Founded in 1793 by African American Bishop, Richard Allen the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen was born a slave to a Quaker attorney. This church is an relic in remembrance to Richard Allen. The land on which the church was built was bought by Allen from his owner. Allen was a minister, "preeminent Black leader, and founder of the first permanent national association."
Alongside serving as a stop in the underground railroad, the Mother Bethel AME Church also has been used by the African-American community as a place for social organizations to meet, being a proponent for racial equality and civil rights on the local and national level. A number of influential African Americans have been gust in the church as well, such leaders include Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, Rosa Parks, and Colin Powell.
The story of Mother Bethel cannot be told without first telling the story of thefounder, Bishop Richard Allen. According to Allen, he was born on February 14,1760 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the condition of slavery to a Quaker lawyer,Mr. Benjamin Chew. Chew, who at one point served as Chief Justice of the SupremeCourt of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and personal attorney to the PennFamily, was a wealthy landowner who owned property near the Philadelphia waterfront, at Cliveden (which is now the Germantown section of the city), and farms inDelaware. Allen, whose father was African and whose mother was bi-racial, could have been born at any of these Chew properties. What is known for certain isthat the family was purchased by a Delaware planter, Mr. Stokley Sturgis, whenAllen was seven years old. Later, Allen’s mother was again sold along with three ofher six children, leaving Allen, his older brother, and a sister on the Sturgisplantation. There is no record of the fate of Allen’s father after this time.
Allen later contended that Sturgis was a tender and humane man who was morelike a father to his slaves. However, even with a kind owner, Allen still held thatslavery was a bitter pill. As he and his brother grew older, they were permitted toattend religious meetings of the Methodist Society. In 1777, at the age of seventeen,Allen was converted to Christianity by the preaching of Freeborn Garretson andjoined the Methodist Society. Allen’s conversion was such a powerful experience thatlater wrote about saying that all of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off,and glory to God, I cried. My soul was filled. I cried, enough for me--the Saviourdied. Allen and his brother’s new religion led them to work even harder in theirassignments on the plantation, as they knew that the prevailing myth of the daywas that Christianity made slaves useless.
Allen’s industrious example was so convincing that his owner was convinced thatChristianity made slaves better, not worse and he allowed Allen to invite Methodistpreachers to hold worship services in the Sturgis home. It was during this time thatSturgis was also converted and joined the Methodist Society. Garretson, like manyof the early Methodist preachers, had adopted an anti-slavery stance and hereminded Sturgis that he couldn’t get to Heaven owning slaves. This ultimately ledSturgis into a deal that allowed the Allen brothers buy their freedom. Allen earned2,000 Continental dollars over the next few years by working extra jobs and haulingsalt for the American Army during the Revolutionary War, thus earning hisfreedom.
Allen was now free to go and do what his heart truly wanted, to preach the Gospel.He began traveling in 1783 and set about preaching in Delaware, New Jersey,Pennsylvania and Maryland. He often walked so much from one place to anotherthat his feet would become severely blistered. In the winter of 1784, Allen attendedthe Christmas Conference of Methodists in America. This historic event was heldin Baltimore, Maryland and the Methodist Church established itself as a separatedenomination from the Church of England. Allen turned down an invitation byBishop Francis Asbury to travel with him to preach in the southern states, choosinginstead to continue preaching in the northeast.
Allen’s choice would prove to be providential. In 1786, the pastor of St. George’sMethodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in Philadelphia invited Allen to begin preachinga 5am worship service. Allen accepted and as a result, the attendance of Blackworshipers at St. George’s began to increase. However, the hostile attitude of theWhite officers and members also began to increase. Although St. George’s began asa church where Blacks and Whites worshiped together without regard to race,attitudes began to change quickly with the influx of new Black converts.
Once in Philadelphia, Allen became fast friends with Absalom Jones, who wouldremain his co-laborer in the Gospel throughout his life. The two men, along withother free Blacks, recognized the need for organization to meet the many unmetneeds of their fellow Black citizens. Their conversations led to the founding of theFree African Society (FAS) on April 12, 1787. This mutual aid society providedassistance to the sick, to widows, to orphans, and helped in the burying of the deadfor families regardless of religious affiliation. Although a founder, Allen was often atodd with the body due to the heavy Quaker influence which he often found at oddswith his Methodist style of worship. However rocky the relationship was, Allen andJones were both committed to the uplift of their fellow free Blacks.
Back at St. George’s, Allen’s preaching was drawing so many new Black congregantsthat the building could no longer accommodate the growing congregation. He metwith other Blacks to discuss the possibility of organizing a church of their own, butwas met with opposition (with the exception of Absalom Jones, William White, andDarius Jinnings). White church elders also rejected Allen’s vision of an independentBlack church, preferring a segregated St. George’s. To that end, a new balcony wasconstructed and upon its completion, Allen and others arrived at church only to beshown the new seating arrangement. In his own words, Allen describes the events ofthat morning:
He (the Trustee) told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to takethe seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We tookthose seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and just as wegot to the seats, the elder said, ’Let us pray.’ We had not been long upon our kneesbefore I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and sawone of the trustees, H-- M--, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him offof his knees, and saying, ’You must get up--you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jonesreplied, ’Wait till prayer is over.’ Mr. H-- M-- said, ’No, you must get up now, or I willcall for aid and force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ’Wait until prayer is over and I willget up and trouble you no more.’ With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees,Mr. L-- S-- to come to his assistance. He came, and went to William White to pullhim up. By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body,and they were no more plagued with us in the church.
This exodus led the group of exiles to begin to raise money for their own church. Dr.Benjamin Rush (a signer on the Declaration of Independence) and Robert Ralstonwere the first to lend financial backing to Richard Allen. Even the first president ofthe United States, George Washington, contributed financially to the effort. Duringthis time, the group appointed Allen, Absalom Jones, William Grey, and WilliamWilcher to locate a parcel of land on which to build an African church to worshipGod in peace. In 1791, a lot was selected on the corner of Sixth and LombardStreets. The lot, belonging to Mr. Mark Wilcox, was purchased by Allen, but thecongregation soon decided they wanted a different parcel of land on 5th Street, justsouth of Walnut Street. Allen now had to decide what to do with the property.
Adding to Allen’s stress of holding a piece of land that the congregation no longerwanted, he was soon faced with a more pressing dilemma. Much to his surprise, themajority voted to affiliate with the newly formed Episcopal Church, the Americanversion of the Church of England. An appointed committee solicited Richard Allen toserve as the church’s first pastor. He declined, however, because he felt that thesimplicity of the Methodist faith was more suitable for Black people. Absalom Joneswas then offered the position and accepted the calling, later becoming the firstAfrican American priest of the Episcopal Church. Jones and the members of theAfrican Episcopal Church of St. Thomas erected their building. Demonstrating thatAllen’s disagreement with the body was not from ill feelings, he participated in thegroundbreaking ceremony, removing the first spade of dirt and he prayed that Godwould bless their endeavors.
It should be noted that the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 forced a yearlongpostponement of fundraising for both Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in buildingtheir respective churches. Both men, along with many members of the FAS workedheroically at the call of Dr. Benjamin Rush serving as nurses to the sick, carryingthe infirmed to the hospital set up at Bush Hill, and burying the dead. Later, Blackaid workers were maligned in pamphlets by Matthew Carey who alleged thatBlacks were taking advantage of sick Whites and stealing from the dead. Thepublished response of Allen and Jones with a pamphlet of their own not only forcedCarey to print new versions with a more accurate account of their work, but it wasalso the first copyright given to Blacks in America.