The month of February is Black History Month, a time when we intentionally consider often overlooked and minimized perspectives from Black Americans. During this month, FUMC Pastoral Posts will focus each week on stories from Black Methodist History. We hope these little writings will inspire you in your faith and encourage you to take a deeper look into the experience of our Black Methodists brothers and sisters!
Richard Allen (1760-1831)
It seems too easy to tell the story of Richard Allen and his famous walkout from St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and utterly miss the exceptional nature of his life and faith. Perhaps this his story is seldom told among our modern United Methodist congregations – indeed, I have never heard his name mentioned in any Methodist church and had to go to seminary to hear just an echo of the man’s achievements. In simply calling Allen the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church), we risk hiding the largeness of one man’s life behind an institution that is both ubiquitous and sometimes “othered” by white congregations. I hope this little essay will show, if anything, that Richard Allen is a Methodist hero, equal to (if not surpassing) Wesley and Asbury, and that the AME Church he began is anything but an “other” church.
Richard Allen was born into slavery in Pennsylvania. At the age of 17, he attended a worship service, in the woods that surrounded his owner’s plantation, led a Methodist circuit rider (if you’re doing the math, this was 1777 and Methodists had largely gone “underground” because of their ties with the Church of England!). Allen converted to Christianity, decided he would be slave to no man (his freedom cost $2,000 which he raised by 1780), and eventually took up the work of Methodist circuit rider in Delaware. In 1784, at the famous “Christmas Conference” in Baltimore, MD, the new Methodist Episcopal Church approved Allen as a preacher. Frances Asbury, ordained Bishop at the same conference, appointed Allen as a minister to the St. George Church in Philadelphia.
A few things are important for us to understand about early Methodism and race. First, the church was entirely opposed to slavery. Early discipline prohibited slave owners from being members in the Methodist church. What’s more, 10% of the Methodist church in the 18th century was Black (compared to less than 5% in today’s UMC). Allen’s appointment to St. George was no scandalous or strange thing. But, in 1787 when Allen observed white lay leaders approach some Black worshipers kneeling in prayer at a pew reserved for white folks and proceed to tell them while they were praying, “You must get up – you must not kneel here!” he decided to act. After the prayer, he led the black worshipers away from St. George’s. Later, Allen and his congregation purchased a new property and building, consecrated it as a church, and named it “Bethel.”
Allen once said, “There was no religious sect or denomination would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodist; for the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people." That sect, the Methodist Episcopal Church, lost track of the gospel, softened their position on slavery, and doubled down on discriminatory practices. In 1816, Allen joined with five other congregations to charter the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He would live to see his beloved “Mother Bethel” Church grow to include some 7,500 members, making it one of the most influential Black institutions of the 19th century.
In the end, I am grateful to know and share a bit of the story of Richard Allen. There is so much more to tell about his incredible and heroic life of faith (e.g. he is perhaps the first Black person to publish a book in the United States!). More than that, his life’s story fills me with pride and hope. Pride that I too am Methodist. Hope for what that might yet be!