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.
The Split from St. George's
Back at St. George's, interracial tensions increased. Growing membership necessitated a church expansion. Black church members were the most generous contributors of time and money to help build a new gallery. What they did not know was that the expanded upper gallery was targeted exclusively for the growing black membership. On a November Sunday in 1787, at the first Sabbath service after the church's renovations, a sexton ushered Allen, Absalom Jones, and prominent black church member William White to seats in the new gallery which was situated above the old part of the church. As the trio was a little late, they instead took seats near where they had formerly sat before the renovation. The service started and the congregation dropped to their knees in prayer.
An altercation ensued.
Allen looked up to find a church trustee trying to wrench Absalom Jones to his feet. It seemed that blacks were not to sit in the old gallery but to be relegated to the new gallery. An astonished Jones said to the trustee, "Wait until the prayer is over." The martinet replied, "No, you must get now, or I will call for aid and force you away." The devout Jones replied, "Wait until the prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more." Then another trustee came and tried to pull William White from his knees. Allen recalled, "By this time the prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued by us in the church."
Back to the Free African Society
Those blacks who left St. George's turned to the Free African Society as a de facto church. Allen helped to minister to the spiritual needs of those in the group. Over time, the FAS began to take on trappings of Quaker culture. Quakers were admired for their abolitionist views, philanthropy, and moral rectitude. In fact, the FAS charter mandated that all treasurers of the society were to be Quakers. This would facilitate the Society's dealings with financial institutions.
Allen, however, was disenchanted with the Society's mirroring of Quaker ways, finding them inimical with what he felt blacks needed spiritually. Beginning each meeting with a Quaker-like silence of 15 minutes, for instance, was diametrically opposed to the spontaneity and exuberant atmosphere of Methodist services. Unable to embrace the ways of the FAS, Allen was "read out" of the society on June 20, 1789.
Leadership of the Society fell to fellow Methodist Absalom Jones who felt it was important that those in the Society be spiritually attended to. Jones began to draw up a subscription list for the building of a church for the society's members. Though Allen was disassociated from the FAS he enthusiastically supported the plan to form the nation's first black church. Several whites, including Robert Ralston, Benjamin "the father of American Medicine" Rush, and a different William White, the Bishop of the Episcopal church, threw both financial and moral support behind the project.
Allen was given the responsibility of buying land for the church. Laying out his own money, Allen purchased a plot of land at 6th and Lombard in Philadelphia's already historic black community. As a note, during his early years in Philadelphia, Allen supported himself as a chimney sweep and parlayed his earnings into a shoemaking shop which eventually employed several apprentices. He was practicing the diligence and ethos of hard work that he preached. The disciplined preacher ultimately became a rather prosperous Philadelphian, donating almost $10,000 to the AME church.
Allen now owned this property, but the FAS decided that they wanted their church built outside the black community, on Fifth Street, south of Walnut Street, in a mostly white neighborhood. Groundbreaking was in 1791 and Allen enjoyed the honor of breaking earth on the project.
Yet, it was still unclear what denomination the church would be. Since the black walkout at St. George's, the white Methodists had increased the hostility aimed at the splinter group while still trying to lure them back in the fold. Elders at St. George's saw their authority threatened, and in turn threatened to expel the exiles permanently. Allen replied that they could not be part of a church where they had been so "scandalously treated." He addressed St. George's Reverend McCloskey, saying, "If you deny us your name [Methodism] you cannot seal up the scripture from us, and deny us a name in heaven."
The FAS voted to be Episcopalian even though Jones and Allen wanted it to be Methodist. Absalom Jones agreed to head what would be called the Saint Thomas African Episcopal Church. In 1804, Jones would go on to be ordained the first black priest in the United States. W.E.B. DuBois said of Saint Thomas's: "the church has always been foremost in good work." Officers from St. Thomas's went on to found the nation's first black insurance firm.
Allen, however, was still convinced that the discipline and style of Methodism was best suited to the black community in Philadelphia. "The plain and simple gospel suits best for the people — for the unlearned can understand and the learned are sure to understand." Allen was willing to wait until St. Thomas's was completed before building his church.
Why would the FAS opt for the Episcopal church? The hostility of the Methodists contrasted with the largess of Bishop White and the Episcopals. Further, there was antipathy in some members of the FAS toward dance and song traditionally associated with the Methodists. One member is quoted as saying, "It was a shameful practice that we, as a people are guilty of. While we are feasting and dancing many of our complexion are starving under cruel bondage; because of this practice of ours that enables our enemies to declare that we are not fit for freedom."
Before St. Thomas's was completed, the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 intervened. The great plague decimated Philadelphia, killing 5,000 of its 50,000 inhabitants. Dr. Benjamin Rush and Mayor Matthew Clarkson asked Allen and Jones for their help in fighting the dread disease. It was thought that blacks were less likely to get the fever, though it was believed they were not wholly immune from it. Of course, this is not true.
The pair overcame their dread fear and "found freedom to go forth, confiding in Him who can preserve in the midst of a burning, fiery furnace." They found in the first house they visited two children huddled with their feverish father, their mother already a victim. Jones and Allen found people to care for the children and tried to aid the sick father. A score more visits awaited the preachers in that first day alone. In the following weeks Allen organized dead-removal crews and continued to assist doctors. Allen was even taught by Benjamin Rush how to "bleed" fever victims, the treatment thought most efficacious by the eminent physician.
Despite their best efforts, Jones and Allen were the subject of a bilious attack by Mathew Carey (whose name is associated with America's oldest publishing house) who accused blacks of profiting financially from Yellow Fever. According to Carey, Allen's crew of blacks overcharged for body removal and stole goods from the houses they entered. Mayor Clarkson and Richard Allen took out ads in newspapers denouncing Carey and his accusations.
Ironically the Yellow Fever epidemic allowed black and white Philadelphians to see Allen's altruistic soul in action. Tensions between Allen and St. George's cooled — and he received permission from them to build a church on the site where he purchased the land for St. Thomas's years earlier. While funds were being raised to build a permanent structure, Allen bought a blacksmith shop from a fellow named Sims and had it hauled by a team of his own horses to 6th and Lombard. Bishop Asbury presided over the church's dedication on July 29, 1794. Reverend Dickins of St. George's suggested the name Bethel, meaning "the house of the Lord." Years later, W.E.B. DuBois called Mother Bethel, "by long odds the vastest and most remarkable product of American Negro civilization."
Allen and His Critics
Allen still had his critics. William Douglass, a pastor at St. Thomas's, said Methodism "appealed chiefly to the feelings and affectations which are always strongest among undisciplined minds." Moreover, the blacks who remained at St. George's after the 1787 schism accused Allen of segregating the race. Then there was the constant struggle with trustees at St. George's who attempted to control Mother Bethel's affairs. In 1796, for instance, St. George's wanted Bethel's property to pass to the Methodist conference. A trustee from St. George's by the name of Ezekiel Cooper tricked Richard Allen into signing over Bethel's land during incorporation. In 1807, members of Bethel drew up what Allen called the African Supplement, which attempted to throw off the yoke of St. George's. The Supplement gave trustees, "the right to nominate and appoint one or more persons of the African race to exhort and preach in Bethel Church and any other church which may hereafter become the property of the corporation..."
Despite these conflicts, Bethel grew. In its first two years, membership mushroomed from 20 to 121. Thanks to Allen's insistence on education Bethel had a children's day school and an adult night school on premises soon after its founding. In 1799, Richard Allen was ordained a deacon.
One day in 1808, a slave speculator came to the Bethel church door with a constable saying that Allen was a runaway slave. Slave speculators were a breed of men who bought the rights to escaped slaves, captured them, and resold them in the South. Other speculators would simply kidnap free blacks and sell them into slavery. This was a particularly simple-minded slave speculator, as most of Philadelphia would vouch that Richard Allen lived in the city for nearly 20 years and had not escaped from the South just a few years earlier as the speculator claimed. Allen sued the speculator for false accusation and perjury. The man could not make the $800 bail and was thrown into the Walnut Street Prison. From then on Allen redoubled his efforts in helping runaway slaves.
The Underground Railroad
Richard Allen preached abolition. One weapon he used in fighting slavery was pamphlets. In a pamphlet addressed to slave-owners, Allen claimed bondage was anti-American and anti-Bible. In another pamphlet addressed to blacks he exhorted all freed black men to help their enslaved brethren by being exemplary citizens and offering direct assistance.
As early as 1795, Allen helped 30 recently freed Jamaican slaves who had newly arrived in Philadelphia. It fell upon Allen to take care of them by finding housing and providing food.
As some point, the church's basement was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad (a network of houses creating a link from the south to Canada, where escaped slaves would be allowed to remain free). Aided in great part by his wife Sarah, Allen would hide, feed and clothe escaping slaves. Large sums of money were collected in order to facilitate a slave's flight to freedom. Some current members of the Mother Bethel AME church are descendants of those who were escaped slaves assisted by Mother Bethel.
In 1815, the elders at St. George's managed to get Bethel put up for auction. Allen was forced to buy back his own church for the obscenely high price of $10,125. Shortly thereafter, a preacher from St. George's went to court claiming he had a right to preach at Bethel. The court disagreed saying, "what right do you have to preach to a congregation that won't listen to you." This was the de facto independence ruling for Bethel.
A Church Is Born
The next year the Bethelites won a court case recognizing their right to exist as an independent denomination. On April 9, 1816, at Bethel Church, Allen called together Black Methodist Episcopal churches to a conference in Philadelphia. Allen decided the time had come for these churches to band together. "Resolved, that the people of Philadelphia, Baltimore and other places who may unite with them shall become one body under the name and style of the African Methodist Church of the United States of American and that the book of Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church be adopted as our discipline..." Thus, Bethel Church became Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen commented, "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." They adopted the episcopal form of church government — meaning they would be under the authority of bishops who were ordained by officials within. At that meeting Allen was elected the first Bishop of the AME church.
Back to Africa
Bishop Allen confronted a new threat soon after. The American Colonization Society was an all-white group which included Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, who endorsed black emigration to Africa either through voluntary means or through forceful deportation. Clay called blacks "pernicious and useless, if not dangerous." Jefferson said, "Let the ocean divide the white man from the man of color."
Allen called a mass meeting of the black Philadelphia community to oppose this. Allen feared that if the black community supported this movement there would be no one left to aid slaves and also felt blacks should be treated as American citizens with all attendant rights. He wrote, "Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful cultivators of the wilds of America, we their descendants feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her soil, which their blood and sweat manured." Due to the efforts of Allen and other black leaders, the Colonization movement lost momentum after a number of years.
Allen remained influential to the end of his life. In 1830, Mother Bethel hosted the first national convention of black Americans, which led to the formation of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour. The meeting was called to establish a national network of black support and to fight new and heinous actions by the American Colonization Society, and to fight slavery.
One of Allen's last major accomplishments was the formation of the Free Produce Society in December 1830. Members of the society pledged to buy only products made by non-slave labor, whenever possible. Initially advocated by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the boycott also served as an exhibition of black self-reliance. One of Allen's last lessons was the economic power of boycotting, a favorite weapon of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Allen died on March 26, 1831, after "a tedious illness," as his tomb notes. He had the largest black funeral that America had ever seen. Encomia poured forth. William Lloyd Garrison called Allen "one of the purest friends and patriots that ever exerted his energies in favor of civil and religious liberty. His noble deeds will remain cherished in the memory of mankind as imperishable monuments of eternal glory."
Perhaps it was David Walker, a radical abolitionist, who had best understood Allen's significance. Walker, in his 1829 "Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the Worlds," a vitriolic attack on slavery, wrote of Allen: "When the Lord shall raise up colured historians in succeeding generations, to present the crimes of this nation, to the then gazing world, the Holy Ghost will make them do justice to the name of Bishop Allen. He will stand on the pages of history among the greatest divines who have lived since the apostolic age."
The Church Today
Of special interest are the church's stained glass windows. Installed when the church was erected in 1890, they were produced by the Century Art Company at a cost of $1,190. They are brimming with symbolism. In the words of church historian Ruby Boyd, the windows are "sermons in art." The five windows on the church's Pine Street side depict Biblical references. The windows on the Richard Allen Avenue side are devoted to Jesus Christ. On the Lombard Street side, one of the windows makes significant use of Masonic symbols and was indeed donated by a Masonic order. The second Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in the United States was founded at Mother Bethel. Prince Hall was a noted black Boston abolitionist.
The Richard Allen Museum
On the lower level of Mother Bethel is an inspirational three-room museum.
The first room of the museum contains sketches and photographs of all the AME bishops. Also in the first room are platters and pieces from a tea set that belonged to Allen.
It is in the museum's middle room that the power and grace of Richard Allen is most keenly felt. There one finds an unpolished wooden pulpit which was used in the original blacksmith's-shop-turned-church and several pews used in that structure as well. The unadorned pews seem more like benches in a one-room schoolhouse; the pulpit rises above the pews like a teacher's rostrum. The effect is one of intimacy, immediacy, and family.
Allen used his carpentry skills to fashion the pulpit (which was once the centerpiece of a Smithsonian exhibition) himself. Next to the pulpit are Allen's own pulpit chair (originally held together with wooden pegs) and his prayer stools. On the opposite side of the room are the pews which were in the second church as well. Along one wall is a "moaner's bench," used by those in the congregation who sat on it until they felt the spirit enter them. Penitents praying for salvation also used the moaner's bench.
Displayed on a wall is Richard Allen's own Bible which is believed to have been printed in the 1600s. This Bible is so worn from use and time that the age and beauty of its binding is equaled by its conspicuous use. Above the Bible are tickets from an 1818 "love feast" — a prayer and praise service — which was held at Mother Bethel every Tuesday night. Only those who went to the Tuesday love feast and received tickets were allowed to receive communion on the following Sunday. Above the tickets is a "License to Exhorte." Signed by Richard Allen in 1819, it permitted Noah Cannon the right to preach in the African Methodist Church for one year.
Also in the middle room is a "Proclamation to all the Good People of Massachusetts!" dated April 4, 1851. In effect, the proclamation was a wanted poster used to warn Bay State residents that slave hunters were among them, attempting to steal free blacks and sell them into slavery. Vividly described are three slave hunters, among them one John Bacon, who had a "red, intemperate looking face and a retreating forehead. His hair is dark and a little gray. He wears a black coat, mixed pants, and a purplish vest. He looks sleepy and yet malicious at the same time." Another, a man just called Davis, was "an unusually ill-looking fellow...He has a Roman nose, one of his eyes has been knocked out. He looks like a Pirate, and knows how to be a Stealer of Men."
On another wall of the second room are three muskets believed to have been used by a militia raised by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones for the defense of Philadelphia during the War of 1812. Asked by the mayor to form a black regiment, the preaching pair mustered 2,500 troops whose barracks were in Southwest Philadelphia. They saw no action in the war, however.
Of great interest in the museum's third room is a ballot box in which marbles were used to cast votes. In the church's early years many members were unable to read or write. To elect church trustees, a box with pictures of the candidates was used. Underneath each picture was a hole drilled into the box. Marbles were dropped into these holes under the picture of the office-seeker being voted for.
Drawings and pictures of the four Bethel churches located at this site are seen on the wall. The first, as you recall, was the blacksmith shop hauled to this site by horses. The second church, the first built on the site, was called Roughcast because it was built from crude cinder blocks. The Roughcast church saw the organization of the AME denomination. It was used between 1805 and 1841. The third church, built in 1841, bears more than a passing similarity to St. George's. The fourth and present church was dedicated on October 2, 1889; the chief architect was Edward Hazlehurst.
Also in the third room of the museum is a poster bearing suggested rules of behavior. One of the rules urged gentleman not to spit on the floor but to use spittoons instead. Another rule asked gentleman to leave church by the north door and not to crowd the ladies' passageway.
Great leaders in AME's history are also celebrated in the third room. A lithograph of Morris Brown, the fourth pastor of Mother Bethel, tells of his remarkable exploits. Brown developed a significant congregation of free blacks in the early 1800s and ushered them into the AME flock. He took part in the failed Denmark Vesey uprising of 1822 and escaped to Philadelphia. He ultimately became the second Bishop of the AME church.
Also honored is Fannie Coppin (1835-1912) who was the first president of the Institute for Colored Youth, a Normal School supported by the Quakers. Cheyney State College is today an outgrowth of that organization. In addition to recommending that blacks be trained in trades and industrial arts, she also considered the classics an integral part of a curriculum.
Richard and Sarah Allen are interred on the church's lower level. A lengthy inscription on the tomb includes the following: "He was instrumental in the hands of the lord in enlightening many thousands of his brethren, the descendants of Africa, and was the founder of the first African Church in America."Mother Bethel Church was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
AME is the second-oldest black congregation (after St. Thomas's in Philadelphia) in the country.
The ground on which Mother Bethel stands is the oldest parcel of real estate continuously owned by African-Americans in the United States.
The second Prince Hall Masonic Lodge was founded here.
Lucretia Mott, abolitionist and women's rights advocate, abolitionist and journalist Frederick Douglass, and William Still, a moving force behind the Underground Railroad, were among those who spoke from the rostrum at Mother Bethel.
Ben Franklin contributed money to the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
A female Mother Bethel preacher, Jarena Lee, was one of first black women to speak out publicly against slavery.
Richard Allen was a frequent contributor to the "Freedom's Journal," the first newspaper in American to be owned and published by blacks.
On the lower level, a James Dupree mural depicts the history of the church.
The first black boy scout troop was founded at Mother Bethel Church.
Today the AME Church comprises 2.5 million members, 8,000 ministers, and 6,200 congregations in 19 Episcopal districts and hosts 115 annual conferences.
Location: 419 Richard Allen Avenue at the northeast corner of Sixth and Richard Allen Avenue (Lombard Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets). (Map)
First Church on site: 1794
Present Church Built: 1889-90
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival
Tourism information: Call in advance for a most generous and worthwhile tour of the church and the Richard Allen Museum. The museum is open after Sunday services for one hour, and Tu-Sa 10am-3pm by appointment only. 215-925-0616.
Official website: www.motherbethel.org