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Richard Allen - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Thursday, July 2, 2020

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Birth: February 14, 1760
Death: March 26, 1831 (Age 71)
Colony: Pennsylvania
Occupation: Minister
Significance: Founder of the Free African Society (1787); First Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816-1831)

Portrait of Richard Allen

Richard Allen is a Founding Father of the United States of America. Born into slavery, Allen was owned by prominent Philadelphia lawyer Benjamin Chew who owned a plantation in Delaware where Allen was born. As a child, Allen was sold along with his family to another Delaware plantation owner, Stokley Sturgis, though Sturgis later sold Allen’s parents and two of Allen's five siblings, separating his family.

Allen was allowed to attend a nearby Methodist Society church service which welcomed free African Americans and slaves, and Allen was inspired to become a preacher himself. Allen taught himself to read and write and began preaching to other slaves at the age of 17.

Freedom from Slavery and Move to Philadelphia

After the Revolutionary War began, Allen’s Methodist congregation was visited by the Reverend Freeborn Garrettson who was a strong advocate of abolition. Garrettson visited the Sturgis plantation where he preached that slavery was immoral and a sin. After hearing Garrettson’s sermon, Allen was able to convince Sturgis to give his slaves an opportunity to buy their freedom. Allen purchased his own freedom in 1780, and having no last (family) name at that point, gave himself the last name Allen.

Allen began working as a traveling minister and spent the final years of the American Revolution preaching along the East coast of the United States, primarily to African Americans. Traveling through America as an African American was however exceedingly difficult and dangerous and after a few visits to Philadelphia, Allen decided to settle here. Allen's decision was influenced by the large free African American population within Philly, that at the time was the largest and wealthiest population of free African Americans in the United States.

In 1786, Allen began preaching at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, but Allen was restricted to services at off hours and within the Church commons instead of inside the Church itself due to his race. It was at St. George’s that Allen met fellow Methodist preacher Absalom Jones.

Free African Society and Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church

In 1787, the same year that that the United States Constitution was being drafted, debated and signed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Allen and Jones organized and led a walkout of St. George’s over the poor treatment of black congregants. The two then started the Free African Society, a philanthropic organization that held nondenominational religious services and worked to provide aid for African Americans in Philadelphia. It is among the first organizations of its kind in the United States and quickly became the center of Philadelphia’s large African American community. It also gave rise to the first African American led churches in America.

Allen and the Free African Society helped found the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1792, the first black Episcopal Church in the country. In 1794, Allen founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, the first black Methodist Episcopal Church in the nation. Allen purchased the land for Mother Bethel himself and became the Church’s preacher. The property on which Mother Bethel stands today is the oldest property in the United States to be continuously owned by African Americans. Initially Allen had to deal with the white leaders of the Methodist Church, though Allen tired of constant discrimination. By 1816, Allen had organized a network of African American Methodist Churches that together founded a new independent, religious denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.). Allen was elected the first Bishop of the new denomination.

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church

In 1830, Allen organized and hosted the first Negro Convention at Mother Bethel, a national meeting of African American leaders that was held in response to race riots that occurred in the 1820s that led to white mobs attacking and killing African Americans and destroying African American owned businesses. It was the first national organization of African Americans and pushed for racial justice and provided assistance to African Americans.

Allen’s work had widespread impact on African American society at the beginning of this nation’s history. Allen had become the leader of the largest African American community in the nation, and his work stretched well beyond Philadelphia. NAACP cofounder W.E.B. DuBois moved to Philadelphia over half a century after Allen’s death and attended Mother Bethel, which DuBois called “By long odds the vastest and most remarkable product of American Negro civilization.”

Richard Allen in Philadelphia

Richard Allen lived in Philadelphia from 1786 until his death in 1831. Allen worked at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church which is located in Philadelphia at 6th and Lombard Streets.

Today you can learn more about Richard Allen at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the first museum in America dedicated to African American history. There is also some information on Allen and Philadelphia's free African American community at the site of the President's House in Philadelphia. Independence Hall and the President's House are both stops on The Constitutional Walking Tour!

Richard Allen Statue located at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church

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