It’s hard to be born at the bottom of the social ladder. It’s even harder — and crueler — when society tells you that you’re at the bottom because you’re less worthy: less intelligent, less capable, less than fully human. But Jesus taught that we’re all equally beloved in the eyes of God. That teaching is a powerful counterweight to the message you hear from society. The life of Richard Allen demonstrates that a firm belief in God and in the equality of all, along with strong character and hard work, can allow someone born at the bottom to rise to unimaginable heights.
Richard Allen was born into slavery near Philadelphia in 1760. When he was a child, he and his family were sold to a Delaware plantation owner named Stokely Sturgis. It was a hard life, and it only became harder when Sturgis found himself short of money and sold Allen’s mother and two of his siblings in order to pay the bills.
Allen and his remaining siblings began attending meetings of the local Methodist Society, which welcomed Black people. Sturgis encouraged this, though he was not himself a religious man. When Allen was a teenager, he had a powerful experience of connection with God. As he explained it later, “my dungeon shook, my chains flew, and glory to God, I cried.”
Allen arranged for Freeborn Garretson, a Methodist minister and ex-slaveowner who preached against slavery, to give a sermon at the Sturgis plantation. The owner was so moved by this sermon that he converted to Methodism and quickly came to believe that slavery was a sin. He offered his slaves the chance to buy their freedom. Allen took on extra jobs as a woodcutter and brickyard laborer to earn the money, and after several years of hard work, he became a free man.
Shortly thereafter, he became qualified as a Methodist preacher. After going on circuit rides with early American Methodist leaders, he settled in Philadelphia and began to preach at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.
Allen may have been a free man, but he still felt the sting of discrimination and unequal treatment. The Methodists would only allow Allen to lead services at 5 AM. And as the preaching of Allen and others attracted a larger following, St. George’s ordered the Black parishioners to be segregated in a balcony. In frustration, Allen and fellow preacher Absalom Jones led the Black parishioners to walk out of St. George’s. They purchased a lot in downtown Philadelphia and built a church of their own, where free and enslaved Blacks could worship with dignity and without discrimination.
It’s easy to understand why Allen’s preaching was so popular. His sermons were persuasive and direct, in keeping with his belief that “the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people.” He was less interested in prompting his listeners to reflect and meditate than in moving them to action. He preached on several key themes: he spoke in favor of education for Black people, abolition of slavery, and temperance, and against colonization movements to send Black Americans back to Africa.
Allen practiced what he preached. He and Jones co-founded the Free Africa Society, which provided assistance for fugitive slaves seeking freedom and free Black people newly arrived in the city, as well as supporting education for Black children and providing aid to widows and orphans. During a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, Society members served as nurses for the sick and buried the dead.
Allen’s good works and effective preaching won the respect of Methodist leaders such as Francis Asbury, who ordained him as the first Black Methodist minister in 1799. But Allen struggled with the denomination for equal treatment and control of his church. The fight went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ruled that Allen and his congregation owned their church property and had the right to control it.
Realizing that Black churches would never be treated as equals within the Methodist denomination, he organized a group of them to break away and form the independent African Methodist Episcopal denomination in 1816. The new denomination elected Allen as its first bishop, and he served in that role until his death in 1831.
In his lifetime, Richard Allen rose from the bottom of society as an enslaved man to become a popular and respected minister, a passionate advocate for Black people, and even the head of his own religious denomination. He rose in spite of society telling him over and over that he and his fellow Blacks were less than equal. He was able to tune out these voices because he heard a different message from God, that all people were equal in His eyes. We should honor Allen’s legacy by fighting for the equality and brotherhood of all.
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