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Watching the Birth of a Denomination

It is not always easy for church historians to determine when a denomination began. We know what the different denominations are, but to be able to say, "The idea for a denomination occurred with that event; everything later sprang from that one event" is rare. Yet we can for some denominations, and among them is the AME Church (African Methodist Episcopal). That event was when one person believed that some people were sitting in the wrong seats at church. And in demanding them to move, he set the wheels of a new denomination in motion.

Richard Allen (1760-1831) was born to a slave family in Philadelphia. In 1767 his family was sold to a slave owner in Dover, Delaware. Allen joined the Methodist Church at age 17, and played a role in his owner becoming a Christian. His owner decided that slavery was wrong and told Allen he could buy his freedom; Allen work on his own to earn this money. After Allen purchased his freedom, he eventually found his way back to Philadelphia. He had the gift of preaching and was even given preaching assignments by Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist Bishop.

Yet, as involved in Methodism as Allen was, he was still black in the late 1700s. This meant he had to observe the separation of the races in society and in church. One Sunday in November of 1787, Allen and other blacks were attending their regular church, St. George’s Methodist Church, in Philadelphia. They expected to sit in their regular seats along the wall, but the usher directed them to the balcony. Once there they did not realize that they accidentally sat in the white section. Allen describes what happened next during the prayer: "We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and loud talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees . . . having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him off his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up; you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘Wait until prayer is over." . . . He came and went to William White to pull him up. By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body." And so it was, according to Allen, that "they were no more plagued with us in the church."

Having been so humiliated, they left determined to begin a church for Blacks. A small group of Blacks began to meet for worship and to raise funds for the building of a church. Part of this group wanted to align with the Episcopalian Church and so used the money to build St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, but Allen and others wanted to maintain a connection with the Methodist denomination. He purchased a blacksmith shop to use as a church and moved it to a new location. Bishop Asbury himself dedicated it in 1794. Other Blacks in the North began similar churches, and in 1816 they met in Philadelphia to form a new denomination designed for Blacks: thus the African Methodist Episcopal Church was born on April 9, 1816.

The original church Allen purchased burned down long ago. Yet today a church stands in this original location, Bethel AME Church, the mother church of all AME churches. In the basement one finds a museum with Allen’s coffin, a pulpit he built and preached from, and other items of AME history. The denomination Allen helped found is today the largest African-American Methodist denomination.

©2009 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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