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Book cover for Freedom's Prophet by Richard Newman featuring a large scale portrait of Bishop Richard Allen.
Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers by Richard S. Newman

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Richard Allen (1760-1831) is a revered figure in the history of Philadelphia. Born enslaved in the city, Allen earned his freedom in 1783 by agreeing to pay his owner over a period of three years. Allen became a Methodist while still enslaved and committed his life to religious leadership. He was a founder of the Free African Society (1787) and established Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Mother Bethel AME Church, as it is known today, was the largest African American church in the United States in the early 1800s. Under Allen’s leadership, the AME Church became an independent denomination in 1816 and continues to thrive around the world today.

Richard S. Newman’s book, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, is both a biography of Allen and a detailed history of Philadelphia’s African American community before the Civil War. Newman describes how Allen was one of the most charismatic and well-known leaders of that community, along with Absalom Jones and James Forten. Newman considers them to be “Black founders,” key contributors to the founding of the United States who encouraged the nation to further commit to its founding ideals of liberty, equality, and self-government. One episode that Newman shares is an 1817 meeting of Black Philadelphians that James Forten presided over at Allen’s Bethel AME Church. The meeting centered around whether the Black community should support colonization, the plan to resettle African Americans on the west coast of Africa to separate them from racial oppression in America and allow them to establish their own communities without slavery. Allen and Forten considered the benefits of the plan and even began advocating for it. At the 1817 meeting, however, their community members vehemently rejected colonization. In the years that followed, Allen and Forten listened to their brethren and became leading opponents to colonization.

Read an excerpt in which Newman describes the famed 1817 meeting of Black Philadelphians.  

Excerpt

Paul Cuffee's plan offered Allen another option: racial redemption in another land. Although Allen remained locked in a battle for Bethel's very survival during the War of 1812, the black preacher stepped up his support for the African cause soon after the war ended (1815) and his church achieved full independence (1816). African colonization meant many things to Allen. Now that he was bishop of his own church, the thought of a Methodist connection in Africa surely appealed to him. So too did the prospect of creating economic opportunities for the increasing numbers of black men and women he saw in the streets of Philadelphia. Finally, at an ideological level, Allen was increasingly frustrated with the limits of American democracy. He told a white colonizationist that “if he were younger, he himself would move to Africa.” For the good of both Africans and African Americans, he vowed to support Cuffee-style colonization.

With antiblack forces swirling around Philadelphia's black community during the 1810s, Allen's growing support of colonization should have been popular. It wasn't. In 1817, the grassroots black community rebuked Allen, Forten, John Gloucester, and other free black leaders for embracing colonization without consulting them.

The most famous confrontation occurred at a mass meeting at Bethel Church around January 15. Whatever the precise details leading up to the event—there is no official record of the proceedings—the mass meeting proved to be an electric affair. If black founders felt they could simply hold forth on colonization, they soon discovered otherwise. For as black elites held court near Allen's pulpit, carefully outlining the advantages of African colonization, the black masses in the pews and hallways shouted their position: no colonization! James Forten recalled that Allen’s church reverberated with an ear-piercing “no” when he and other leaders asked black Philadelphians to cast an affirmative vote for colonization. Hearing the collective "no" of over three thousand people crammed into Bethel Church must have been a jarring experience for Allen. What must have been most surprising, however, was the public rebuke offered to black founders' claim to speak for the masses. Men like Allen and Forten had cultivated leadership positions based not simply on economic or social standing but on their status as community spokesmen. Now these icons discovered that their political judgment had little support among those they ostensibly represented. The black masses were eager to speak back to, and even disagree with, black elites. For Richard Allen, this was only the beginning of such challenges.

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Black Philadelphians' denunciation reflected key changes in the colonization movement in the few short years since Cuffee had promulgated his African plan. Perhaps the most notable change occurred in the leadership of the cause. Where previously white reformers and free black leaders had dominated it, by 1817 American slaveholders infiltrated colonization as a means of both spurring private manumission (in the South) and ridding the nation of free blacks. The formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in Washington, D.C., at the end of 1816 illustrated this new leadership dynamic, for prominent slaveholders including both Henry Clay and James Madison served in many key positions. Colonization soon took on a more ominous antiblack tone, as white Northerners flocked to the cause. Massachusetts politician Edward Everett spoke for many Northern colonizationists when he supported colonizing free blacks, whom he described as vagabonds, criminals, and a drain on Northern society. Kentuckian Henry Clay labeled free blacks as useless. By the 1830s, colonization became the fastest growing racial-reform movement and the first one that brought Northerners and Southerners together on a plan of removing blacks tom American shores.

African Americans responded with a spate of anticolonization meetings, led by that massive gathering of Afro-Philadelphians at Mother Bethel Church. Subsequent generations of black activists cited "the gift of 1817" as exemplifying black abolitionism. It is somewhat ironic, then, that free black leaders like Allen did not initially oppose colonization. Frustrated by racial stalemate in the United States, and interested in learning more about ACS plans, Allen met with both black and white colonizationists. In Allen's eyes, black elites had to consider the merits of every plan aimed at racial justice, including ACS schemes for African repatriation. Allen's grassroots brethren believed that colonization entailed forcible removals of African-descended people, something reminiscent of the slave trade. They also worried that colonization would not work so well for the less fortunate and less well-off members of the black community. Indeed, as wealthy and respected men, Allen, Forten, and Cuffee could go back and forth among continents. Could others do the same, the black masses wondered, or would they be trapped on one side of the Atlantic or the other without powerful patrons nearby? There was, in short, a real divide between black elites and black masses over colonization.

The passion with which Philadelphia’s black masses articulated their grievances in Bethel Church startled Allen, Forten, and other leaders. But it is also a credit to these same black elites that they quickly rallied to the anticolonizationist standard, giving it a political and ideological gloss that transcended the moment. Black founders created a series of official resolutions that took the form of a protest pamphlet against colonization. Drawing on decades of black protest both in and beyond Philadelphia, and simultaneously giving voice to the black masses around them, African American leaders issued a stirring proclamation: "Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful cultivators of the wilds of America," the preamble to the resolutions began, "we their descendents feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant soil, which their blood and sweat manured." Black Philadelphians condemned "the unmerited stigma … cast upon the reputation of the free people of color" by the American Colonization Society and opposed the very idea of African colonization. In one of the most famous parts of the Philadelphians' protest, the free black community solemnly pledged "that we never will separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population in this country." Quite simply, the document declared, slaves are "our brethren." Because neither of the document's two authors—James Forten and Russell Parrott—had been enslaved. Allen must have played some role in the articulation of such thoughts. He had made a similar pledge of support to enslaved people in 1794. He would not turn his back on the enslaved.

The significance of black elites' anticolonizationist conversion echoed decades later. The details of the 1817 meeting forgotten, a rising generation of black and white reformers embraced the banner of anticolonization first issued at Allen's church. Indeed, the "immediatist" abolition movement of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass took as its founding faith sentiments from 1817: colonization was a chimera, America was a black homeland, and Americans must confront the evils of slavery and racism if they would claim the heritage of both Christianity and revolutionary republicanism. Both Garrison and Douglass quoted directly from Afro-Philadelphians' anticolonization meeting. So too would Allen reprise its sentiments in his famous letter to Freedom's Journal in 1827. Thus, although the black masses had issued the initial colonizationist rebuttal, black leaders quickly rushed to their side and gave it political visibility.

Richard S. Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (NYU Press, 2008), 202-205.

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