Addressing the needs of the oppressed

Daily Reading for March 26 • Richard Allen, First Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1831

Born a slave in the household of a prominent Philadelphian, Richard Allen was sold to a Delaware farmer who allowed him and his brother to work as day laborers to purchase their freedom. In Delaware, Allen also encountered exhorters of the Methodist Society, then still affiliated with the Church of England. The antislavery position of the Methodists attracted him, while their inspiration led him to teach himself to read and write and to feel a spiritual awakening. . . . His 1786 return to Philadelphia introduced him to Absalom Jones, an African American preacher some years his senior, and to African Americans who were hungry for social and religious leadership in their home city. The Methodist emphasis on inner faith and weekly meetings of the faithful nourished Allen’s compatriots in times that were frequently trying. . . .

In 1787, Allen and Jones formed the Free African Society, a benevolent association that evolved into the Bethel Church. In 1799 Allen was ordained by famed Methodist bishop Francis Asbury. . . .African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregations multiplied until in 1816 their religious leaders established a separate denomination. Allen became the first AME bishop. As this branch of African American religion grew under his care, he also worked as a master shoemaker, organized schools for African American children, denounced both slavery and colonizationist schemes to expatriate African Americans, and aided the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. To Allen fell the task of preaching execution sermons for African American Philadelphians condemned by the state.

Allen’s sermons, addresses, devotional pieces, and autobiography constitute an important chapter in American writing. Charity, the first of Christian virtues, wrote Allen, should orient white Americans to the bodily and spiritual needs of African Americans, including the need for freedom. With Jones, he recounted African Americans’ charitable services during the raging yellow fever of 1793—aiding the sick, caring for orphans, burying the dead—and bitterly noted that not only had whites lied about a supposed African immunity to the disease, but also scorned and insulted their African American benefactors once the epidemic ebbed. Faith and the experience of racial inequalities led Allen to an African American reconstruction of Christianity premised upon the conviction that since the gospel addresses the needs of the oppressed, a gospel that serves oppressors is merely a human creation, not a divine one. The expression of this religious reconstruction in his writings and in African American institutions was the genius of Allen’s life.

From “Richard Allen” by John Saillant in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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