Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church:
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.