Richard Allen’s Rough Ride to Redemption

Portrait of Richard Allen taken form a lithograph entitled
"Bishops of the A.M.E. Church", c. 1876.
Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress

In 1971, Gustavo Gutierrez coined the term “liberation theology” based on inspiration derived from the autonomous communitarianism of the Catholic Worker, an organization started in 1933 by the Catholic activist Dorothy Day, an American woman now under consideration for sainthood by the Vatican. Before the Central American conflicts of the 1980’s, most modern students of revolution saw religion in light of the adage that named it “the opiate of the people.” Lately, historians have taken a new look at religion’s role in service of social change, especially the evangelical Christian movement that was able to grow and flourish in the British colonies of early America.

Richard Allen, born a slave in 1760, could arguably be called a proto-liberation theologist based on his activism, even though never a Catholic. Allen was seventeen when his second master, Stokeley Sturgis, sold his mother to another, a move that galvanized the teenager’s resolve to be free. After meeting Methodist preacher and former slaver Freeborn Garrettson, Sturgis was moved by the evangelist’s fiery sermons to sell Richard and his brother their freedom. “Working as a bricklayer, cart-man, sawyer, and butcher, among other things,” Allen’s freedom arrangement—or contract—was paid off in six years.

Started as a breakaway sect of the Anglican Church, Methodism appealed to poor and working class whites in Britain and the colonies, as well as to blacks. The revivalist meetings stuck to founder John Wesley’s abolitionist stance, and congregations were often racially mixed. Having made his way to Philadelphia from Delaware, Allen preached in the streets as well as at the predominantly white St. George’s Methodist Church until its segregated pews drove him to launch his own Bethel (House of God), which he called the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rooted in his adoption of Psalm 68—“Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall stretch forward its hands to God”—Allen was a prolific pamphleteer (a common propaganda platform of the time), a lobbyist for equality, and penned the first autobiography by a black American founder.

He held that American prosperity was created by blacks’ free labor and thus, the USA was “watered with our tears and our blood [and] is now our mother country and we are well satisfied to stay where wisdom abounds.” When Pennsylvania passed the first gradual abolition law in 1780, its seven thousand slaves escaped, petitioned, and purchased their freedom until only a few hundred remained in chains by the early 1800’s. Still, Pennsylvania offered little to blacks in the way of social, political and economic participation. Whites feared blacks as a rule, excluding them from jobs, deriding their religious pursuits, striving to deny them the vote, etc. Black churches provided the community its only refuge, and were largely maintained with considerable support from their female rank and file. Allen married twice: his first wife, Flora, died in 1801; Sarah, the second, outlived her husband by eighteen years. Both wives donated their pay from housekeeping labors and even cosigned deeds to acquire properties for Allen’s Bethel flock.

Denied membership by whites, Allen started a black Masonic lodge in Philadelphia during the year 1797 with his colleague, Absalom Jones. A decade later, three more black lodges had been added to the city. But Allen’s main focus was the church. With the imprimatur of white authorities, he incorporated his African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in 1816. By the start of the Civil War, this was the country’s leading black denomination. Having feted the demise in 1808 of the legal participation of US citizens in the international slave trade, Bethel went on to spearhead anti-slavery petition drives, host public appearances by numerous black speakers, fund the publishing of key thought-provoking pamphlets on matters including emigration to Haiti, racism in the North, civic duty, patriotic responsibility, and more.

Widely described as personable, welcoming, unpretentious and even humble, Allen was of diminutive stature, and possessed eyes that “seemed to blaze with a fire that attracted the attention of all who beheld them” when aroused. Motivated to lead blacks to face off with white politicians on racism, Allen took an active part in the first petition drive imploring the US Congress to enact a nationwide abolition law.

His first pamphlet, “A Narrative of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity of Philadelphia” was written with Absalom Jones in 1794 as a vehement attack on racism and, additionally, employed anecdotes to illustrate that blacks had stayed on to help their fellow citizens—regardless of race—amid an outbreak of yellow fever, while many whites had cut and run. He thus refuted rumors that black people had used the crisis as a cover to rob the homes of whites who had fled the city. “If you love your children,” he continued in a later section, “if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or your country with them.”

In 1799, Allen printed eulogies of Warner Mifflin, a Delawarean who freed his slaves and turned into a wandering abolitionist and; of George Washington, whose last will and testament set his slaves free upon his death [see this blog's previous entry, . Abolition, he argued through these publications, purified the soul before God and affirmed one’s role as a patriot in one’s country. Fearing that the ire of young blacks would defy traditional leadership—and white citizens in general—Allen now began to look positively on the prospects for emigration. While backing free black ship captain Paul Cuffee’s effort to foster trade relations between African and Western societies, Allen met opposition from free blacks who stood against colonization. The fact that the American Colonization Society—foremost in the push to relocate blacks in Africa—was backed and founded by slavers gave many blacks the sneaking suspicion that the initiative was largely racist in character.

Allen was further plagued by the realities of class divisions within the free black community itself.

The top 5 percent of the free black population was composed of an economic elite. Below them was a middling group of small property owners who practiced trades and ran small shops. At the bottom simmered a much larger group who rented squalid homes in alleys and courtyards and possessed negligible personal property. In stark statistical terms, there were roughly one thousand black worthies and fourteen thousand “poor people” of color in Philadelphia by the time of the first major abolitionist census in the 1830s. A decade before that, some members of the underclass had already begun turning away from Allen’s lectures on moral rectitude, piety, and temperance. 
— Richard S.Newman, “Revolutionary Black Founders, 
Revolutionary Black Communities,” 
in Young, Nash, Raphael, editors, p. 315.

Aging and tired, Allen responded to the growing racism in the North by advocating emigration to Haiti. Having weighed the possibility of African colonization as wanting, he supported proposals advocating for free blacks’ migration to Canada. In any case, his belief in liberty for blacks on American soil was steadily on the wane. Nonetheless, he stayed in Philadelphia until his death in March 1831 at the age of seventy, where he ultimately saw some hope for interracial harmony in the Free Produce Movement, a group that banned all products derived from slave labor. 

Fueled by the American Revolution and its Declaration of Independence, in tandem with the evangelical fervor that proclaimed all souls as equals in the eyes of God, Allen’s final manuscript outlined his lifelong fight for freedom. In it, he makes no reference to emigration, instead naming the United States as a homeland for blacks. Appearing posthumously in 1833, Allen’s autobiographical essay was widely read in free black homes and confirmed his standing—as Frederick Douglass later wrote—“among the remarkable men whose names have found deserved place in American annals.”

This text draws almost entirely from Revolutionary Founders: Rebels. Radicals and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, edited and with an introduction by Alfred F. Young, Gary B. Nash, and Ray Raphael. [uncorrected proof], Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011, 464 pp., with 25 illus. and 1 map.


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