Richard Allen was born into slavery on February 14, 1760, to Benjamin Chew, a wealthy merchant of Philadelphia, PA. When he was a child he was sold to Stokely Sturgis who had a plantation in Delaware. Sturgis had to sell Allen’s mother and 3 of his 5 siblings to pay off a debt.
The local Methodist Society was welcoming slaves and free blacks and although Richard didn’t convert he had taught himself how to read and write. Eventually he joined the Methodists at the age of 17 and began to evangelize others. Sturgis, his owner, drew criticism for Richard Allen’s activities, so Richard doubled his efforts to keep Sturgis from ridicule.
Rev Freeborn Garrettson began to preach in Delaware and Sturgis converted and began to believe that owning slaves was a sin after Rev Garrettson had freed his own slaves. Sturgis offered Richard Allen a chance to buy his freedom. So Richard, then known as Negro Richard worked extra time to buy his freedom in 1780 and changed his name legally to Richard Allen.
By 1784 Richard Allen was qualified to become a preacher. He went to the first conference of Methodists in America and was allowed to give the services at 5 am. In 1786 Richard moved to Philadelphia which was a center of free blacks. He became the preacher of St Georges Methodist Episcopal Church, doing the morning service when most blacks attended. He started to draw more to his morning services but he started to resent having to be segregated.
In 1787, he and another Black Pastor, Rev Absalom Jones moved their congregation out of St George’s and formed the Free African Society (FAS), a non-denominational mutual aid society that provided aid to fugitive blacks, new migrants, the poor and the widowed in the city. Richard Allen along with Absalom Jones, William Gray, and William Wilcher found an available lot at Sixth and Lombard. Allen bought and years later they had enough to build Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This is the oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African Americans in the United States of America.
Richard Allen, Absalom Jones with the help of Dr Benjamin Rush helped to save many in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
Over time the FAS which had quite a few Quakers involved with them chose to affiliate with the Episcopal Church so in 1792 Absalom Jones formed the African Church, and in 1794 founded the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas, Absalom Jones became a deacon in the church and later in 1804 the priest. He was the first black priest of an Episcopal Church in America.
Richard Allen stayed with the Methodist, although he was bothered by the segregated services. He moved to start the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Richard Allen was the first ordained Black Methodist Pastor by Bishop Francis Asbury. At its start the AME had a small congregation, by 1804 it had about 450+ members and by 1813 it had 1200+ members.
In 1816 Rev Richard Allen brought together 4 African-American congregations together to form the AME, an independent denomination. On April 10, 1816 these four ministers elected Richard Allen as their first bishop. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest and largest formal organization in black America.
Richard Allen married his second wife, Sarah in 1800 and had 6 children Richard Jr, James, Peter, Sarah and Ann. Richard’s wife Sarah actively assisted him in the church and his ministry. She worked to support runaway slaves by feeding and clothing them.
In 1827 Sarah Allen started Daughters of Conference a women’s organization to aid ministers who came to the Conferences. They initially helped to provide material support to the ministers such as mending and washing clothes. After 1849 when Sarah Allen died this organization began to take on other social welfare issues.
From 1797 to 1831 Richard and Sarah operated a station on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves. Mother Bethel Church continued to operate as a station until Emancipation at the end of the Civil War.
Richard Allen died on March 26, 1831.
Richard Allen is honored on March 26 with a feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church of America.
–There is so much more to be learned about this great man and his work. We encourage you to visit the Mother Bethel African Episcopal Church’s website by clicking the link earlier in the article.