Richard Allen and the Origins of the AME Church

Today’s post was written by Holly Rivet, archival technician at the National Archives in St. Louis.

Richard Allen was born February 14, 1760, enslaved to Benjamin Chew, a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia.  As a child, he was sold to Stokley Sturgis, a plantation owner in Dover, DE where Allen taught himself to read and write.  Allen’s owner was involved in the Methodist Church and permitted his slaves to attend their services.  Allen was also drawn to the Church and began evangelizing as a teenager while still enslaved.

 In 1780 he bought his freedom at a cost of $2000 (approximately $36,364 in modern U.S. dollars), by working on his own time over a period of five years.  He continued his involvement with the Church and in 1786 he became a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Church, but was only permitted to conduct segregated sermons.  The frustration of segregation and further racial tensions led Allen and more than forty others to leave St. George’s. 

facade of Churh showing bell tower and entrance
Mother Bethel AME Church, Philadelphia, PA, 1967 (NAID 71997374)

 In 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones established the Free African Society (FAS).  This civic organization drew freemen, freedom seekers, and Haitian refugees.  They assisted people in finding work and homes, provided literacy and financial education, and assisted in community projects.  One such event that employed members of FAS was the Yellow Fever Epidemic.  Doctors promoted the falsehood that African Americans could not contract the illness and FAS members were hired as nurses, collected human remains, and buried them for the city of Philadelphia.  Many of them died of the illness.

While they remained friends and colleagues, Allen and Jones parted ways religiously.  Absalom Jones established the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1792 and became the first African American ordained priest.  Allen built the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (NAID 71997374) in 1793.  The original Church was demolished and replaced with a red brick building in 1805 and was completed in 1890.  A tunnel was constructed to connect to the Arch Street Friends Meeting House (NAID 71997016).  This became part of the Underground Railroad.  

illus. drawn portraits of the 11 Bishops of AME Church, arranged in a circle w/Allen in center
Bishops of the AME Church (Library of Congress)

In 1816, Allen united other African Methodist congregations from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland to officially form the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) at a meeting in Philadelphia.  He was then elected Bishop.

Allen spent the remainder of his life tending his station on the Underground Railroad, along with his wife Sarah Bass.  He also worked with community leaders to open schools for African Americans.  His life’s work established ways African Americans (both freed and enslaved) could organize, learn, and help one another.  These efforts set the wheels in motion for others to lead across the country.  Allen passed away at his home on March 26, 1831 and is buried in the basement of Mother Bethel in Philadelphia. 

view of white brick recessed room w/enclosed casket in center
Tomb of Bishop Richard Allen (1780-1831), founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Library of Congress)

The National Archives Catalog now includes digital scans of the applications for National Historic Places and Landmarks status in Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service, Series: National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (NAID 20812721).  Documents relating to Richard Allen, Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, and the Arch Street Friends Meeting House can be accessed online.

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