From Slave to Bishop

Who was Richard Allen?  He was America’s first black bishop.  He was born to parents who were slaves. Soon after the family was sold to a Delaware farmer.  Richard faced racism, cruelty and inequality.  He wasn’t educated and anything he wanted to undertake he needed his master’s permission. 

His master, in order to pay his debts, sold Richard’s mother and three of his siblings whom he never heard from again.  Life was harsh for him but at the age of 17, he found Jesus Christ.  “I was awakened and brought to see myself, poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost. Shortly after, I obtained mercy through the blood of Christ. . .I was brought under doubts, and was tempted to believe I was deceived, and was constrained to seek the Lord afresh. . .I was tempted to believe there was no mercy for me. I cried to the Lord day and night. . .all of a sudden my dungeon shook, and glory to God, I cried. My soul was filled. I cried, enough for me–the Savior died.”

When he saw himself as a human being loved by God, his outlook changed.  With permission from his master, Sturgis, he began to attend Methodist meetings and around 1777 he was converted to Methodism.  Sturgis was also converted by freeborn Garretson, an itinerant preacher who convinced him that on Judgment Day slaveholders would be “weighted in the balance, and . . . found wanting.” Garretson had freed his own slaves in 1775.  Convicted and repentant, Sturgis allowed Richard to hire himself out to the earn money so that he could purchase his freedom for $2000. In 1786, Richard paid his last installment to Sturgis and became a free man.

Richard went to Philadelphia where he joined St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church where Black and white people worshipped together. He became an assistant minister and conducted prayer meetings for African Americans.  Unfortunately, limitations were placed on him and the Black parishioners which included segregating pews and the restrictions placed on the number who were permitted to attend these meetings. 

Frustrated, he left the church as part of a mass walkout with every intention of creating an independent Methodist church.  There would have been no need to do this if racism didn’t exist in the church. Although most white Methodists in the 1790s favored emancipation, they did not treat free blacks as equals. They refused to allow African-Americans to be buried in the congregation’s cemetery.

In 1794, Richard and several other Black Methodists founded the Bethel Church, a Black Episcopal meeting, in an old blacksmith’s shop.  The church became known as “Mother Bethel” because it eventually birthed the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Richard and his second wife, Sarah helped to hide escaped enslaved people, as the basement of the Bethel Church was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1799, Richard became the first African American to be ordained in the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church. And in 1816 supported by representatives from other Black Methodist churches, he founded the first national Black church in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Today, the church is reputed to have a membership which exceeds more than 2.5 million.

What a remarkable journey for this former slave.  After finding Christ, he became spiritually free even though he was still physically enslaved.  In Christ he found true freedom.  He found a Savior who died for him and discovered God’s love for him.

During his lifetime, Richard came to realize that, “Many of the white people [who] have been instruments in the hands of God for our good, even such as have held us in captivity, are now pleading our cause with earnestness and zeal.” God will use anyone to bring about His purpose. He had plans for Richard and which were fulfilled in His own perfect timing.

Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” – John 8:36, NKJV

Sources:; Britannica; Wikipedia; Biography; AAREG; Varsity Tutors

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