The following article entitled “The Miracle Bethel” was written by Professor of History Alan Davis of The University of California at Davis and originally published in The New Republic on June 3, 2009. It is based on the biography of Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the AME Church, entitled “Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers,” by Richard Newman. Richard Newman is Professor of History at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. He is the author of The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic and co-editor of the series, Race in the Atlantic World, 1700–1900. It is available online at https://newrepublic.com/article/62536/the-miracle-bethel
The Miracle Bethel
Few Americans know the extraordinary story of Richard Allen, who rose from slavery in colonial America to become a prosperous entrepreneur and inspirational preacher in the early republic. In this bold biography, Richard Newman rescues Allen from obscurity to achieve a larger goal: to recognize African Americans as active makers of the American republic. The book’s title is provocative, since few people think of blacks as “founding fathers,” but instead as passive victims in an era dominated by their owners: Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton. “Above all else,” Newman explains, “this book poses a simple question: what happens if we put Richard Allen into the hallowed American founding generation?” The question turns out to have many consequences, for including blacks offers a fuller and truer picture of our origins as a nation–and of our potential as a republic.
Although sometimes repetitive and a little convoluted, Newman’s book is animated by a keen sense of the central issues and by thorough research that casts new light. Newman overcomes a daunting challenge, given that Allen left us no surviving personal papers, diaries, or journals to document his private life and thoughts. In his dying year, he prepared a didactic autobiography, but it focused exclusively on public events with considerable distortion and omission. A diligent and creative scholar, Newman weaves a forceful biography from slivers of scattered evidence found in old newspapers, probate inventories, court decisions, and church records. With persistent ingenuity, Newman illuminates Allen’s extraordinary struggle for a republic of true freedom.
Richard Allen began life as a slave, who owned neither a last name nor his own body. Called “Negro Richard,” he was born in 1760 in either Philadelphia or Delaware on the property of his owner, an attorney and judge named Benjamin Chew. Sold with his family in 1768, Negro Richard passed into the possession of a common farmer named Stokely Sturgis, who raised corn, wheat, and tobacco with the help of his human chattel.
Negro Richard grew up in “a world that accepted slavery.” In British America, every colony, North and South, entrenched slavery in the law, the economy, and society. Aside from some Quakers, few people questioned the slave system, so long as the slaves had the dark skins of Indians or Africans. Most of the slaves worked on farms or plantations as field hands, but the seaport cities also employed them as domestic servants, laundresses, sailors, dockworkers, laborers, and skilled artisans. Working as a field hand on a Delaware farm, Negro Richard mastered the skills of a sawyer, butcher, mason, and cartman. Although slight in stature, he was a hard worker who impressed his master.
Later in life, Allen concluded tersely that “slavery is a bitter pill.” Like any slave, he had to work long, hard hours with only the most meager of compensation: a shack to sleep in, rags to wear, a modicum of food–supplemented by tending his own garden at night. At any moment a master could assert his almost unlimited power to beat, whip, and even maim his property. But for Negro Richard the worst aspect of slavery was the anxious uncertainty–his lack of power over his own life and future, both at the mercy of an owner’s whim. Although better than most owners, Sturgis fell into debt and had to sell away the mother and three siblings of Negro Richard. Wounded by the rupture of his family, Richard also felt tormented by his own insecure future: “When we would think that our day’s work was never done, we often thought that after our master’s death we were liable to be sold to the highest bidder, as [Sturgis] was much in debt; and thus my troubles were increased, and I was often brought to weep between the porch and the altar.”
At the age of seventeen, he found solace in the evangelical preaching of a Methodist itinerant, one of scores who toured the American countryside, preaching an emotional faith that appealed to the humble and poorly educated, white as well as black. Focused intensely on the afterlife, where all souls were equal, the eighteenth-century Methodists showed little respect for the inequalities of this world. In the emotional depth and utter conviction of evangelical religion, Negro Richard found, in Newman’s words, a “sense of security–of belonging.” Born again, he belonged first to God and only second to Stokely Sturgis.
Richard Allen later explained that evangelical conviction afforded an eternal hope that “no master can deprive you” of. That confidence alarmed most masters, who worried that slaves would expect freedom once they became Christians. In general, slave-owners tried to keep preachers away from their property, but Sturgis feared God. By working with enhanced zeal, Richard and his fellow converts lulled their master’s temporal concerns. And by preaching to him the perils of damnation, they awakened a spiritual terror for his own eternal fate. Seeking release, he agreed to host Methodist preachers on his farm. One of the most stirring of those preachers, Freeborn Garretson, was a repentant former slaveholder, who rebuked Sturgis for holding souls in bondage. Shaken, Sturgis entered into a formal written agreement to sell freedom to Negro Richard. Jesus had set him free!
But freedom still had a price–$2,000–which Allen met by working himself to the bone during every spare moment, chopping wood and doing odd jobs. Remarkably, he completed his payments in just three years–two years ahead of schedule. He drove himself to raise the money before death or debt could intervene to break Sturgis’s commitment. In 1783, Sturgis presented him with a deed of manumission and a letter of recommendation that Richard could employ as a pass to move through communities that were wary of traveling blacks. Richard carefully kept both documents as precious but fragile proof that he was a rarity: a free black man in a slave-holding society. He promptly gave himself a last name–Allen–chosen for reasons that he never explained.
Allen’s greatest creation was his powerful sense of self-worth. As an adult, his sense of certitude and his driving ambition often rode roughly over opponents and subordinates. “Allen was stubborn in an era when many black people learned to dissemble, defer, and concede to white authority in order to survive,” Newman explains. In his ultimate triumph over an enslaved childhood, Allen developed a powerful will and a commanding sense of dignity. Born a slave, he lived a free man.
While continuing to work for wages, Allen cherished the freedom to move about, seeing new places, meeting new people, and searching for his lost mother and siblings. Encouraged by white Methodists, he became an itinerant, preaching to blacks in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Self-taught, he combined learning and spontaneity in a moving style that appealed to both the emotions and the reason.
In 1786, he settled in Philadelphia, a city attracting growing numbers of newly freed blacks, drawn by the opportunity to live near one another, by the city’s seaport economy, and by Pennsylvania’s reputation as a haven. In 1780, Pennsylvania had become the third state in the new nation (after Vermont and Massachusetts) to abolish slavery–albeit gradually, mandating the freedom of slaves born after 1780 once they reached the age of twenty-eight. The law encouraged growing numbers of slave-owners to manumit their slaves, as Sturgis had done with Allen. Although slavery persisted in Philadelphia, most of the blacks had obtained freedom–but not equality. Although the letter of the law did not discriminate against them, the magistrates and the white majority did. Enforced by violence when necessary, social custom barred blacks from voting and from holding skilled and lucrative employment. Most blacks worked at low-paying, menial jobs; the high seasonal turnover in that work rendered their lives insecure and their residence transient.
Beating the odds and the prejudice, Allen worked as a whitewasher and a shoemaker and sold dry goods. In 1789, he founded a profitable chimneysweeping business, whose customers included George Washington, who lived in the city during his second term as president. To prove his stake in the city, Allen bought his own home and acquired rental properties. By 1800, he had become the city’s second most prosperous African American–although his property ranked him only in the middle-class by white standards.
Allen worked in this life so that he could save souls for the next life, for his great love remained preaching the gospel to liberate his people from both sin and the prejudice of others. During the late 1780s, Allen uneasily preached under the auspices of the city’s leading Methodist church, St. George’s, where white men governed. In the wake of the American Revolution, the leading white Methodists sought greater social respectability by toning down their earlier emphasis on inter-racial cooperation and worship. Seeking higher status in a society dominated by white men, the leadership at St. George’s felt uneasy as Allen brought in so many new black members. Their drive to enforce social inequality clashed with Allen’s ambition to lead his own congregation.
To do so, Allen had to overcome the qualms of blacks more fearful and deferential than he. Newman makes a persuasive case that Allen shrewdly stage-managed a confrontation that obliged most of the blacks to leave St. George’s. Although Allen later claimed to have founded his own church in 1787, it remained a prayer meeting within St. George’s until 1792, when the white leadership demanded that blacks sit apart at the back of the church. Worse still, the leaders had built a separate balcony for blacks to put them out of sight when whites worshiped. When the blacks clung to their usual seats amidst the whites, a scuffle erupted, which culminated in a mass walkout led by Allen. “For subsequent generations,” Newman observes, “Allen’s act of defiance had all the meaning and power of Rosa Parks’s sit-in during the mid-twentieth century.”
The departing blacks divided to create two new congregations. Allen’s friend and frequent collaborator Absalom Jones formed a black Episcopal meeting which accepted oversight by that Church’s white bishop. But Allen insisted on developing an autonomous black church that adhered to Methodist theology and practice. Applying his carpentry skills, Allen modified a former blacksmith’s shop to form a church, which opened in July 1794. Built with his own money and hands, “Mother Bethel” was the nation’s first independent black church–with Richard Allen as its minister.
At Bethel Church, Newman explains, blacks created “an autonomous space free from white control.” Although Allen ultimately sought to integrate blacks as equals in every aspect of American life, he had to begin that work by constructing a separate black institution to nurture their capacity for leadership. In Bethel Church, blacks could organize political activity and could seek haven from abuses–including kidnapping by slave-catchers seeking human property for sale to the South. Unprecedented and bold, the creation of Bethel initiated one of the great cultural movements in American history: the development of the black churches that pushed for abolition and eventually spawned the modern civil rights movement. In Allen’s words, Bethel served as a place where blacks could “build each other up.”
In 1793, Allen faced a grim test when an epidemic of yellow fever afflicted Philadelphia, killing nearly one-tenth of the population. During that fatal summer, most healthy people with any means fled the city, leaving behind the sick and the poor–overlapping groups. The white flight tripled the city’s proportion of blacks, for few of them could afford to leave. The city’s preeminent physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, turned to Allen to recruit blacks to act as nurses, pallbearers, and gravediggers. An abolitionist, Rush shared Allen’s hope that this dangerous service by blacks would shatter the prejudice of whites. Instead, the dependence on black help inflamed that prejudice, manifested in bitter complaints that the nurses extorted premium wages from the sick. In fact, those blacks merely sought the same wages as whites–but critics saw equality in wages as extortion by people destined for drudgery. The primary critic, a journalist named Mathew Carey, also charged that blacks exploited the crisis to pilfer from the sick and to plunder abandoned homes.
Breaking with the tradition of black deference, Allen and Jones responded with a forceful pamphlet which insisted that, in Newman’s words, “blacks as a class acted more heroically than whites.” Countering Carey’s vague charge of rampant black crime, they cited many specific examples of black sacrifice. A “fierce denunciation of racism,” as Newman describes it, the pamphlet concluded with Allen’s message to slaveholders that their sin would damn them to eternity and corrupt the republic. Allen warned them to repent by liberating their slaves: “If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of Love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or country with them.”
In other slave societies–particularly in Louisiana and the Caribbean–freed blacks sought to get ahead by rejecting solidarity with slaves. These freedpeople sought a middling position in society, below whites but superior to slaves. In the United States, however, free blacks recognized that they could not advance by forgetting their people still in bondage. The particularly relentless racism of American society rejected gradations of status and color in favor of a stark polarity that deemed all blacks inferior to all whites. By casting all blacks as natural slaves, that polarity eroded the benefits of freedom, undermining the condition of free blacks.
Allen understood this linkage by painful experience. A professional slave-catcher had cast the minister into jail, accusing him of being a runaway. Only his public prominence saved him from being sent south for sale–the fate of many free blacks who fell into the clutches of slave traders. To secure their freedom, then, the free blacks had to liberate their brethren. Allen insisted that black freedom would be tenuous and black slavery would be perpetual if they waited on the paternalism of whites for justice. Anticipating Frederick Douglass, he offered himself as witness to the black longing for freedom: “I have myself been a slave and was as desirous of freedom as any of you.” Rejecting the canard that blacks were happiest in slavery, Allen appealed to whites to understand with empathy the suffering of slaves in a land that professed to be free.
Allen also argued that, by leading exemplary lives, blacks could vindicate their race as properly free and equal in America. Foreshadowing Booker T. Washington, he insisted that hard work, steady frugality, and Christian morality could win a black prosperity that would command respect from white people. Otherwise he feared that immorality and poverty would empower “the enemies of freedom [to] plead it as a cause why we ought not to be free.'” But Allen argued that the reforms must be led by blacks rather than by paternalistic whites. By policing themselves, free blacks could demonstrate the leadership that qualified them to help govern the republic.
After weathering the yellow fever controversy, Allen focused on expanding his church, which grew from about forty charter members in 1794 to over one thousand during the 1810s. As the fastest growing Methodist congregation in the city, Bethel evoked more anxiety than pride on the part of the white preachers in that denomination. Resentful of Allen’s success and his uppity style, the white elders insisted that they owned his church and should control who preached there. From 1812 through 1815, White Methodist elders repeatedly tried to force their way into the Bethel pulpit–as a show of legal possession. Just as often, Allen’s supporters blocked their way and shouted down the intruders.
Rebuffed, they brought suit and won a judgment permitting them to sell the church building and its land in June 1815. You can imagine the shock that this decision inflicted upon Allen, who regarded Bethel as more than his most cherished accomplishment–as, in fact, himself. If he lost Bethel, he returned to subjugation, which was akin in his mind to slavery. But the white Methodists underestimated Allen. He had earned enough money to offer the high bid for his own church. For $10,125–a small fortune–Allen saved Bethel Church and defied the white Methodists. But that setback invited a renewal of their efforts to invade and preach at the church–and to press a new lawsuit for control. This time the court awarded full autonomy to Allen and his trustees.
To celebrate, Allen invited other black Methodist preachers from the Middle Atlantic states to convene at Bethel Church in April 1816. The convention formed their own distinct denomination–the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church–restricted to people of African descent and with Allen as the bishop. For the first time, blacks could govern their own denomination free from the supervision of white men. During the next decade, the AME grew rapidly in numbers and in geography, spreading north, south, and west to multiply from one thousand members in 1816 to ten thousand in 1826.
To assess Allen’s significance, Newman employs the notion of a “black founder” in two ways, one bolder than the other. In the more modest (but still important) sense, Allen was a Founder for African Americans, a man who pioneered black institutions and black politics. He helped to create the first black charitable society, and copyrighted the first book authored by African Americans, and organized the first major Christian denomination led by blacks. He also established a moral critique of racism and a non-violent mode of protest of the kind later developed and sustained by Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. As a champion of “nonviolent but confrontational reform,” Newman writes, “Allen was “the forerunner of modern civil rights activists.”
In a bolder sense, Allen was a Founder for all Americans. He advanced a prophetic vision of America as a multi-racial democracy of equal rights and equal opportunities. His egalitarian vision was far more daring than anything considered by the more famous white Founders. Allen exceeded them by fighting against the white racial privilege that so stunted, and threatened to stifle, the libertarian promise of the American Revolution. Newman notes, “He and other black founders still do not get enough credit … for creating a tradition of public protest that undermined notions of racial superiority.”
Allen and other black activists–James Forten, Prince Hall, Absalom Jones–struggled against the constriction of the revolution into a race-based republic for white men. In 1776, the white Founders had declared all men created equal and divinely endowed with inalienable rights, but by 1790 most of them had regretted that revolutionary burst of enthusiasm. In 1790, Congress adopted a naturalization law that limited new citizenship to white male immigrants. In late 1799, Philadelphia blacks petitioned Congress, then meeting in their city, to repeal the fugitive slave law (which had pinched Allen) and to consider emancipating all of the slaves by some gradual process. But by an 84 to 1 vote, the House of Representatives rejected the appeal with contempt, asserting that free blacks lacked the standing as citizens to petition Congress. A Congressman from Georgia sneered that “‘We the people’ does not mean them.” Most white men had hardened around the consensus that the United States was a white man’s republic. Even most white abolitionists of that generation doubted that black freedom should bring equal political rights. In their view, the best that blacks could hope for was a limbo above slavery but below citizenship.
Despite this crushing defeat, black activists refused to abandon the universal freedom and equality promised by the Declaration of Independence. Allen insisted that blacks had a sacred and prophetic mission to save the republic from the racism of white Americans. Since most whites had lost faith in true freedom, black Americans, as Newman remarks, were “the people on whom the great experiment in liberty depended.” By non-violent resistance, blacks had a duty to remind the majority of the inclusive dream.
In his own lifetime, Allen failed to secure the integration of blacks as citizens with equal rights. He had to settle for building black institutions and bolstering black confidence–so that they could preserve revolutionary ideals for a better future. By turning to black separatism, Allen sought to buy time for the integrated America that he preferred. But his efforts certainly inspired Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist of mid-century, who considered Allen the author of a “new Declaration of Independence”; and pressure from Douglass helped Abraham Lincoln to make the case to white Americans that the security of their freedom required that all men be free. “What, after all,” Newman asks, “was Abraham Lincoln’s call for a ‘new birth of freedom’ during the Civil War other than a rousing resuscitation of black founders’–of Allen’s–original creed?” Much of what Allen wrote sounds vaguely familiar because of the resonances we hear in the subsequent eloquence of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. For the survival of their dream through the grim days of the nineteenth century, we owe Richard Allen even greater thanks than we owe Thomas Jefferson.Check out this new videoAd by SponsorSee More
But even the greatest of prophets suffer from doubt in the hardest of times. While dreaming of an integrated republic, and building the refuge of a black church, Allen began to doubt America’s redemption. Allen had made himself an exemplary American–industrious, pious, benevolent, virtuous, patriotic, and prosperous–and yet every day and in every way whites treated him as their black inferior. He reaped insults in the streets and from Congress, and he went to jail as a suspected runaway, and he had to spend his fortune to rescue his own church.
Beginning in the 1790s, and accelerating after 1800, the white public and their politicians turned away from the inclusive republic of the revolution. Instead of promoting abolition, the federal government asserted the superiority of whites, protected the property interests of slave holders, and allowed the westward expansion of slavery. For Allen, a last straw came in 1814, during the war with Britain, when an enemy fleet and army approached Philadelphia. Black Philadelphians offered to help build fortifications and to fight the common foe–but the city’s white fathers refused to let blacks bear arms, and would allow them only to work on the forts in segregated crews. The city fathers regarded black equality as a greater threat than a potential British attack (which, fortunately for them, never arrived).
Allen had long nurtured the double consciousness of African Americans–the inner debate between hope and despair, between forgiveness and anger. Despair and anger began to win as white supremacy became more entrenched in America. During the 1810s, he felt drawn to the African colonization championed by Paul Cuffee, a successful black ship captain and merchant from Massachusetts. To free American blacks from prejudice and to promote Christianity in Africa, Cuffee proposed to lead black colonists to Sierre Leone in west Africa. Intrigued, Allen recast the redemptive mission for African Americans: if the United States would not be saved for equality, perhaps Africa could be saved for Christ.
But Cuffee’s project suffered a not-so-friendly takeover by white politicians, who wanted to push out free blacks in order to reduce their challenge to the slave system. As leadership passed from a dying Cuffee to the new American Colonization Society, led by Henry Clay and James Madison, common blacks angrily rejected colonization. Allen had to reassess his support in January 1817, when a mass meeting in Bethel Church loudly bellowed “no colonization!” He endorsed the meeting’s resolution “that we never will separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population in this country.” The black masses reminded Allen that free and enslaved blacks shared a common destiny within America. Allen crafted his most famous words to renounce black colonization under white auspices: “[T]his land which we have watered with our tears and our blood, is now our mother country and we are well satisfied to stay where wisdom abounds, and the Gospel is free.”
Newman reveals that Allen’s retreat was only partial. Like other abolitionists, he despised the American Colonization Society, but he continued to dream of a black exodus under their own leaders. During the 1820s, Allen welcomed an invitation by the president of Haiti–a black republic–to recruit American blacks as settlers. In 1824, Allen thanked that president for offering a haven of “freedom and equality” to blacks seeking an escape from the American “land of oppression.” About six thousand American blacks migrated to Haiti. Most of them returned disappointed, balking at the French language and the Catholic and Vodou religions.
And yet Allen again cast about for a haven to welcome young blacks, for he felt too old and entrenched to leave the “land of oppression.” In 1830, he thought that British-ruled Upper Canada (now Ontario) offered opportunity and equality for blacks. But nothing came of that proposal before death came for Allen, in early 1831. And even when promoting exodus, Allen continued to work for the redemption of America. In 1827, he helped to organize the Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania, which promoted a boycott on goods and produce made or raised by slave labor–a pioneering use of a consumer boycott to press for social change. In his last years Allen struggled to answer the question (in Newman’s words): “Was the American nation a vessel of freedom for people of color or an iron cage of oppression?” Could they save America, or should they escape from it?
By recovering Allen’s complexity as “a divided soul,” Newman affords him a full humanity, thereby rescuing him from the rigidity of an icon. The tyranny of hindsight demands that past people become our heroes (or our villains) by behaving with a consistency that would have been shallow or impossible in their own time. That Allen struggled for the right way attests to the hard choices that his people faced in a world which we only half-remember. The central narrative of American history insists that we began purified by leaving Europe and have been getting better ever since, perfecting our special brand of freedom. In this morality play, the American Revolution serves as an accelerator, creating a republic on a slow but inexorable course to freedom and justice for all. If this is so, then it matters little that the white Founders failed in their own time to extend freedom to most blacks or to allow equality to any of them. Instead, it is said, their republic ensured that freedom, equality, and justice would emerge in due time–and not a moment too soon.
By casting the early republic as a perfect machine of inevitable progress, this consoling version of our history is doubly distorting. First, it obscures the contradictory nature of the revolutionary generation. The revolution enhanced the liberty of common white men and allowed a measure of freedom for the black minority in the northern states–but the revolution denied citizenship to free blacks, while entrenching and expanding Southern slavery, which remained the lot of most African Americans. White supremacy became more virulent and more ratified by law after 1800 than before. During the 1820s and 1830s, most northern states rescinded the right to vote from blacks (who had rarely been allowed to exercise it previously). And thanks to the southwestern extension of slavery, there were twice as many American slaves when Allen died compared to when he was born. “Richard Allen’s world was filled with high hopes and dashing disappointments,” Newman concludes.
Our comforting story of inevitable progress also obscures the endurance and the creativity of real people working to change their society–or at least to preserve its ideals for a better day. In particular, the usual story reduces black people to silent victims, waiting for white people to liberate them once the time becomes right. By recovering Allen’s life as a troubled but persistent redeemer of our republic, Newman illuminates a truer history of struggle by black as well as white Americans. In his scholarship, Newman reflects Allen’s legacy: just as Allen sought to redeem the republic from the unbearable burden of whiteness, Newman helps to reform our national memory which insists that our Founders were all white men at the center of power. If we should finally achieve a genuinely egalitarian society, we will owe as much to our black founders as to their white brethren.
Alan Taylor is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis and the author of The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (Vintage).