Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

6 EULOGY FOR WASHINGTON

Richard Allen

Richard Allen ( 1760-1831), activist and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was born in slavery in Philadelphia and sold along with his family to the Stokeleys of Delaware. He converted to Methodism in 1777 and joined other slaves in attending the biweekly meetings of the Methodist Society. Allen was able to purchase his freedom through work as a brick maker and wood splitter, occupations he continued after gaining his release. He also became an itinerant preacher, often speaking to mixed or white audiences along his stops as a wagon driver for the Continental Army during the American Revolution. In late 1784, he is believed to have attended the founding conference of American Methodism. Two years later, he returned to Philadelphia to preach.

Allen preached not only to his assigned flock at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church but also throughout the city, sometimes several times a day, to different groups of "my African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people and few of them attended public worship." But by 1792, when black worshipers had been pulled off their knees during prayers at St. George's and instructed to move to a segregated pew, the necessity of a separate black church had become painfully clear to Allen and others.

These plans were delayed by the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which killed thousands of Philadelphians. Allen and Absalom Jones organized the black community to fight the epidemic and in 1794 published A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, which detailed African American contributions to the city's recovery during the crisis and refuted false charges of their inactivity.

At last, in July 1794, Allen's dream of a separate black church became reality with the opening of Mother Bethel, complete with pulpit carved by Allen's own hands. Although many before him had sought in vain to establish such an institution, writes Carol George in Segregated Sabbaths, it was Allen who proved able to "manipulate the winds of social change that whirled about him to achieve a relatively safe and theologically satisfying spiritual home for Black people" (7). In 1816 Allen was ordained as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Allen was also an activist in spheres beyond the church. In 1787, Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society, perhaps the earliest African American mutual aid organization in the United States, and he opened a school for African American children in 1795. Allen

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