Series: How Faith Shapes Government, Part V – By Dr. Kelli Criss
Last week, we discussed the life of an African American pillar of faith, Reverend Richard Allen, who shaped early America’s church and lit the sparks of the modern civil rights movement. Today’s blog, Admonishing Leadership to Act Righteously, Part V, explores Allen’s fight for the civil rights of Philadelphia’s black community and his admonition to the faith community to act righteously.
Admonishing the Church to Act Righteously: Walking Out for Freedom
In Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia congregation, St. George’s, founded for and lead by whites, often welcomed Allen’s preaching. A 1780 Pennsylvania law gradually emancipating slaves carved a role for Philadelphia as a refuge for runaway Southern slaves. As Allen preached at the early Sunday service at St. George’s church, the congregation filled with black members. Another later Sunday service, considered the main service, also filled with black members. St. George’s leadership implemented rules to limit African American attendance at the main Sunday service by providing seating only along the walls for blacks.
Subsequently, as they attended the main service on Sunday, Allen and fellow African Americans were relegated to gallery seats only. During this particular service, black congregants and Allen, who were seated in the gallery, kneeled for the prayer. Allen, distracted by motion nearby, gazed over in time to see a white church trustee forcing his friend, Absalom Jones, to rise from his prayers. The trustee informed Jones he couldn’t kneel in his current location. Jones asked that the trustee wait until prayer ended. The trustee called over another white trustee. Yet another man, William White, was pulled up from his kneeling position to be moved by the white trustees.
The African American congregants chose then to leave St. George’s, at that moment. Such a decisive action in the early American church was incredibly historic. Such a “walk out” of African American congregants consisting of myriad former slaves was the first of its kind in our nation’s history. As during the trials of his earliest ministry on the New England circuits, Allen again experienced the goodness of God amid trouble.
The Beginning of a Church for Philadelphia’s Black Faith Community
St. George’s segregation denied many of Philadelphia’s African American Christians a place of worship; however, Allen and three close fellow sojourners, Absalom Jones, William White, Dorus Ginnings, knew God would use them to begin the journey toward founding their own Methodist Episcopal church. They desired to establish a church in which blacks could worship without racism. In the face of threats from St. George’s white elders to revoke their Methodist Episcopal membership, a 27-year-old Allen and his three brothers in Christ began prayer meetings. Even these meetings occurred in defiance of St. George’s white leadership. Allen set about fundraising to prepare for founding a church to serve Philadelphia’s black community and to operate the Free African Society.
Born Together: The American Nation and the Free African Society
At this watershed moment in American history, the adoption of the Free African Society’s articles of association coincided with the 1787 meeting of the Constitutional Convention. Philadelphia’s Independence Hall hosted the Constitutional Convention beginning May 25, 1787 while Allen’s nearby home held the May 17th, 1787 inaugural meeting of the Free African society. The momentous significance of the Free African Society’s inaugural meeting is twofold: a) it preceded the Constitutional Convention and b) it was the first entity of its kind devoted to, led by, and operated by devoted black people of faith. What a tremendous indication of the importance of America’s birth as a nation where all people are created equally under God. As a people of faith, we thank God for the significance of Allen’s leadership for our entire nation and for the kingdom of God.
Alexander, E. Curtis. Richard Allen. New York: ECA Associates, 1985.
Mathews, Marcia M. Richard Allen. Baltimore: Helicon, 1963.
Wesley, Charles H. Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom. Washington, D. C.: The Associated Publishers, 1969.
Newman, Richard S. Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. New York: New York University Press, 2008.