Thursday, 19 April 2012

Richard Allen: America's Persistent Evangelical Founding Father

I just finished Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers by Richard S. Newman. The book offers a captivating account of an important, but largely forgotten, black American evangelical leader.

Richard Allen (1760-1831) was a determined man. In fact, Newman argues that "Allen's most important trait was his rigid determination, some would say obstinacy" (7). Born into slavery on February 14, 1760, Allen's first owner, Benjamin Chew, was an affluent Philadelphia lawyer. Perhaps wanting to pay off some debts, Chew sold Allen in 1768 to the Delaware farmer Stokeley Sturgis. Although calling slavery "a bitter pill" in his posthumous autobiography, Allen did not disclose any significant details about his early life of bondage.

In 1777 he had a conversion experience when he heard a sermon by an itinerant preacher near the Sturgis farm. After his conversion, he joined a Methodist class meeting and began exhorting. Two years later in 1779, he made arrangements for the Methodist preacher Freeborn Garrettson to speak to Sturgis. Employing the biblical text of Daniel 5:27, Garrettson shamed Sturgis into an agreement in which Allen could pay for his freedom over the course of five years. In record time, the young man paid off his debt of $2,000 to Sturgis three and a half years early in 1783 after backbreaking work chopping wood and performing odd jobs. Changing his name from "Negro Richard" to "Richard Allen," the newly freed man began circuit preaching for the Methodists. He started preaching in Wilmington, Delaware in 1783 and then moved on to New Jersey. Between 1784 and 1785, he traveled to southeastern Pennsylvania, Baltimore, Maryland, and Kent County Delaware before permanently settling in Philadelphia in 1786.

While in Philadelphia, Allen ministered to black congregants at St. George's Episcopal Church. Later in 1792, he led a mass exodus from St. George's when white members tried forcing blacks to sit in the balcony of the church. From the savings he had accumulated from his successful chimney sweep business and other entrepreneurial ventures, Allen purchased a lot and former blacksmith shop, which became Bethel Church. The official opening was on July 29, 1794, with religious special guests such as Francis Asbury in attendance. Within a year, over one hundred people were attending, and by 1810 some 400 members claimed Bethel as their home church. As Bethel grew in prominence, Newman shows that white Methodist elders sought to seize control of the flourishing church. The articles of incorporation that Allen had ratified gave white Methodist elders certain powers over the black trustees. A legal war ensued and ultimately Allen and his congregation had to cough up the enormous sum of $9,600 in 1815 in order to keep the church from being sold. Shortly after gaining independence, Bethel forged an alliance with other Atlantic black congregations, forming the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, with Allen as its first bishop.

Throughout his narrative, Newman shows Allen as an outspoken advocate for African American rights. In his first pamphlet, "A Narrative of the Proceeding of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia," Allen and his friend and coauthor Absalom Jones, defended the character of blacks in the aftermath of a Yellow Fever epidemic that ravished Philadelphia in 1793. Thousands of people (mostly wealthy white residents) fled the city, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. Believing blacks to be immune from the disease, the physician Benjamin Rush asked Allen and other African Americans to help care for the sick and dying. Seeing this as an opportunity to "help the cause of racial injustice," African Americans diligently tended to the disease-ridden people of Philadelphia, burying the dead, and burning infected clothes and linens in the process. Allen and Jones testified that they looked after some 800 people, which cost them personally 178.98 pounds in net expenses. The pamphlet, which chronicled some of the heroic efforts of individual black Americans,
was a response to the Philadelphia printer Mathew Carey's earlier piece in which he claimed that blacks had taken advantage of the situation by charging exorbitant fees for their labor.

Feeling discouraged at the treatment of African Americans, especially after his own encounter with white Methodist leaders over control of Bethel, Allen wondered if blacks wouldn't be better off somewhere other than the United States. Allen supported the colonization scheme of Paul Cuffee, a free black ship captain and Quaker who believed that true freedom awaited in Sierra Leone. When Africa failed to deliver the implied promise of freedom and prosperity to blacks, Allen shifted his support to populating Haiti, and then later Canada. Although becoming wealthy and prosperous in America, Allen was not sanguine about the prospects that other blacks could find the same measure of success in a land that had grown hostile toward people of African descent.

I commend Newman for producing a very interesting biography of Richard Allen. I can't recall reading as many exclamation points in a monograph as I did in Newman's book. But then again, Newman had a lot to celebrate when describing the rags to riches story of a black evangelical who broke free from the shackles of slavery to become arguably the most important African American of his time.

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