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African American History of Philadelphia Heritage Trail
Item 17 of 29
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 Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1794 by Richard Allen

The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1794 by Richard Allen

The story of Mother Bethel cannot be told without first telling the story of the
founder, 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 Supreme
Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and personal attorney to the Penn
Family, was a wealthy landowner who owned property near the Philadelphia water
front, at Cliveden (which is now the Germantown section of the city), and farms in
Delaware. 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 is
that the family was purchased by a Delaware planter, Mr. Stokley Sturgis, when
Allen was seven years old. Later, Allen’s mother was again sold along with three of
her six children, leaving Allen, his older brother, and a sister on the Sturgis
plantation. 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 more
like a father to his slaves. However, even with a "kind" owner, Allen still held that
slavery "was a bitter pill". As he and his brother grew older, they were permitted to
attend religious meetings of the Methodist Society. In 1777, at the age of seventeen,
Allen was converted to Christianity by the preaching of Freeborn Garretson and
joined the Methodist Society. Allen’s conversion was such a powerful experience that
later 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 Saviour
died." Allen and his brother’s new religion led them to work even harder in their
assignments on the plantation, as they knew that the prevailing myth of the day
was that Christianity made slaves useless.

Allen’s industrious example was so convincing that his owner was convinced that
Christianity made slaves better, not worse and he allowed Allen to invite Methodist
preachers to hold worship services in the Sturgis home. It was during this time that
Sturgis was also converted and joined the Methodist Society. Garretson, like many
of the early Methodist preachers, had adopted an anti-slavery stance and he
reminded Sturgis that he couldn’t get to Heaven owning slaves. This ultimately led
Sturgis into a deal that allowed the Allen brothers buy their freedom. Allen earned
2,000 Continental dollars over the next few years by working extra jobs and hauling
salt for the American Army during the Revolutionary War, thus earning his

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 another
that his feet would become severely blistered. In the winter of 1784, Allen attended
the "Christmas Conference" of Methodists in America. This historic event was held
in Baltimore, Maryland and the Methodist Church established itself as a separate
denomination from the Church of England. Allen turned down an invitation by
Bishop Francis Asbury to travel with him to preach in the southern states, choosing
instead to continue preaching in the northeast.

Allen’s choice would prove to be providential. In 1786, the pastor of St. George’s
Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in Philadelphia invited Allen to begin preaching
a 5am worship service. Allen accepted and as a result, the attendance of Black
worshipers at St. George’s began to increase. However, the hostile attitude of the
White officers and members also began to increase. Although St. George’s began as
a 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 would
remain his co-laborer in the Gospel throughout his life. The two men, along with
other free Blacks, recognized the need for organization to meet the many unmet
needs of their fellow Black citizens. Their conversations led to the founding of the
Free African Society (FAS) on April 12, 1787. This mutual aid society provided
assistance to the sick, to widows, to orphans, and helped in the burying of the dead
for families regardless of religious affiliation. Although a founder, Allen was often at
odd with the body due to the heavy Quaker influence which he often found at odds
with his Methodist style of worship. However rocky the relationship was, Allen and
Jones 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 congregants
that the building could no longer accommodate the growing congregation. He met
with other Blacks to discuss the possibility of organizing a church of their own, but
was met with opposition (with the exception of Absalom Jones, William White, and
Darius Jinnings). White church elders also rejected Allen’s vision of an independent
Black church, preferring a segregated St. George’s. To that end, a new balcony was
constructed and upon its completion, Allen and others arrived at church only to be
shown the new seating arrangement. In his own words, Allen describes the events of
that morning:

"He (the Trustee) told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take
the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took
those seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and just as we
got to the seats, the elder said, ’Let us pray.’ We had not been long upon our knees
before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw
one of the trustees, H-- M--, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him off
of his knees, and saying, ’You must get up--you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones
replied, ’Wait till prayer is over.’ Mr. H-- M-- said, ’No, you must get up now, or I will
call for aid and force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ’Wait until prayer is over and I will
get 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 pull
him 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 Ralston
were the first to lend financial backing to Richard Allen. Even the first president of
the United States, George Washington, contributed financially to the effort. During
this time, the group appointed Allen, Absalom Jones, William Grey, and William
Wilcher to locate a parcel of land on which to build an African church to worship
God in peace. In 1791, a lot was selected on the corner of Sixth and Lombard
Streets. The lot, belonging to Mr. Mark Wilcox, was purchased by Allen, but the
congregation soon decided they wanted a different parcel of land on 5th Street, just
south 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 longer
wanted, he was soon faced with a more pressing dilemma. Much to his surprise, the
majority voted to affiliate with the newly formed Episcopal Church, the American
version of the Church of England. An appointed committee solicited Richard Allen to
serve as the church’s first pastor. He declined, however, because he felt that the
simplicity of the Methodist faith was more suitable for Black people. Absalom Jones
was then offered the position and accepted the calling, later becoming the first
African American priest of the Episcopal Church. Jones and the members of the
African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas erected their building. Demonstrating that
Allen’s disagreement with the body was not from ill feelings, he participated in the
groundbreaking ceremony, removing the first spade of dirt and he prayed that God
would bless their endeavors.

It should be noted that the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 forced a yearlong
postponement of fundraising for both Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in building
their respective churches. Both men, along with many members of the FAS worked
heroically at the call of Dr. Benjamin Rush serving as nurses to the sick, carrying
the infirmed to the hospital set up at Bush Hill, and burying the dead. Later, Black
aid workers were maligned in pamphlets by Matthew Carey who alleged that
Blacks were taking advantage of sick Whites and stealing from the dead. The
published response of Allen and Jones with a pamphlet of their own not only forced
Carey to print new versions with a more accurate account of their work, but it was
also the first copyright given to Blacks in America.