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richard allen
Richard Allen

Richard Allen

When he was 17, two events altered Richard Allen’s life forever: His mother and three siblings were sold into slavery and, months later, he had a religious awakening upon hearing a roving Methodist preacher and soon after adopted the religion.

Although Allen never saw his family members again, he became fascinated with religion and prospered, becoming not only a religious scholar, but a much sought-after minister. Allen later founded and in 1799 was named first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, making him the country’s first African American bishop.

But Allen also had interests outside of the church. Allen was active in the fight for equal rights of slaves and free blacks. His Philadelphia home was routinely used as a stop on the Underground Railroad and he operated a day school for black children, as well as adult literacy programs.

Allen also realized the power of economic sanctions and formed the Free Produce Society, where members would only buy products made from non-slave labor.

While enslaved as a teenager, Allen’s master encouraged him to attend meetings of the local Methodist Society, which was receptive to slaves and free blacks. Allen became a student of the religion because of its opposition to slavery and its straightforward interpretation of the gospel.

Allen soon began to organize religious services for slaves and free blacks in Delaware. The services, however, were held in secret because of a Delaware law that forbade meetings between black men without a white man being present.

After he converted to Methodism, his master offered him a chance to buy his freedom. In addition to his duties as a slave, Allen worked numerous odd jobs, and in the early 1780s purchased his freedom for $2,000.

In 1786, St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly white church and the first Methodist church in Philadelphia, invited Allen to preach regularly to its black congregants. Despite services that began at 5 a.m., Allen’s sermons drew large crowds.

The next year, Allen led black members from St. George’s and formed the Free African Society, a non-denominational mutual aid society that assisted fugitive slaves and new migrants. In the mid-1790s, he led a group of clergy to open Bethel AME Church. The Philadelphia building that was Bethel AME Church is occupied today by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and is the oldest parcel of land in the United States owned continuously by African Americans.

The AME church today is the oldest and largest formal institution in black America, with more than 2.5 million members with 8,000 ministers in 6,200 congregations.

Allen died at his home on Spruce Street in Philadelphia in 1831 at age 71, and is buried on the lower level of the church he founded.


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