Richard Allen (1760-1831), American Methodist bishop, rose from slavery to freedom to become the first African American ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Richard Allen was born on Feb. 14, 1760, the slave of a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia who sold him to a planter near Dover, Del. While laboring on his new master's farm, he showed an interest in religion, was converted, and joined a Methodist society. His master, who encouraged his religious work, was in turn converted and allowed Richard and his brother to earn their freedom. Allen educated himself. As a free African American, he traveled through Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, preaching to both whites and blacks and maintaining himself by cutting wood, laboring in a brickyard, and driving a wagon.
The warm, informal style of early Methodism won Allen's loyalty. He was one of two African Americans who attended the organizing conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784 at Baltimore. He traveled and preached effectively with white Methodist ministers but declined to accompany Bishop Francis Asbury into the slaveholding South.
In 1786 Allen was invited to preach occasionally at St. George's Church in Philadelphia. Preaching in the early morning or evening, he had particular success among African Americans. By the end of the year his prayer meetings included 42 African American members, and he thought of establishing a separate place of worship. At first he was dissuaded by persons of both races. But when the African Americans discovered that their increasing membership was to be forcefully segregated in the new gallery of St. George's, they refused to submit to this insult and withdrew in 1787. They formed the Free African Society for economic and social reasons. The new organization solicited funds and secured a place to meet, only to find that they had divided loyalties. A minority established the African Protestant Episcopal Church and kept the building, while the majority organized an independent Methodist Church with Allen's leadership and financial undergirding.
Bishop Asbury dedicated the new building, Bethel Church, when it was completed in 1794, and 5 years later he ordained Allen as the first African American deacon in Methodist history. Despite these ties, friction continued between the new congregation and Methodist leaders over supplying ministers and ownership of the Bethel property. When a legal decision supported the congregation's independence in 1816, all official connections with the Methodist Episcopal Church were severed.
African American congregations in other cities had encountered similar problems, and in April 1816 the representatives of 16 churches met at Philadelphia to organize the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen was chosen its first bishop. In 1817 he denounced the American Colonization Society's plan to return the free African Americans in the United States to a colony in Africa. In 1830 Allen started the first national movement to resettle free African Americans in Canada. By the time of his death on March 26, 1831, his leadership had solidified the growing denomination and given it national standing. The African Methodist Episcopal Church continued to grow, becoming part of the antislavery movement and the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War.
Further Reading on Richard Allen
Allen's short but essential autobiography is The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen: To Which Is Annexed the Rise and Progress of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States (1800; repr. 1960). Charles H. Wesley, Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom (1935), is a well-documented biography. Also useful are William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887; repr. 1968); Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church (rev. ed. 1921); Langston Hughes, Famous American Negroes (1954); Emory Stevens Bucke, The History of American Methodism vol. 1 (1963); and Richard R. Wright, The Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1963).
Additional Biography Sources
Mwadilifu, Mwalimu I. (Mwalimu Imara), Richard Allen: the first exemplar of African American education, New York: ECA Associates, 1985.