Series: How Faith Shapes Government, Part VI – By Dr. Kelli Criss
Our most recent blogs have explored the life of an African American pillar of faith, Reverend Richard Allen. In particular, we discussed Richard Allen’s fight for the civil rights of Philadelphia’s black community and his admonishment of faith leaders to act righteously. Today’s blog, Admonishing Leadership to Act Righteously, Part VI, addresses Allen’s impact upon civil government leadership.
Free African Societies: Serving God across Early America
Forming the Free African Society in 1787, Allen and his contemporaries were a catalyst for unifying blacks under godly leadership in Philadelphia and beyond. The influence of the Free African Society spread among free blacks in additional areas of the country. Quickly, similar Free African Societies emerged in Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; New York City, New York; and Charleston, South Carolina.
Under Allen’s leadership, Philadelphia’s Free African Society drafted articles of association emphasizing Biblical tenets like: a) membership dues served the community’s needs, b) the society was responsible for the care of widows and orphans; and c) members had to conduct themselves according to Biblical principles, including the prohibition of drunkenness and immoral actions.
Allen’s Fruitful Efforts: Righteousness in Civil Government
Allen’s campaign for liberty and justice for black Americans is evident in the spread of Philadelphia’s Free African Society. Of particular note is the miraculous work God accomplished through the Boston African Society, a sister organization of Philadelphia’s Free African Society. In 1777, Prince Hall, a leader in the Boston African Society, petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts to abolish slavery entirely. Indeed, Massachusetts was among the first states to abolish slavery in 1783.
The Free African Society’s proximity to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall indicates the sovereignty of God in America’s affairs. George Washington’s 1790 arrival at the President’s House, located next to Independence Hall, began a ten-year period in which America was led from Philadelphia. Strategically located just down the street from Independence Hall were the homes of Allen and additional faith community leaders who were among our nation’s Black Founders. Allen and fellow Black Founders held the newborn republic in their arms, nurturing faith in God and civil rights.
Fighting Godless Legislation
Upon the Fugitive Slave Act’s passage in 1793, Allen and his fellow Free African Society leaders in Philadelphia were outraged. This law legalized the arrest, re-capture, and return to their masters of fugitive slaves. The law ensured enforcement in every city by tasking magistrates with the law’s application and by designating fines for any person aiding a fugitive slave. Clearly, abolitionists and runaway slaves were the target of the law.
Allen and Philadelphia’s Free African Society took swift action to exert their influential status in the city. The Society’s efforts involved a focused campaign to fight the Fugitive Slave Act: a) writing letters, newspaper articles, and pamphlets, b) gathering petitions, and c) preaching sermons condemning the unrighteous law. Their fight admonished the Independence Hall leadership, including Congress and the President, to restore justice.
The National Convention Movement: Admonishing Fledgling America to Act Righteously
As if founding one of Philadelphia’s first black churches, Bethel, and the African Methodist Episcopal denomination were not enough for God to accomplish through Allen and his contemporaries, God helped Allen unite African Americans nationwide in the fight for civil rights in early America. In September of 1830, Allen along with fellow Black Founders met at Philadelphia’s Bethel Church along with forty delegates for the first national convention of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour.
Together the delegates drafted a constitution drawn from the Declaration of Independence’s guiding principles. Having their travel restricted by recent laws controlling the free movement of free blacks, additional delegates were unable to meet in Philadelphia. Such injustices were the key fights undertaken by the newly established society. The American Society of Free Persons of Colour united a nationwide system of patriots fighting for all Americans “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” just as the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed.
Through a Legacy of Godly Leadership
In March 1831, Allen passed away, shortly after the historic beginnings of the National Convention Movement. One wonders if Allen, as a young slave, could ever have imagined that God would use him to found one of Philadelphia’s first black churches, establish a denomination, set the stage for Massachusetts’ abolition of slavery, and begin the National Convention Movement devoted to civil rights. Allen’s story exemplifies how God can use one life to execute His righteousness on the earth.
We’ll see you next week as we discuss how you can affect change in civil government and admonish our nation’s leadership to act righteously.
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.