When Richard Allen was 17 and the slave of a Delaware planter, he experienced a religious conversion that changed his life forever. For Allen, spiritual liberation led to physical liberation, as his master was also converted to Methodism and agreed to let Allen buy his freedom because slavery was questioned by his new faith. Allen went on to preach throughout South Carolina, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, before settling in Philadelphia, where he dreamed of founding an African church.When people accepted the faith, it did not make them content to be slaves. What it did was, it opened up to them the possibilities that are available to those people who see themselves as children of this eternal and almighty God.
- Rev. Jeffrey Leath
Absalom Jones did not earn his freedom until the age of 38. As a child he was a servant in his master's house, where he learned to read. In 1770, at age 23, he wed fellow slave Mary. The two worked and saved, first to purchase Mary's freedom after 8 years, and then for six more years until Jones' owner let him buy his own freedom.
The African Church of Philadelphia was made reality through the Free African Society established by Allen and Absalom Jones. With the help of Benjamin Rush and Robert Ralston, a white businessman, FAS leaders drew up a plan to organize the African Church on July 25, 1791. Soon thereafter, Allen, Jones, and others began soliciting funds, again with the help of Rush. Their appeals met with resistance from white church leaders, many of whom had been supportive of the black community, but disapproved of a separate black church. However, the FAS raised enough money to buy two adjacent lots on Fifth Street, just one block from the State House.
In the fall of 1792, several black leaders were still attending services at St. George's Methodist Church and had recently helped to expand the church. The black churchgoers were told to sit upstairs in the new gallery. When they mistakenly sat in an area not designated for blacks, they were forcibly removed from the seats they had helped build. According to Allen, "... we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no longer plagued by us."
The following spring, Allen, Jones, and others broke ground for the African Church. However, more funds were needed, and construction could not begin until August, 1793. To celebrate, black leaders held a banquet. First, one hundred white construction workers and two leading white citizens sat down and were served a feast by free blacks. Then the white guests rose and about 50 black people sat down. They were then served by "six of the most respectable of the white company."
Rush's Letter to Julia Rush
Absalom Jones's Marriage to Mary
Work on the church was again postponed by the Yellow Fever epidemic, but was resumed in December 1793. The FAS was non-denominational, including mostly Episcopal and Methodist members, but the majority of the blacks in the group favored uniting with the Episcopal Church. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, one of the first black churches in the country, opened its doors on July 17, 1794. Although Absalom Jones had been chosen as its minister, the first sermon was given by a white minister, Samuel Magaw, who spoke paternalistically of the gratitude that black church members should have to the white Christians who helped them. Less than a month later, Jones wrote a response to Magaw's sermon.
A Discourse... African Church
The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas's African Church
Richard Allen had declined becoming a minister at St. Thomas's because he wanted to remain a Methodist. He held onto his own dream of a church, and in May, 1794, he bought an old blacksmith shop and had it moved to within a few blocks of St. Thomas's. There he founded an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, he called Bethel, "House of God." St. Thomas's congregation was composed primarily of the black elite, while Bethel attracted members from the entire black community. Methodist worship, which was warm, simple, and emotional was more appealing to ordinary black people than Episcopalianism, which was more formal and structured. The Philadelphia church became known as Mother Bethel, as other congregations sprang up across the country. The white Methodist Church remained unfriendly and worked to maintain as much control of the black Church as possible....we are now encouraged through the grace and divine assistance of the friends and God opening the hearts of our white friends and brethren, to encourage us to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in.
- Absalom Jones
Goal, in Walnut Street Philadelphia
A Black Methodist meeting, Philadelphia
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Church on John's Island
Meeting in the African Church, Cincinnati, Ohio
Richard Allen published his autobiography, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen . . ., in 1833, at the age of 73. His wife, Sara Allen, was also very active in the church, organizing the Daughters of Conference, a women's group providing support to church ministers.
Jarena Lee was the first woman to preach under the auspices of the AME church. The child of free black parents, Lee was born in New Jersey in 1783 and worked as a servant in the home of a white family, 60 miles from her home. Strongly affected when she went to hear Richard Allen preach, Lee determined to preach herself. At first rebuffed by Allen, who said that women could not preach at the Methodist Church, Lee persisted, and eight years after his initial refusal Allen allowed her access to the pulpit after hearing her spontaneous exhoration during a sermon at Bethel AME Church. Lee travelled all over the United States preaching her gospel of freedom, even venturing into the South to preach to slaves.
Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee
A Portrait of Jarena Lee
Rebecca Cox Jackson was another rare woman preacher in the black church. She eventually became a Shaker eldress and founded a Shaker community in Philadelphia. Born in 1795 to a free family, Jackson had a religious awakening in 1830 during a thunderstorm and determined to use her spiritual gifts. She refused to join any church, but developed a large following of women. She was at first criticized by the black church for breaking up its members. When Morris Brown, Richard Allen's successor as Bishop of the AME Church, came to hear her preach, intending to stop her, he was won over instead.
Rebecca Cox Jackson
Excerpt from "Gifts of Power," Rebecca Cox Jackson
Portrait of Morris Brown
Part 3 Narrative:
Map: The Growing Nation
Freedom and Resistance
The Black Church
Conspiracy and Rebellions
Growth and Entrenchment of Slavery
Part 3: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
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