Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church:
"Wait until the prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more."
The genesis of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), which today numbers over 2.5 million members, can be traced to a clearing in the Delaware woods in the year 1777. To that sylvan setting an itinerant Methodist preacher came, spreading the gospel to a group of slaves, among whom was a 17-year-old field hand named Richard Allen.
When Allen heard the Word he underwent a religious awakening. Enslaved and recently severed from several members in his family, who were "sold down the river" — Allen took solace in his belief that he would never be cut off from God's love. The faith that took root in the forest that day would ultimately enable Allen to establish the first AME Church — Mother Bethel.
The life of Richard Allen and the history of Mother Bethel are inextricably linked — he is the rock upon which the church was built.
Richard Allen was born into the slave-owning, Philadelphia household of Benjamin Chew in 1760. Chew was a successful lawyer who would become Pennsylvania's attorney general and chief justice of the court of appeals. (Chew's country estate, Cliveden, became the focal point of the 1777 Battle of Germantown.) Allen and his parents and siblings were household slaves of the Chews, responsible for cleaning, cooking and looking after the family's five children.
When Richard was 7, he and his entire family were sold to a Delaware farmer named Stokeley Sturgis. While he was lucky in that his family was kept intact, he now had to endure the arduous life of a field hand. In recalling his masters at a later period in life, he called them "kind" but said slavery was a "bitter pill." The pill became more bitter after Sturgis sold Richard's mother and three siblings. Allen, 17 at the time, would never see these family members again.
After his forest revelation in Delaware, Allen would regularly (and furtively) meet in the woods with preacher John Gray and others. Delaware law forbade blacks from congregating without whites present. Circuit preachers such as Gray offered hope, eternal salvation, and abolitionism's promise to blacks. Most appealing to Allen personally were the call for discipline and individual responsibility, and the fiery nature of the preachers.
Master Sturgis came to feel that slaves were better workers because of Christianity — a lesson taught him by Richard Allen. As such, when Allen requested that Reverend Freeborn Garrettson be allowed to preach at the farm, Sturgis acceded. Garrettson was a former slave owner who now preached abolition. His sermon at the farm that day was based on Daniel 5:27, the verse in which God's handwriting appears on the wall to Babylonian King Belshazzar.
Part of the writing on the wall translates to: "Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting." The preacher with the remarkably apt Christian name believed the sin of slaveholding was so onerous that on Judgment Day all slave owners would be weighed and be found wanting.
A shaken Sturgis decided that he would free Allen. But, he was debt-ridden and couldn't afford to do so. He agreed to allow Allen to buy his own freedom for $2,000. Allen worked nights and at off-hours cutting cord wood and doing odd jobs. By the time he was 20, he bought his freedom.
Work, however, was scarce for free blacks. Initially, Allen found employment in a brickyard. During the Revolutionary War, Allen was a teamster, hauling salt from Reheboth, Delaware, to Valley Forge. At this time Allen also started preaching. After the war Allen taught the gospel extensively in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, preaching to mixed gatherings of blacks and whites. A Radnor, Pennsylvania, salvation seeker commented, "This man must be a man of God, I never heard such preaching before."
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was adamant in his attacks on slavery. This aroused Allen's interest in the new denomination. Allen said, "the Methodist is so successful in the awakening and conversion of colored people [because of his] plain doctrine and having a good discipline." To a mostly unlettered flock, an easy-to-understand doctrine would help to stimulate spontaneous worship and permit extemporaneous sermonizing — a specialty of Allen.
Allen started following the Methodist circuit and is believed to have been in attendance at the Christmas conference of 1784 when Methodism established itself as a denomination distinct from the Church of England. Bishop Francis Asbury, the moving force behind American Methodism (he traveled over 100,000 miles to spread the gospel), asked Richard Allen to accompany him on a preaching trip through the South. Allen declined. Not only would the trip be dangerous for a black man, Allen knew that sleeping in a coach and other indignities that he would be subject to would set a poor example of behavior by a freed black man to those still enslaved.
Back to Philly
Philadelphia's St. George's, America's first Methodist church (and today the world's oldest Methodist church in continuous service), invited Allen to preach. Thus, in 1786, Allen returned to the city of his birth. In Philadelphia, Allen found a city where almost 70 percent of the blacks were free. He started preaching regularly at Sunday 5 A.M. services, though he found this an uncomfortable time to be at the pulpit. Allen would then preach three or four more sermons at different churches every Sunday. Allen's preaching was so successful that new members joined St. George's weekly, building particularly the black portion of the congregation.
In Allen's own words, he appealed to his "African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people," few of whom attended public worship. White leaders at St. George's viewed the new influx of black parishioners warily. Black members of the congregation were forced to sit toward the back of the church during prayers and were sometimes made to stand. Recognizing that black congregants had special spiritual needs, and that the white congregants were growing uneasy with the burgeoning black population in the church, Allen approached the elder at St. George's and asked his permission in establishing a black church. The elder denied his request. In a year's time a new elder again denied Allen's request, and also rebuffed Allen stridently with what Allen called "very degrading and insulting language."
Free African Society
To counteract the baleful influence of St. George's, Allen, along with Absalom Jones, came together to form the Free African Society (FAS) on April 12, 1787. The Society, though not religiously affiliated, proved much like a church in serving the black community. NAACP founder, W.E.B. DuBois, writing a century later, called the FAS, "the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life." Organized as an altruistic society for extending mutual aid to the widowed, sick, and jobless, it was funded by dues-paying members. The core of Allen's beliefs can be summarized with his trust that members by lifting themselves would lift all black people. The society also regulated marriages, taught thrift, censured drunkenness, condemned adultery, and attempted to improve morals.