Richard Allen (bishop)

For other people with the same name, see Richard Allen (disambiguation).
The Right Reverend
Richard Allen
Richard Allen
Church African Methodist Episcopal Church
Installed April 10, 1816
Term ended March 26, 1831
Predecessor Formed denomination
Successor Morris Brown
Ordination 1799
by Francis Asbury
Personal details
Born (1760-02-14)February 14, 1760
Kent County, Delaware Colony
Died March 26, 1831(1831-03-26) (aged 71)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Buried Mother Bethel AME Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Denomination African Methodist Episcopal Church
Spouse Flora, Sarah Bass
Children Richard Jr., James, John, Peter, Sara, and Ann
Occupation Founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church, minister, abolitionist, educator, writer, and one of America's most active and influential black leaders
Feast day March 26
Beatified by Episcopal Church

Richard Allen (February 14, 1760 – March 26, 1831)[1] was a minister, educator, writer, and one of America's most active and influential black leaders. In 1794 he founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent black denomination in the United States. He opened his first AME church in 1794 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[2]

Elected the first bishop of the AME Church in 1816, Allen focused on organizing a denomination where free blacks could worship without racial oppression and where slaves could find a measure of dignity. He worked to upgrade the social status of the black community, organizing Sabbath schools to teach literacy and promoting national organizations to develop political strategies.[3]

Early life and freedom

Richard Allen was born into slavery on February 14, 1760, on the Delaware property of Benjamin Chew. When he was a child Allen and his family were sold to Stokeley Sturgis, who had a plantation in Delaware. When Sturgis had financial problems he sold Richard's mother and three of his five siblings. Allen had an older brother and sister left with him and the three began to attend meetings of the local Methodist Society, which was welcoming to slaves and free blacks. They were encouraged by their master Sturgis, although he was unconverted. Richard taught himself to read and write. He joined the Methodists at age 17. He began evangelizing and attracted criticism from local slave owners. Allen and his brother redoubled their efforts for Sturgis so no one could say his slaves did not do well because of religion.[4]

The Reverend Freeborn Garrettson, who had freed his own slaves in 1775, began to preach in Delaware. He was among many Methodist and Baptist ministers after the American Revolutionary War who encouraged slaveholders to emancipate their people. When Garrettson visited the Sturgis plantation to preach, Allen's master was touched by this declaration and began to give consideration to the thought that holding slaves was sinful.[5] Sturgis was soon convinced that slavery was wrong and offered his slaves an opportunity to buy their freedom. Allen performed extra work to earn the money and bought his freedom in 1780, after which he changed his name from "Negro Richard" to "Richard Allen".[6]

Marriage and family

Allen's first wife was named Flora. They were married on October 19, 1790. She worked very closely with him during the early years of establishing the church from 1787 to 1799. They attended church school and worked together purchasing land, which was eventually donated to the church or rented out to families. Flora Allen died on March 11, 1801, after a long illness. Scholars do not know if they had any children.[7] After moving to Philadelphia, Allen married Sarah Bass, a freed slave from Virginia. She had moved to Philadelphia as a child and the couple met around 1800. Richard and Sarah Allen had six children. Sarah Allen was highly active in what became the AME Church and is called the "Founding Mother".[8][9]


Allen was qualified as a preacher in 1784 at the Christmas Conference, the founding of the Methodist Church in North America at Baltimore, Maryland. He was one of the two black attendees of the conference along with Harry Hosier, but neither were permitted a vote during deliberations. Allen was subsequently allowed to lead services at 5 AM, which were attended mostly by blacks. Eschewing Asbury and Hosier's circuit riding practices, he moved to Philadelphia, a center of free blacks.

In 1786, Allen became a preacher at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but was restricted to early morning services. As he attracted more black congregants, the church vestry ordered them to be in a separate area for worship. Allen regularly preached on the commons near the church, slowly gaining a congregation of nearly 50, and supporting himself with a variety of odd jobs.

Allen and Absalom Jones, also a Methodist preacher, resented the white congregants' segregating the blacks for worship and prayer. They decided to leave St. George's to create independent worship for African Americans. This brought some opposition from the white church as well as the more established blacks of the community.

In 1787, Allen and Jones led the black members out of St. George's Methodist Church. They formed the Free African Society (FAS), a non-denominational mutual aid society that assisted fugitive slaves and new migrants to the city. Allen, along with Absalom Jones, William Gray and William Wilcher, found an available lot on Sixth Street near Lombard. Allen negotiated a price and purchased this lot in 1787 to build a church, but it was years before they had a building. Now occupied by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, this is the oldest parcel of real estate in the United States owned continuously by African Americans.

Over time, most of the FAS members chose to affiliate with the Episcopal Church, as many blacks in Philadelphia had been Anglicans since the 1740s.[10] They founded the African Church with Absalom Jones. It was accepted as a parish congregation and opened its doors on July 17, 1794, as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1795, Absalom Jones was ordained as a deacon, and in 1804 as a priest, becoming the first black ordained in the United States as an Episcopal priest.

Allen and others wanted to continue in the Methodist practice. Allen called their congregation the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Converting a blacksmith shop on Sixth Street, the leaders opened the doors of Bethel AME Church on July 29, 1794. At first affiliated with the larger Methodist Episcopal Church, they had to rely on visiting white ministers for communion. In recognition of his leadership and preaching, in 1799, Allen was ordained as the first black Methodist minister by Bishop Francis Asbury. He and the congregation still had to continue to negotiate white oversight and deal with white elders of the denomination. A decade after its founding, the AME Church had 457 members, and, in 1813, it had 1,272.[10]

In 1816, Allen united four African-American congregations of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia; Salem, New Jersey; Delaware and Maryland. Together they founded the independent denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first fully independent black denomination in the United States. On April 10, 1816, the other ministers elected Allen as their first bishop. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest and largest formal institution in black America.

From 1797 until his death in 1831, Allen and Sara operated a station on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves.


The social themes of Bishop Allen's preaching were abolition, colonization, education, and temperance.[11] The subject's preaching style was almost never expository or written to be read, but delivered in an evangelical and extemporized manner that demanded action rather than meditation. The tone was persuasive not didactic.[12]

Negro Convention

In September 1830, black representatives from seven states convened in Philadelphia at the Bethel AME church for the first Negro Convention. A civic meeting, it was the first on such a scale organized by African-American leaders. Allen presided over the meeting, which addressed both regional and national topics. The convention occurred after the 1826 and 1829 riots in Cincinnati, when whites had attacked blacks and destroyed their businesses. After the 1829 rioting, 1200 blacks had left the city to go to Canada.[13] As a result, the Negro Convention addressed organizing aid to such settlements in Canada, among other issues. The 1830 meeting was the beginning of an organizational effort known as the Negro Convention Movement, part of 19th-century institution building in the black community.[14] Conventions were held regularly on a national level

Death and burial

Allen died at home on Spruce Street on March 26, 1831.[15] He was buried at the church he founded. His grave remains on the lower level.[16]

Legacy and honors

Bishop Richard Allen, 2016 "Forever" Stamp

See also


  1. Bowden, Henry Warner (1993). Dictionary of American religious biography (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0-313-27825-3.
  2. "Richard Allen, Bishop, AME's first leader". Retrieved January 2, 2016.
  3. Suzanne Niemeyer, editor, Research Guide to American Historical Biography: vol. IV (1990) pp. 1779–1782
  4. Herb Boyd, ed., "Richard Allen, from 'The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen'", Autobiography of a People, Random House Digital, 2000
  5. Newman 2008, p43
  6. Wesley, Charles H. Richard Allen, Associated Publishers, 1935, pp. 15–18
  7. Newman 2008, p172
  8. "Sara Allen", Brotherly Love, PBS, retrieved January 14, 2009
  9. Nancy I. Sanders (January 1, 2010). America's Black Founders: Revolutionary Heroes and Early Leaders with 21 Activities. Chicago Review Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-1-61374-121-4. Retrieved June 3, 2013.
  10. 1 2 James Henretta, "Richard Allen & African-American Identity", Early America Review, Spring 1997, accessed May 16, 2012.
  11. George, Carol V. R. (1973). Segregated Sabbaths; Richard Allen and the emergence of independent Black churches 1760-1840. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 190-191.
  12. George, p. 162.
  13. Carter G. Woodson, Charles Harris Wesley, The Negro in Our History, Associated Publishers, 1922, pp. 98, 140 (digitized from original at University of Michigan Library, retrieved January 13, 2009.
  14. Wesley, Charles H., Richard Allen, Associated Publishers, 1935, pp. 234–238.
  15. "Bishop Richard Allen". Jones Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church. 2005. Retrieved 2009-03-26. Bishop Richard Allen died at his home located at 150 Spruce Street on Saturday, March 26, 1831.
  16. Richard Allen at Find a Grave
  17. Church Publishing. Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. Church Publishing, Inc., 2010. p290-291
  18. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8
  19. "Richard Allen, Forever Stamp". Ad. United States Postal Service. 2012. Retrieved January 20, 2016.

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