Richard Allen (1760–1831) was the father of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the oldest black institution in the United States. He was born into slavery and sold as a child to a plantation owner in Delaware who then sold Richard’s mother and three of his five siblings, all of whom he would never see again. However, an older brother and sister remained on the plantation, and the three of them began attending meetings held in the woods by itinerant Methodist preachers. At the age of 17, Richard committed his life to Jesus Christ. Speaking of his salvation experience he described himself as being “…awakened and brought to see myself poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost. One night I thought Hell would be my portion, and I cried to the Lord both night and day…I cried unto him who delighted to hear the prayers of a poor sinner. All of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and glory to God, I cried.”
Richard was attracted to the discipline and personal responsibility championed by the Methodist movement, as well as the fiery nature of the Methodist preachers. He began evangelizing, but local slave owners sought to silence him, fearing that his preaching would spark rebellion among the slaves. In response, Richard and his brother intensified their efforts for their owner so no one could say that his slaves were poor workers because of religion. It worked. Their rigorous work ethic was directly attributed to their Christian pursuits. Their owner even allowed a former slave-owner to preach at the farm and after hearing him was convinced that slavery was wrong. He then allowed his slaves to buy their freedom. Richard earned the money, and in 1780, bought his freedom at the age of 20.
Richard worked as a day laborer in a brickyard and also delivering salt, while preaching to mixed gatherings of blacks and whites throughout Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. A man who attended one of Allen’s meetings observed, “This man must be a man of God, I have never heard such preaching before.”
Richard was married to his first wife, Flora Allen from 1790 until her death in 1801. Flora was a former slave who “assumed his innermost burdens as her own…and shared his vision of creating a strong and independent black church.” He married his second wife, Sarah Bass, later in 1801. Sarah was also a former slave who shared Allen’s vision for the black church and to many “represented black religiosity, virtue, and kindness.” In addition to taking care of her family, Sarah actively assisted Richard in the ministry and together, from 1797 until his death in 1831, they operated a station on the Underground Railroad, feeding and clothing fugitive slaves. Richard and Sarah had six children.
In 1786, Richard was invited to become a minister at an Episcopal church in Philadelphia. He would preach four to five times a day in the open square near the church, but his gatherings within the church were restricted to the 5:00am service. As he attracted more and more blacks, the church had to build an upper gallery to facilitate the burgeoning congregation. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this addition was intended to seat blacks only. The situation for the black ministers within the church escalated when, arriving at service late one Sunday, Richard, Absalom Jones, and another black minister found the section that they were accustomed to sitting in was now designated for whites. Richard and his friends left the congregation that day and never returned.
In 1794 Richard founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The congregation met in a small blacksmith shop. A few years later in 1799 he was ordained as the first black Methodist minister by Bishop Asbury in recognition of his leadership and preaching. In 1816, Richard combined several different congregations and founded the denomination known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). This was the first fully independent black denomination in the United States, which eventually became known as “the most important denomination and arguably the most important African-American institution for most of the nineteenth century.”
In his autobiography, Allen notes the spirit behind the formation of the AME, writing:
“We deemed it expedient to have a form of discipline, whereby we may guide our people in the fear of God, in the unity of the Spirit, and in the bonds of peace and preserve us from that spiritual despotism which we have so recently experienced–remembering that we are not to lord it over God’s heritage, as greedy dogs that can never have enough. But with long suffering, and bowels of compassion to bear each other’s burthens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ.”
His life was marked by a determination to endure oppression and discrimination as he pressed through to maintain a meek and tender heart towards God and others. When his own fame increased he was quite comfortable inviting notable church and political leaders to spend time together on their knees in prayer. Richard was passionate about fulfilling God’s apostolic calling on his life, regardless of personal sacrifice, and his ministry enabled African Americans to worship Jesus without hindrance and receive a witness of the gospel for generations to come.