Richard Allen and the African Methodist Episcopal Church – Historical Notes

Richard Allen c. 1891 (source)

Richard Allen c. 1891 (source)

This originally appeared in the Wingate United Methodist Church newsletter for July, 2015.

In light of the tragedy that occurred at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church a couple of weeks ago, I thought it would be appropriate to learn a little more about our sister church. The United Methodist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church have a common foundation, sharing both Wesleyan theology and full communion. They also trace their beginnings back to the first general conference in 1784. Richard Allen, one of two black men present, qualified as a minister in the newly named Methodist Episcopal Church.

Allen was born into slavery on Feb 14, 1760 in Delaware. His entire family was sold to Stokeley Sturgis, who later sold part of the family leaving Richard with a brother and sister on Sturgis’s plantation. Together they began to attend the local Methodist Society. Richard taught himself to read and write, and by the age of 17 he joined the Methodists and began actively evangelizing. During this time, Richard was able to save money and by 1780 bought his freedom and took the name Richard Allen.

Although Allen’s gifts were recognized, he was not given the same rights and privileges of white preachers. He and Harry Hosier, the other black attendee at the conference, were not allowed to vote and were restricted to preaching at 5 AM to mostly black congregants. When Allen moved to Philadelphia and became a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he was also relegated to early morning services.

In addition to the early services, Allen frequently preached on the commons near the church and the number of his followers began to grow. In response, the church designated a separate area for worship for black members. Opposed to this segregation, Allen and Absalom Jones, another Methodist preacher, left St. George’s congregation with many of its black members and formed the Free African Society, a non-denominational mutual aid society that helped fugitive slaves and new migrants to the city.

Eventually, the members of the FAS decided to associate with specific denominations. Many went with Absalom Jones to the Episcopal Church where Jones was ordained a deacon and in 1804 became the first black man ordained in the United States as an Episcopal priest. Allen and others who wanted to continue in the Methodist tradition founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on July 29, 1794.

Still affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, Allen and his congregation continued to face discrimination as well as being dependent on visiting white ministers for communion. In 1799, Francis Asbury ordained Allen as the first black Methodist minister solving the problem of communion for his congregation, but other AME churches had been organized and the desire for independence grew. In 1816, Richard Allen united four congregations from Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland to form the independent denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. On April 10, 1816, Allen was elected the denomination’s first bishop.

The AME Church now has over 7 million members and is open to people of all ethnicities, origins, and nationalities. The Church motto is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family.”

To download the entire newsletter in pdf format, click here.

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