who were incensed by Allen's refusal to allow them to control the church. They attempted to take over Bethel. When that failed, they went to court and in 1815 won a lawsuit that permitted them to sell the building and the land.

Allen was incensed, but was determined not to lose. Good financial planning and enthusiasm for fundraising enabled him to quickly raise $10,125, and he bought back the very church that he had built. In 1816, Allen and representatives from other black Methodist churches formally broke from the Methodist Church and established a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was appointed bishop. In major cities, both Northern and Southern, blacks elected to form their own, separate denominations. Black clergy began speaking out against slavery and organizing voluntary organizations aimed at social reform and self-improvement.

Allen's principal biographer, Richard Newman, assesses Allen's historical significance in two ways. He was clearly a "black founder" who established black institutions and engaged in black politics. But in a larger sense, he can be considered an American founder on a par with the white Founding Fathers. He had a vision of what America could -- and should -- become: a place where the promise of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was not simply a shining statement of principles but a living reality.

Allen's vision has echoed throughout history, influencing activists and thinkers including Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.

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Published October 11, 2010

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