Bishop Richard Allen was one of America’s most active and influential African American leaders in the nineteenth century. He fought to raise the social status of African Americans and declare their moral and spiritual equality.
In 1794 Bishop Allen founded the nation’s first independent black denomination (a group of churches with the same beliefs). His goal was to organize a church where free blacks and former slaves could worship with dignity and without racial oppression. Bishop Allen also organized Sabbath schools (lessons on Sundays at church) to teach reading and writing to former slaves and free blacks.
CENTERED ON CHRIST
The roots of Bishop Allen’s work as a Christian pastor and social reformer were planted during his childhood. Allen was born into slavery. His mother and two of his siblings were sold to a different slaveowner, so Allen was raised by his older brother and sister. Allen taught himself to read and write. As a teenager, he attended a church that was welcoming to slaves and free blacks, and he committed his life to Jesus.
He says of his experience with Jesus, “My sins were a heavy burden. I was tempted to believe there was no mercy for me. I cried to the Lord both night and day. One night I thought hell would be my portion… 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. Now my confidence was strengthened that the Lord, for Christ’s sake, had heard my prayers and pardoned all my sins. I was constrained to go from house to house, exhorting my old companions, and telling to all around what a dear Saviour I had found.”
Allen began preaching about Jesus as a teenager, even witnessing to his slave owner about Jesus. When a traveling preacher (Reverend Freeborn Garrettson) visited Allen’s plantation, Allen’s slaveowner became convinced that slavery was morally wrong and against God’s law. The slaveowner allowed Allen to buy his own freedom. He then became a pastor in his mid-20s and traveled to several states to preach about Jesus.
Jesus’s teachings about freedom led Allen to establish a place of worship where former slaves could worship God freely. The independent African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) that Allen founded became a leading voice for African Americans in the nineteenth century. Today AME has more than 6,000 churches and more than two million members.