March 26: Richard Allen First Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1831

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Richard Allen was born into slavery in 1760 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Allen, his parents, and his siblings were eventually sold to owner Stokely Sturgis, whose plantation was in Delaware. The Methodists were already active in Delaware, and Sturgis allowed Allen to attend church. At the age of 17, Richard underwent a classic conversion experience: “I cried to the Lord both day and night,” Allen said. “All of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and, glory to God, I cried.”

Allen brought members of the Methodist Church into his master’s home, where Sturgis heard a sermon by the great Methodist preacher Freeborn Garrettson. Sturgis was himself converted, and he allowed Allen to hire himself out and purchase his freedom; five years later, Richard Allen was a free man.

In 1786, Allen became a preacher at St. George’s United Methodist Church, but he was restricted to preaching at early morning services. Eventually, as black membership increased, the vestry decided to build a segregated section for black worshippers. Allen, along with his friend Absalom Jones, resented the segregation of his fellow black Christians, and in 1787, Allen and Jones led black worshippers out of St. George’s in protest.

While Jones and many of those associated with him joined the Episcopal Church, Allen wanted to continue in his Methodist religion. He had been cooperating with Bishop Francis Asbury to spread Methodism among African Americans, and in 1794 he founded Bethel Church in Philadelphia. When the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church declared its independence, Allen became its first Bishop.

Throughout his life, Richard Allen remained an advocate of freedom for all people, even operating a station on the underground railroad for escaped slaves. His ardent belief in the brotherhood of all who belonged to Christ is best expressed in one of the many hymns he wrote:

Why do they then appear so mean

And why so much despised?

Because of their rich robes unseen

The world is not appriz’d.


I     Loving God, whose servant Richard Allen was born a slave but in thee learned that he was thy beloved child by adoption in Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit was led to proclaim liberty to his captive people: Give us strength to proclaim thy freedom to the captives of our world; through Jesus Christ, Savior of all, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II     Loving God, your servant Richard Allen was born a slave, but in you he learned that he was your beloved child by adoption in Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit was led to proclaim liberty to his captive people: Give us strength to proclaim your freedom to the captives of our world; through Jesus Christ, Savior of all, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Exodus 6:1-11

Acts 12:1-11

John 7:25-31

Psalm 136:1-2, 10-16

Preface of Baptism

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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36 thoughts on “March 26: Richard Allen First Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1831

  1. Bio. He needs a “Who he is and why he is important” statement in the first sentence. Instead we hear about Stokely Sturgis of Delaware. And, he needs a ‘He died in 1831.’statement to end the bio.

  2. Please explain to me how this non-Episcopalian is here? OK, I get the ones before the Episcopal Church began … but isn’t this one stretching it? I mean, “I have friends who are Episcopal …”

    • Tony — One of General Convention’s requests to the SCLM was for ecumenical inclusiveness, among others. I’ve suggested a practical need for distinguishing among groups (some outlandish groups come to mind along with other, bona fide groups), I actually agree that we shouldn’t see God’s work being done only through provincial, in-group, “us only” filters. God’s grace isn’t a proprietary operation. I hope people won’t “pick” on SCLM or the blog managers — political processes have built in limitations (“it’s suppertime, let’s vote and go eat”) but I’ve loved LFF, and this blog opportunity is worth doing just for the sharing that takes place here! I’m sure it will bear SOME fruit — just don’t order an oversized fruit basket — nor order it prematurely! Here is a paragraph from some GC report I found on line:

      5. Range of Inclusion: Particular attention should be paid to Episcopalians and other members of the Anglican
      Communion. Attention should also be paid to gender and race, to the inclusion of laypeople (witnessing in
      this way to our baptismal understanding of the Church), and to ecumenical representation. In this way the
      Calendar will reflect the reality of our time: that instant communication and extensive travel are leading to an
      ever deeper international and ecumenical consciousness among Christian people.

      I saw the “flowers” sent my way in a comment — thanks, but Philip and others know far more than I do. (How many “K’s” in L. O. Kwent?) This really is a rare and welcomed atmosphere in which to savor and appreciate “the cloud of witnesses” — those commemorated, and those sharing and exploring viewpoints about them. I’ll miss it when we finish the one-year life span of this blog. (I believe the quantative survey component has now “bit the dust” — but I could be misinterpreting what I find when I try to access it.) Happy blogging!

  3. I have no problem with honoring this devout man, but could the headline be changed from “First Bishop” to “Founder”? Likewise, in the fourth paragraph, put quotation marks around both occurrences of “Bishop” (and use lower case for the initial letter). These men may have taken the title of bishop, but the Episcopal Church does not recognize the validity of their orders. (Nor, for that matter, in the case of Asbury, did John Wesley.)

    • this is actually untrue – The Episcopal Church has never declared the orders of another denomination invalid — this understanding, while believed by Episcopalians and Methodists, is incorrect. The ELCA and the Interim Eucharistic Sharing Agreement with United Methodists made this quite clear.

  4. John, I don’t have a problem with the use of Bishop here. If we are to honor him, it would like…snide?… to put his title in quotes; one might as well say “so-called” outright. I don’t think he “took” the title; we don’t consider him to have been consecrated in the Apostolic Succession but I think he was properly consecrated in the AME’s eyes. (After all, we apparently accept the orders of the ELCA, our full-communion brethren!)

    Tony– welcome to the party. HWHM honors a plethora of non-Christians, not just non-Episcopalians. This is a matter of some controversy (understatement). I am OK with, as John says, this devout man, a compatriot of Absalom Jones. Now J H Newman, the Mayos, & the Menningers… not so much!

  5. By the way– what happened to Lady Day?? I looked in my copy of HWHM and the Annunciation is indeed in there for March 25…

    • The Prayer Book Feasts, of which The Annunciation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary (its title on BCP page 33) is one, are not included in the SCLM blog seeking comments on the contents of HWHM. As their lections and collects are part of the Book of Common Prayer 1979 they are not subject to revision by any one General Convention. None of the Prayer Book Feasts have appeared on the SCLM blog (examples: Joseph, Saint Michael and All Angels, The Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, etc.).

      • Someone did include All Saints Day, probably only by oversight — but I wish they would be included for sharing of comments, anyway. (We wouldn’t expect the BCP parts to change. Still, I would think the “bio” part (not in BCP) could nevertheless benefit from this input.)

  6. “Allen wanted to continue in his Methodist religion” is insulting and poor history to boot. Methodism was a reform movement within Anglicanism that bishops (and lay leadership) were busy trying to force out by both ignoring it and by direct action.

    A truly amazing statement in a text that tries to be inclusive. Try “Allen felt that Methodism was a more faithful expression of Christianity, so he chose to remain in that observance.”

    How utterly condescending–and even racist– on HWHM;s part.

    • Walter– I like your formulation better, but why is the proposed one condescending and/or racist?

      And in general: I did not find Allen listed as an author in our 1982 Hymnal, nor in my in-laws’ Methodist Hymnal, but the bio refers to “one of the many hymns he wrote;” I assume they’d be in an AME hymnal? Should that be included in the subtitle, since it’s referenced? This dilemma sort of references John’s comments on “Bishops”– including relatively modern non-Episcopalians creates all kinds of confusion.

      • “Condescending” Look at the comparison:
        “While Jones and many of those associated with him joined the Episcopal Church, Allen wanted to continue in his Methodist religion.” Jones joins the church. Allen remains behind in /his/ religion. That says “_the_ Episc. Church is real Christianity and Methodism is a counterfeit or at least a poor copy. I would suggest that it verges on racism because this sort of condescending language has not been (at least obviously) present in entries about non-Anglican protestant white notables, but I’ve picked it up when it’s a non-white.

        Also Allen never preached at St. George’s /United/ Methodist Church. That name did not exist until the union of Methodists and EUB in the middle of the 1900’s. It should be St. George’s Methodist Church (or Chapel) or possibly even just St. George’s Church. Someone more versed in Methodist history should do some fact checking to determine the correct name.

  7. Allen was quoting one of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns, written in 1734:

    Long my imprisoned spirit lay
    Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
    Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
    I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
    My chains fell off, my heart was free;
    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
    Amazing love! How can it be
    That Thou my God shouldst die for me?

    The hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time I sing this hymn…

  8. Lin, I wasn’t trying to be snide, just factual. My I now suggest a more modest change: In the fourth paragraph, change “Bishop Francis Asbury” to “Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury.” I presume we accept the validity of ELCA orders, but not even all Methodists (e.g., the British Methodist Church, which doesn’t have bishops) accept the validity of American Methodist bishops. Wesley sent him to America as “superintendent” of his followers in America. Once Asbury got here, I am told by a good friend who is a Methodist pastor, he “woke up one morning and started signing his letters as “Bishop Francis Asbury”–a move that infuriated John Wesley.

    Walter, like Lin, I like your formulation better, but ask the same question regarding condescension/racism. Methodism is denomination of the Christian religion, not a separate religion. Your are correct in saying that Methodism was originally a reform movement within the C of E. However, by 1794, when the AME Church was established, the (American) Methodist Church was a distinctly separate denomination from the American offspring of the C of E, the PECUSA.

  9. Lin, every once in awhile I like to try to center us back into our particular denomination. It seems there are many over-looked Episcopals as it is! Although I do like the “ancients” (those before Henry VIII, if you will). Father Wainwright, I see you’re still in Pittsburgh? I was the final editor for the 2001 ECD, to which you responded. I literally poured over 17,000 entries for that project in an attempt to correct years of mistakes. It was one of the great joys of my life in the church (working for Church Pub? Maybe not so much!). You can also see my name at the end credits for The Rite Stuff (again, don’t blame me for some of the idiosyncrasies!) … ok, onto the next “saint” …

    • Tony– my apologies; It seems that *I* am actually the new kid on the block! I agree that HWHM ranges pretty far afield, though. Casting such a very broad net starts to look as though we’ve collected everybody worth honoring from every tradition– highly improbable. Plus it seems that the compilers lost track of the intended audience, which I think would be Episcopalians celebrating the Offices. I have read the prefatory material including former PB Griswold’s commendation, but I remain unconvinced that the collection is on the right track. (PS, as a weekly bulletin preparer, thanks for all stuff that IS right in the Rite Stuff!)

      John: Wesley’s is a really glorious hymn– but in fact the hymn quoted in the text is actually Richard Allen’s. I found in a Google book which of course doesn’t let you copy unless you download the monster PDF; here’s a link, though: It’s on page185 of a book called “What God Hath Wrought” by Comer Vann Woodward & Daniel Walker Howe; OUP, 2007. It does make sense that his work would have a Wesleyan flavor…

      In regards to the commemorations that are called into question, and the very careful text editing I see offered, I would ask all the commenters here this question: I know this book is only approved for trial use, but what are the odds that these concerns & comments will actually have any effect? (

      • Scrolling up in “What God Hath Wrought,” I discovered that Richard Allen is a focus for several pages. Google being Google, pages 181-2 have been snipped, but 183-5 tell a story very close to the version above, starting with his conversion. The bio above is almost an edited version of the book’s story. Which makes me wonder (and I did look in the book): how are the sources for these biographies credited?

      • Lin, go out and buy a Powerball ticket before the next drawing for the same odds. HWHM is fraught with sloppy editing and inconsistent style. In this year, the quatercentenary of the publication of the King James Bible, it’s nice to remember that at least once in our history a committee of Anglicans was able to produce magnificent prose (and poetry). The SCLM should seek some guidance from Lancelot Andrewes and his companions.

      • I meant the quote “All of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and, glory to God, I cried.”

      • Actually, SCLM is paying close attention to our comments and suggestions. It is the reason that they have asked all of us to comment every day. As one who has been commenting from Day One in July 2010 I am glad to see so many new names appearing on the blog. Many of the style issues you are commenting about, source citing, and accuracy of the biographical material are areas well known to the ‘veterans’ of the blog.

        This is a very interesting ecclesial community – and one that is committed to the Daily Office and ‘the lights of the world in their generation’. May our number increase.

    • I don’t quite to know what to make of the fact that you remember me out of 17,000 entries! I’d have thought that that John LaVoe would be the one you’d remember…

      • Well, only about half of all clergy responded that year, but I have one of those odd photographic memories (although I’d prefer it be photogenic … ok, I’ll stop!). Speaking of Father LaVoe, I wish I had him on my editorial team during development of the Rite Series! His eloquence and writing style are superb, not to mention his depth of knowledge! For those curious, one need only see his comments on William Temple on this site.

    • Oh, dear, oh, dear, if you “poured” over 17,000 entries, did you get them all wet, literally? 🙂
      Now, if you “pored” over them, I could take that literally. Hey, words is my bidness.

      • That’s what I get for typing too fast! Although there were times that I did want to throw cold water over the whole project!

  10. The “United Methodist” Church did not exist until 1968. In the 1760’s St. George’s likely would have been a church in the Methodist Episcopal denomination. It would also be more appropriate to say “Methodist tradition” rather than “Methodist religion.” The religion is Christian.

    It is very important that we have all of the historical details correct. We don’t want to pass along faulty facts or embarrass ourselves.

  11. What a wonderful bunch of comments. Dr. Wainwright: could the phrase “amazing love” in the Wesley hymn you quote been at least one inspiration for the (maybe a century later) hymn “Amazing Grace?” Jeremiah: thanks for the accurate historical date about the Methodist tradition. –Michael: great that you’ve been on this blog since Day 1. I got started on it because of the Daily Office–I used to log on to the Satucket website every day, and when this blog started, the Satucket web editor gave notice every single day of the HWTM blog, so I “enrolled” in it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it. (And for months I compared the HWHM bios with James Kiefer’s, which I often preferred). BUT I think this amazing resource should go beyond people like me who click on to the Daily Office on-line every day, or say it with others “live” at church. There’s too much wonderful information (granted, in need of the editing many of those commenting are providing, both stylistic and factual!) to imagine the audience just those of us who do the Daily Office.

  12. Everyone: I find myself in complete agreement with all of you. How harmonious we are tonight! 🙂

    My husband & I are responsible for preparing an Order of Worship & then leading the EP service in our parish on Wednesday nights, so we spend a lot of time on Satucket on Mondays and Tuesdays– otherwise I tend to use my Daily Office books, even though they do have the “old” RSV. So I was late in becoming aware of this blog, and I am so sorry to gather that it has only a few months to run! This is a wonderful community, and I am grateful to have learned of it.

    Celinda– I also check back on Satucket, and I do find that at times, I do prefer what James Kiefer offers.

    Michael– you give us hope. I am glad to hear that these discussion may bear fruit other than in our own lives. (Maybe I should buy that Powerball ticket, then!) And I do agree with John that I’d like to see the Prayer Book feasts discussed here, especially because both my LFF and HWHM books do have the bio information (well, not really a bio on Lady Day, but background info), and this is such a strong group of editors. (On which– at the school where I teach I have the title of “the Demon Editor.” I think I’d gladly cede that to several of you!)

    And now back to “Why we have the RCL” for tomorrow’s adult formation…

  13. To all … this really is a joyous exercise! There really are no wrong answers are there? Simply the process which bears such fruit, if only in the mental workout. (PS, I’m trying to work in a Wrong Series joke here, but it’s too late in the evening.) For those that don’t know me, I’m almost 60 and had a liver transplant a year ago (cured the cancer), so I’m basically retired and am free to indulge the joy of living … who could ask for anything more? I feel like I’m back in school!

  14. Richard Allen First Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1831
    TITLE: The obvious question is whether being the first bishop is what calls for Richard Allen’s inclusion in HWHM, or if something more substantive should be mentioned in the title. Founding the AME Church stands out, as does the reference in paragraph 5, “Advocate of Freedom.” “Church Reformer” suggests itself, as well (although that could point confusingly to the Reformation period).
    BIOGRAPHY: While important information is included in the first two paragraphs it seems thin and diluted by wording and by information that is less than vital. By comparison, the biography of Absalom Jones (Feb. 13) has a more substantive feel to it. Because of the close and overlapping cooperation of these colleagues in ministry (plus some duplication of information between the two observances) it might be worth our considering a combination of their commemorations in one, more solid, presentation.
    The last word in paragraph 4 is functioning as a common noun, not part of a specific person’s title; it should begin with a lower case b.
    I confess to being somewhat confused by paragraph 4, regarding denominational distinctions. Allen wanted to continue in his Methodist tradition, and the church he founded, Bethel Church, is called “African Methodist Episcopal,” which is not just “Methodist.” Wouldn’t it be more straightforward to say “In 1794 he founded Bethel Church in Philadelphia” (instead of beginning, “He had been cooperating with Bishop Francis Asbury to spread Methodism among African Americans, and in 1794 he founded…” etc.)? If mention of Asbury is necessary in order to understand what Allen did (and founded), I don’t understand why.
    In paragraph 5, I also don’t see that the hymn verse cited as truly illustrating “his ardent belief in the brotherhood of all who belonged to Christ.” Is there another verse that better illustrates this? I don’t doubt the claim; I just don’t see this verse as reflecting it. In that same paragraph, regarding what he did with the underground railroad, is “operating” the best word to describe his role? Might “providing” or something less mechanical be better suited?
    COLLECT: Some prayers tend to see “them” as subtly but emphatically “not us.” I expect there are more ways to look at this than the one that seems relevant to me, but without wanting to diminish the role of those who are most specifically the focus of any given prayer, an advantaged/disadvantaged (privileged/deprived, or superior/inferior) perspective doesn’t seem like a good model for corporate Christian prayer. God’s grace is needed in every way by every person. This collect seems to be cast in an us/them framework.

    I do, however, like the phrase “Savior of all,” towards the end. The fact that “Richard Allen was born a slave” is indisputable, and undoubtedly “he learned that he was your (God’s) beloved child by adoption in Jesus Christ.” But in various ways we are all born into slavery – and volunteer to become slaves – and even at times get “drafted” (voluntarily or involuntarily) into slavery with the “help” of others! It’s just part of original sin, actual sin, and life in a fallen world, — whether regarded from a strictly individual perspective, or through participation in societal injustices.

    “His captive people” (as the prayer puts it) can’t be argued with. “The captives of our world” extends this prayer in the right direction. I just wish the extension happened earlier in the prayer, rather than later, and embraced those praying the prayer, instead of sounding like “we the privileged” are praying for “those not so blessed.” I feel the present wording fails to express adequately a tone of inclusiveness.
    READINGS: The gospel selection seems good – being about who Jesus is, and how people respond to him as messiah.
    The Acts reading ends with an unnecessary verse (in terms of the whole reading), stressing what can sound like an anti-Jewish prejudicial comment: (11)“Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” I would shorten the selection so it ends with verse 10, with the angel leaving Peter walking and free.
    Its previous verses (1-10) focus on Peter’s miraculous release from chains (i.e., prison, but “chains” are also suggestive of slavery) and his miraculous release through divine intervention. This, of course, approaches the commemoration as a freedom story, rather than one of standing against, and overcoming, a religious bigotry (which to my mind would suggest the main thread of Allen’s “holy” story). He wasn’t martyred or persecuted, so the Stephen story wouldn’t work. Perhaps Philemon vv. 3-18 might work in both ways: Paul’s pleading for Onesimus’ ministry, and also pressuring Philemon to grant him his freedom. Other possibilities might include 1 Cor 9:16-23; Gal 3:23-29; or Acts 13:42-49.
    Without belaboring the point, both the OT lesson and Psalm are based on the Exodus story also, a choice that puts the focus of the commemoration squarely on gaining freedom from literal, race-based slavery. That ethical message may be the one the commission chooses to endorse. I see it as important, but not the whole or the heart of Richard Allen as a “holy man.” (I won’t try to suggest alternatives.)

  15. As a lurking United Methodist pastor who loves both the liturgy and the Episcopal Church, I’m thankful for the conversation here. I’d like to share a thought regarding the Methodist episcopacy, Francis Asbury & Richard Allen, and validity (or recognizing said validity). Though John Wesley sent Asbury (after ordaining him & Thomas Coke, which might generously be termed irregular) specifically for America, Wesley authorized them both to act as superintendents & to ordain other clergy upon arrival. This was viewed by Asbury as functional authorization to act as bishop (he insisted upon being elected to the role by the Methodist Conference here before taking up authority). Also consider that our term bishop (transliteration of Gk episkopos) is best translated as overseer or superintendent…which Wesley also knew quite well, and saw himself acting as an episcopal authority for the Methodist missional movement in Britain (though he of course never claimed the title for himself) much like a Roman abbot has episcopal functions in the life of the monastery. Indeed, Wesley was seen similar to Ignatius of Loyola and Methodists called “Protestant Jesuits” in the mid-1700s. That’s a long-winded way of saying that it’s a bit more complicated and nuanced than a fun story like “Asbury awoke & started signing letters Bishop” might suggest.

    Why do I bring this up? It’s to say there’s a reason these denominations are the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church [and 2 other African-American denominations as well, the AME Zion and Christian (initially Colored) Methodist Episcopal churches]. It is about organization & leadership (much as the Presbyterian and the formerly Congregational Churches have their polity in their titles). Whether or not these leaders are “valid” (note scare-quotes here for ironic-comedic effect!) from your position, they are an irreplacable part of these traditions and necessary for understanding Allen’s influence, story, and role after he leaves St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.

    My question is this: How are first abbots/founders of religious orders described? I think that’s probably the strongest parallel for consistency’s sake. Again, I’m UMC, not AME, but I would think either First Bishop or Founder is accurate.

    Thanks for the good work y’all are doing–it’s much appreciated!

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