It is an understatement to say that our denomination is in a rough spot right now. Many people are feeling at best unsupported and at worst persecuted by the wider denomination, and the council of bishops has made a proposal to be voted on at General Conference in May that calls for separation. With the anniversary of last year’s painful special session of general conference coming up, let us remember another time someone split from the Methodist Church as we look at the life of Richard Allen on what would have been his 260th birthday.
Richard Allen was born in 1760 as a slave in Germantown, Pennsylvania (Ohio History Connection). He converted to Methodism as a teenager, and he eventually purchased his freedom from his master after raising money by doing manual labor and preaching (Christianity Today, African American Registry). After purchasing his freedom, he travelled and preached until he was asked to preach to the black congregants at a church in Pennsylvania called St. George’s Methodist Church. According to PBS, “Allen agreed, though he was required to preach at a 5:00 a.m. so that his services would not interfere with the whites’. He also preached on the commons in areas of the city where black families lived, often preaching as many as four or five times a day. In this way he raised a society of 42 members, while he supported himself as a shoemaker.”
As the number of black congregants at St. George’s Methodist Church grew, so did the racial tension. According to Christianity Today, the black congregants of the church were required to sit in seats along the walls, whereas the African American Registry states that the white leaders of the church instructed them to build a balcony in which they could sit. Tensions around seating continued to rise: “During one service in 1787, a group of blacks sat in some new pews that, unbeknownst to them, had been reserved for whites. As these blacks knelt in prayer, a white trustee came over and grabbed Absalom Jones, Allen’s associate, and began pulling on him, saying, ‘You must get up—you must not kneel here.’ Jones asked him to wait until prayer was over, but the trustee retorted, ‘No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.’ But the group finished praying before they got up and walked out” (Christianity Today). As Allen, Absolom Jones, and other associates began discussing leaving the church, they were met with resistance from St. George’s white leadership: “The white elder of the church, when this plan was explained to him, ‘used very degrading and insulting language to us, to try and prevent us from going on. We all belonged to St. George’s church…. We felt ourselves much cramped; but my dear Lord was with us, and we believed, if it was his will, the work would go on, and that we would be able to succeed in building the house of the Lord.’” (qtd. in PBS).
A year after responding to a call for help during an epidemic of yellow fever in part to quash racial stereotypes (PBS), Allen purchased a former blacksmith’s shop and converted it into Bethel African Church (African American Registry). Francis Asbury dedicated the church and eventually ordained Allen as its deacon (Christianity Today). According to the African American Registry, “After Bethel was officially initiated at the 1796 Methodist conference, white Methodist officials attempted to gain control over Allen’s church, but a Pennsylvania Supreme court ruling in 1807 declared that the Black Methodist congregation owned the property on which they worshipped and that they could determine who would preach there.” A new Methodist denomination was born: The African Methodist Episcopal Church (otherwise known as the AME church).
The African Methodist Episcopal Church is still a denomination today. There are many congregations of this church in the bay area, and the Encyclopedia Britannica states that many Historically Black Colleges (or HBCs), such as Wilberforce University, “are or were previously affiliated with the church, and there are three AME seminaries.” The church has greatly expanded since its inception, with the denomination’s website stating that “the African Methodist Episcopal Church has membership in twenty Episcopal Districts in thirty-nine countries on five continents” (The African Methodist Episcopal Church: “Our History”).
While it is hard for us to imagine right now what the future of the United Methodist Church will look like, we can find comfort in Methodist leaders of the past like Richard Allen. He and his associates made a way forward for themselves and their parishioners when their church and denomination failed them. While the contemporary African Methodist Episcopal Church is not inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community (according to the Human Rights Campaign), their founder stood up to inequality and injustice, and we can do the same.
For more information, please check out the resources below: