Black History Month Pathfinder Profile: Richard Allen

Richard Allen was a minister, educator, writer, and founder of the first African Methodist Episcopal Church. Born a slave, Allen worked to earn money and purchase his own freedom for $2,000 in 1780. He taught himself to read and write before he began his career preaching. As a member of St. George’s Methodist Church, Allen became frustrated with the treatment of black members of the congregation which included segregated pews and restricting the times he was allowed to preach due to his ability to draw large crowds of African Americans.

By 1787, Allen grew tired of the unequal treatment as he believed it chipped away at their dignity as worshippers and as people. In an act of defiance Allen and Reverend Absalom Jones led the black members out of St. George’s Methodist Church with the plan to start their own church. They purchased land and formed the Free African Society (FAS), a non-denominational mutual aid society that assisted fugitive slaves and new migrants to the city. The land they purchased is now occupied by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is the oldest parcel of real estate in the United States that has been owned continuously by African Americans.

In 1794 Allen and several other black Methodists founded the Bethel Church, a black Episcopal meeting, in an old blacksmith’s shop. It was the first independent black denomination in the United States. Allen and his wife Sara began to use the basement of Bethel church as a stop on the Underground Railroad in 1797 until his death in 1831.

Allen became ordained in the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1799. He was the first African American to be ordained. After growing their congregations into the thousands, Allen united five African-American congregations of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Together, they founded the independent denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first fully independent black denomination in the United States. In 1816 the other ministers elected Allen as their first bishop.

Allen focused on upgrading the social status of the black community. He used Sabbath school sessions to teach literacy and promote national organizations to develop political strategies. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest and largest formal institution in black America.

Allen understood the power of an economic boycott and keeping black dollars circulating in the community. He used his influence to ensure members of the black community also understood this. In 1830 Allen formed the Free Produce Society, where members would only purchase products from non-slave labor. His strategies influenced civil rights leaders like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Ellison for Congress team salutes Richard Allen for forging a path for African Americans to worship with dignity.

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