Born into slavery in 1760, Richard Allen later bought his freedom and went on to found the first national black church in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1816.
Minister, educator and writer Allen was born into slavery presumably in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1760. (As with other details surrounding Allen's life, there have been some questions as to the place of his birth, with certain sources asserting that he was born in Delaware.) Known as “Negro Richard,” he and his family were sold by Benjamin Chew to a Delaware farmer, Stokeley Sturgis, sometime around 1768.
Allen converted to Methodism at the age of 17, after hearing a white itinerant Methodist preacher rail against slavery. His owner, who had already sold Allen's mother and three of his siblings, also converted and eventually allowed Allen to purchase his freedom for $2,000, which he was able to do by 1783. The paper detailing Allen's freedom would in fact become the first manumission document to be held as a public file, having been donated to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
After attaining his freedom, he took the last name “Allen” and returned to Philadelphia.
Religious and Social Work
Allen soon joined St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, where blacks and whites worshiped together. There, he became an assistant minister and conducted prayer meetings for African Americans. Frustrated with the limitations the church placed on him and black parishioners, which included segregating pews, Allen left the church as part of a mass walkout with the intention of creating an independent Methodist church. (While Allen gave the year of the walkout as 1787 in his own accounts, some scholars have asserted that the departure happened in 1792-93.)
Along with the Reverend Absalom Jones, who had also left St. George, Allen helped found the Free African Society (FAS), a non-denominational religious mutual-aid society dedicated to helping the black community. A century later, scholar and NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois called the FAS “the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life.”
In 1794, Allen and several other black Methodists founded the Bethel Church, a black Episcopal meeting, in an old blacksmith’s shop. Bethel Church became known as “Mother Bethel” because it eventually birthed the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Helped by his second wife, Sarah, Allen also helped to hide escaped slaves, as the basement of the Bethel Church was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Founding the African Methodist Episcopal Church
In 1799, Allen became the first African American to be ordained in the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Then, in 1816, with support from representatives from other black Methodist churches, Allen founded the first national black church in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became its first bishop. Today, the AME Church boasts more than 2.5 million members.
Understanding the power of an economic boycott, Allen went on to form the Free Produce Society, where members would only purchase products from non-slave labor, in 1830. With a vision of equal treatment for all, he railed against slavery, influencing later civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.
Death and Legacy
Allen died at his home on Spruce Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 26, 1831. He was laid to rest under Bethel Church.
In 2008, Richard Newman and NYU Press published an acclaimed biography of Allen ‐ Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers.
February 14, 1760
March 26, 1831
- In 1816, Allen served as the first bishop of AME Church. He tried to focus on the organization of the denomination so that the slaves and free blacks did not have to face any racial oppression when worshiping the God.
- Allen contributed much to increase the life of the black community. Literacy was taught in Sabbath school so that the blacks could earn higher social status. The political strategies would be developed through the promotion of national organizations of black people.
- Stokeley Sturgis was the new master of Allen and his family when they were sold by Chew. Three of his five siblings and his mother were sold to cover the financial problem of Sturgis.
- The local Methodist Society accepted the free black and slaves to come to the local meetings. Therefore, Richard, his sister and brother came to the meeting. Sturgis encouraged them to the meeting even though he was not converted.
- Reverend Freeborn Garrettson had his preaching in Delaware. In 1775, this man freed his slaves. He encouraged other slaveholders to emancipate their slaves after the American Revolutionary War.
- After he was freed, he altered his name into Richard Allen from Negro Richard.