By Ruth Tucker, who is continuing her weekly series at Jesus Creed.
The “coloured people”, poor as they were, had been paying their pledges for remodeling Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Church, “and just as the house was made comfortable, we were turned out from enjoying the comforts of worshiping therein.” These are the plaintive words of Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).
“If you go to Philadelphia today and stop at the corner of Sixth and Lombard streets, you stand on hallowed ground,” writes Richard Newman in Freedom’s Prophet. “Here one of early America’s leading reformers built an internationally famous church, wrote pamphlets of protest that served as models for generations to come, and championed liberty and justice for all.”
In 1777, at age 17 Allen was converted at a Methodist revival. Three years later he purchased his freedom and at the same time discarded his old name, “Negro Richard.” When he was 26, he settled down in Philadelphia where he began a Methodist society that soon numbered more than forty committed members, a congregation that wanted to form its own church. But the local Methodists would have none of it. One particular leader “was much opposed to an African church, and used very degrading and insulting language to us, to try and prevent us from going on.”
Allen was told that he and his congregation must associate themselves with St. George’s. As a faithful Methodist he agreed. That’s when the real clash began. Word of his effective ministry had spread, and soon his followers could no longer fit into their assigned seats. Then one Sunday, during the morning prayers they spilled into the whites-only section. The “coloured people” stayed on their knees, not wanting to make a commotion, that is until two church leaders began to forcibly push them away so that they wouldn’t contaminate the white people.
Allen and the black congregants rented a storage shed for their own worship but were quickly threatened by trustees who insisted they return and pay their pledges in full. Throughout his personal narrative, Allen resists leaving the denomination despite ill-treatment. In fact, many local blacks wanted nothing to do with the Methodists, opting rather to associate with Anglicans. But Allen objected. “I was confident that there was no religious sect or denomination that would suit the capacity of the coloured people as well as the Methodist.… All other denominations preached so high-flown that we were not able to comprehend their doctrine.”
In 1794, after years of struggle with the white Methodists, Allen purchased his own property—a vacant rundown blacksmith shop—and paid to have it moved and remodeled. This would be the new Bethel Church. His sacrificial efforts, however, did not go unnoticed by sympathetic whites, particularly two Presbyterians, Dr. Benjamin Rush and Robert Ralston. They contributed money and moral support.
Moral support also came from a “sympathizing friend and tender father,” President George Washington, who presided in the nation’s capital in Philadelphia. Allen wrote a eulogy to him on his death in 1799, convinced that the President’s word on freeing his own slaves as well as his hopes that slavery would soon be abolished would come true. Allen lived large on hope, but reality too often ruled the day.
The immediate reality for him was that the local Methodists simply could not stop themselves. The harassment continued. They demanded that the new church become the property of the Conference. Allen refused. After all he had been through, he and his people were determined to be independent. Okay. Let them go their own way. Indeed, one of the local leaders kindly offered to draw up the corporation papers that would allow Bethel to keep the building and land that had been paid in full. “We cheerfully submitted to his proposed plan,” Allan wrote in his narrative. But, as it turned out, this church leader had pulled a fast one. “He drew the incorporation, but incorporated our church under . . . the white Conference, and our property was gone.”
With the help of outsiders, Bethel Church eventually regained ownership of its property. But then the Conference insisted that the church must be served several times a year by licensed white lay preachers—ones who were far less qualified than Allen himself. So, suck up your pride “Negro Richard” and let them preach. One little problem, however. For the service of these barely qualified lay preachers, Bethel was charged $600 per year, far beyond the means of this impoverished little church. Finally, writes Allen, “an edict was passed … that if any local preacher should serve us, he should be expelled,” and “a circular letter [was published] in which we were disowned by the Methodists.”
We could wonder why Allen was so longsuffering. But from the time he was converted he lived on the hope of becoming a Methodist preacher. Finally, Francis Asbury to the rescue. In 1799 he ordained Allen in a simple ceremony, an historic event, making Allen the first black Methodist minister. It was a step forward, but the racial discrimination continued. It would take seventeen years before Allen was able to bring together four congregations to form the AME.
Allen lived in an era long before denominations started splitting. He ministered for more than three decades before he felt it was right to form a new denomination. He lived fifteen more years after that, serving as Bishop of the AME until his death in 1831. Had he lived another three decades to the onset of the Civil War, he would have seen the issues in a different light. New denominations were popping up all over. One well-known split became the Southern Baptists, separating themselves as a race with the God-given right to own people as property. So also other denominations. In founding the AME, Allen saved Methodism for blacks to independently face the torturous generations ahead.
There is no way in a short post that I can do justice to a life so full as Allen’s was. Here I’ve focused primarily on the awful discrimination that shadowed him most of his life. To get to know him, better I recommend Freedom’s Prophet by Richard Newman (New York University, 2008). It’s the definitive biography: well written, 40 pages of notes and an excellent index.
Today the AME numbers more than two and a half million, one of whom is Billie Suber, my friend and former business partner. I’ll never forget the cold January day in 2008 when she boarded one of two busses leaving her church parking lot in Grand Rapids for Washington D.C. The occasion was the inauguration of our first black President. For Richard Allen who gorged himself on hope, that day would have felt like the wait had been far too long. For Billie, amid the crowds and bitter cold, the wait was measured in hours. For me, the wait was measured by her play-by-play phone calls.