Because God doesn’t segregate, but humans do

A Feb. 20, 1898, sermon by the Rev. John Palmer on Richard Allen’s place in African-American history reads:

            “if true greatness consists in that self-sacrificing heroism and devotion which makes a main insensible and indifferent to his own personal welfare, interest, comfort and advantages: and to dey himself of all for the sake of others, and for the elevation and advancement of others, without a single promise of reward – we say, if these constitute greatness, then Richard Allen, the first bishop of the AME church, was great.” 

            Allen is considered the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in America.  That church, now with a membership of more than 2.5 million people and 6,000 churches, was the country’s first independent black denomination.

            Former slave – Born into servitude in 1760 in Philadelphia, “Negro Richard” earned $2,000 to buy his freedom and that of his brother in 1780.  Richard Allen, the name he chose as a freedman, came of age during the American Revolution, just as the antislavery movement and denominational Christianity were gaining prominence.

            Allen discovered religion after hearing a Methodist preacher at a secret gathering of slaves in Delaware.  In his biography, The Life Experiences and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, he wrote, “I was awakened and brought to see myself, poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost.”

          Preacher – Allen, his wife Sarah and others opened the doors of Bethel AME Church on July 29, 1794, on the site of a converted blacksmith shop on Sixth Street in Philadelphia.  Allen was ordained the church’s pastor.  Driven to establish “Mother Bethel” by white Methodists’ segregation of blacks, Allen brought other black Methodist congregations in Philadelphia together in 1816.  They elected Allen bishop, a position he held until his death in 1831.

            Abolitionist – Allen focused his sermons on the freedom of slaves, cessation of colonization, education of youths and temperance.  He created denominational groups to care for and educate the poor.  His home and Bethel AME were stops on the Underground Railroad.

            Educator – Recognizing that former slaves and freedmen needed education, he opened a day school for black children and a night school for adults.  Allen published articles in Freedom’s Journal attacking slavery, colonialism and organizations that advocated the migration of blacks back to Africa.  He authored three pamphlets about escaping the bonds of slavery, including An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice.

            Allen’s legacy lives on today in AME church’s work, whose motto is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family.” – John X. Miller

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