Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church
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Joel Rose:

In the late 18th century, free blacks in Philadelphia were sometimes allowed to attend church alongside whites…as long as they sat in the back or in a separate section. That was the arrangement at St. George's, a Methodist church on Fourth Street. And it seemed to work for all concerned.

Until November of 1787…when two young African American preachers, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, knelt down to pray in the main sanctuary of the church. Richard Allen wrote about the incident years later:

"The elder said 'let us pray.' We had not been long on our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head and saw one of the trustees…having hold of the Rev. Absalon Jones, pulling him up off of his knees. And saying "you must get up - you must not kneel here."

A scuffle broke out in the sanctuary, says Phil Lapsansky, a curator at the Library Company in Philadelphia:

"Absalom Jones at this point is recorded as saying let us finish our prayers and we will trouble you no more, and at this point led a walk out of the African American congregates from St. George's and started the process that evolved into an independent African Church movement…"

Jones and Allen promptly founded the Free African Society, an organization dedicated to providing for their own community. They split in 1789 over religious differences. And Allen struck out on his own, leading a ten-person congregation in a former blacksmith's shop. Mother Bethel was consecrated five years later.

Richard Allen was born a slave in 1760. He grew up in Delaware, the property of a Quaker farmer named Stokely Sturgious. When Allen was 17, Sturgious fell on hard times, and sold Allen's parents and several siblings.

Reverend Jeffrey Leath is the current pastor at Mother Bethel:

"About the same time Allen was converted to Christianity after hearing a Methodist circuit rider preach. And he started to fellowship with the Methodists and became very much entrenched in the Methodist doctrine and practice of faith."

Leath says that Richard Allen persuaded his master to allow Methodist preachers on the plantation. And that Sturgious - a Quaker - converted to Methodism.

Reverend Jeffrey Leath:

"After his conversion, Mr. Sturgious realized it was inappropriate for him to hold slaves, so he offered Richard and his brother John to work for their freedom. They made a contract and in less than five years Richard Allen was able to purchase his freedom and that of his brother for two thousand continental dollars."

As a free man, Allen held a number of odd jobs, cutting wood and hauling salt. Allen became a traveling preacher himself, eventually settling in Philadelphia. He became an Assistant minister at St. George's church - but quit, along with his friend Absalom Jones, in 1787.

Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. Reverend Jefferey Leath says the church was an important landmark in the African-American community. And in the years before the Civil War, served an important political function as well.

Reverend Jeffrey Leath:

"Mother Bethel was a major stop along the Underground Railroad. It was a place of refuge. People were actually kept in the church."

The church was well equipped to help runaway slaves, says Emma Lapsansky, professor of history at Haverford College:

"Because after all if you are an African American and you're running away from someplace. The best place to hide is not among white folks; the best place to hide is among other brown people."

By the time Allen passed away in 1831, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was the first independent African-American denomination in America. Today the church has two and a half million members nationwide.

Richard Allen and his wife Sarah are interred on the site of the current Mother Bethel church, at Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia.
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