Beginnings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
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In some ways the beginnings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church can be found in the life of Richard Allen, but this is really a much larger story about people who chose to stand up and worship in a way that was seated in freedom and rooted in independence.
Richard Allen was born in slavery, in Philadelphia, in February of 1760 and he and his family were sold into Delaware. When Richard became older he and his brother began attending Methodist meetings. He convinced his owner to allow a preacher to speak in their home and as a result, his owner began to question slavery and to believe that his owning slaves made him wrong in the eyes of God…so he let Richard and his brother buy their freedom.
After working at any job he could find, Allen continued in his devotion to God and was licensed to preach. He began traveling in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the Methodist circuit. In 1786 he came to St. George’s Methodist Church, in Philadelphia, where he was asked to preach an early morning service for black churchgoers.
Allen also organized prayer meetings and proposed that blacks in the city of Philadelphia build a place of worship to call their own, but he was met with much opposition—only Absalom Jones, William White and Dorus Ginnings agreed with him.
An event would happen that would ‘force their hands.’ It was suggested that a gallery be built, in St. George's, given the increased amount of black and white church members (which caused some tension in the church). One Sunday, as Allen and others arrived at church, they were told to go to the gallery to sit. They assumed that they would be sitting above the seats where they usually sat. As they got to their seats, the elder said, “Let us pray.” Before long, Richard Allen heard a trustee speaking to Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees and saying, “You cannot kneel here.”
Absalom said, “Wait until prayer is over.” The trustee said, “No, you must get up now.” He then called over another man to help him and that man grabbed William White, to pull him off of his knees.
By this time, prayer was over and Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, William White and others got up and left the church as a body.
They knew they now had to find a place to worship of their own. They began the process of raising the money for a new church.
They were told that if they didn’t stop their efforts, they would be kicked out of the Methodist connection. This did not stop them, this is remarkable because this was only several years after the end of the Revolutionary War and there was no roadmap for them to follow.
They held services on their own and when the time came for them to decide what denomination to unite with, many decided to join the the Episcopal denomination.
(This group started the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and eventually Absalom Jones became the first African-American Episcopal Priest).
Richard Allen, and those who wanted to remain in the Methodist tradition, went on to build their church and in 1794, their church was dedicated.
Allen later recalled some of the challenges they faced.
He and the members of Bethel were told, by a man they knew, that they should sign their new church over to the Methodist Conference (the white conference of Methodist elders, bishops, ministers, etc…) in order to be a part of the organization. They objected—they did not want to hand over ownership of their church, “They can deny us their name, but they cannot deny us a seat in heaven!” This “Mr. C.” then told them that they should at least get incorporated and that he would draw up the paperwork, for them, and they agreed.
The African Supplement
For years they worked under this incorporation—some of the time it was good, some of the time it was not so good. One day an official showed up and asked to see their books and demanded the keys to the church. He said he was in charge and was the elder and that the church was not theirs, it belonged to the Methodist Conference.
The members of Bethel were flabbergasted. They went to a lawyer to inquire about this and the lawyer told them, it was true—they had been duped, and that the only way to amend their agreement was to have a two-thirds majority vote. Richard Allen then called together his society and they unanimously voted to add an alteration, called the “African Supplement.”
The trustees of St. George’s were not happy.
They called a meeting and demanded that Bethel pay $600 a year for their services, but Bethel would not budge. The Trustees at Bethel then agreed to a lower sum, but finally decided that $100 a year was enough.
The leadership at St. George’s decided not to preach at Bethel for some time and other difficulties arose when additional preachers, outside of St. George’s, began to interact with Bethel.
Leaders in the Methodist community began to publicly disown them. An elder, then, came to Bethel and told them that he would be taking charge of the congregation.
Allen and the trustees disapproved, but the elder stated that, “He did not come to consult with Richard Allen or other trustees, but (came) to inform the congregation, that…next Sunday afternoon, he would come and take…spiritual charge.”
Next Sunday arrived and when he came into the church, the people were ready…a preacher from Bethel was already in the pulpit—setting up what would be a difficult showdown. As the elder approached the front of the church, the aisles were filled with churchgoers and he could not get more than halfway down any of the aisles.
This happened twice—all of these actions led to court cases to determine whether the Methodist Conference had any control over the Bethel congregation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the Methodist Conference did not have control...this opened new pathways for the original members of Bethel.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1816, becoming the first independent, African-American denomination in the country.
© 2015 and 2017 Danita Smith, Red and Black Ink, LLC.
Allen, Richard. The Life and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen. Philadelphia: Martin & Boston, 1833.
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Church History, accessed 6-2015.
The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, website. About Absalom Jones, accessed 6-2015.
Wright, Richard and Hawkins, J.R. Centennial Encylcopedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Philadelphia: Book Concern of the A.M.E. Church, 1916.
Bible. Red and Black Ink, LLC, 2015.