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One April Sunday, Richard and fellow black Methodists decided they wouldn’t stand for prejudice anymore.

No major Protestant denominational family in post-Revolutionary America was immune from interracial strife. Whites and blacks confronted each other over who could govern, who could be pastor, who could own church property, and who could discipline congregants. For generations those rules were set by whites, who told the Africans (as they were collectively designated) only whites could govern. Only whites could discipline. Only whites could manage church property.

Richard Allen changed the rules. The first Christian bishop of African descent in North America, he founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, one of America’s first truly independent black denominations.

Preaching in his sleep

Allen’s desire to preach had come with his conversion in his late teens. “I was constrained to go from house to house, exhorting my old companions and telling to all around what a dear Savior I had found,” he wrote in his autobiography. But he was still enslaved. “Slavery is a bitter pill, notwithstanding we had a good master.” Fortunately, he wrote, “a door was opened up unexpectedly for me to buy my time and enjoy my liberty.”

Joining a Methodist class meeting, Allen convinced white circuit rider Freeborn Garrettson to preach at his unconverted master’s house. Like Allen’s owner, Stokeley Sturgis, the New Yorker Garrettson had been a slaveholder until his own conversion four years earlier led him to free his chattels. Garrettson’s sermon from the Book of Daniel—”Thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting”—convicted Sturgis. Within two months, he contracted to grant Allen and his brother their freedom upon payment of 60£, or $2000 continental money.

By August 1783, at age 23, Allen was a free man with one desire: to proclaim the gospel. “Sometimes I would awake from my sleep, preaching and praying,” he recalled. Such ministry cost money, which he earned by cutting wood, making shoes, and other odd jobs. “My usual method was, when I would get bare of clothes, to stop travelling and go to work,” he said.

When the Revolutionary War ended, he was licensed as a preacher with the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). Not quite a circuit rider, he was more a circuit walker, who traveled until his feet became so “sore and blistered … that I scarcely could bear them to the ground.” He went first to Delaware, then into New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and perhaps as far south as Virginia and the Carolinas. He was even invited by Bishop Francis Asbury to travel regularly with him in the slave states, though Allen declined for a variety of reasons.

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In February 1786, Allen came to Philadelphia to preach at the 5 a.m. service at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. He intended to stay only a week or two in the new nation’s capital. It became his base for the rest of his life.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Will Gravely