The stories of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones demonstrate both the power of faith in the face of bigotry and the potential for the Church to fail in its moral and spiritual duties.
Born in 1760, Allen converted to Christianity in 1777 and became a member of the Methodist church. He began preaching at an early age and even converted his slave master to the faith. After purchasing his freedom, he began travelling on the Methodist Circuits and in 1786 joined St. George’s Church in Philadelphia.
Absalom Jones was born in 1746. Though born a slave, Jones learned how to read as a young man and later attended a Quaker school that taught him mathematics and handwriting. In 1784, he gained freedom through manumission. He met Richard Allen and in 1787 the two formed the Free African Society, a humanitarian organization. Like Allen, Jones preached at St .George’s Church. The power and eloquence of their preaching led to a larger and larger number of African Americans attending the church, leading to increased racial tension.
Leaders of St. George began requiring African Americans to sit in pews closest to the walls, reserving the rest of the seating for white parishioners. One Sunday, a group of African American members accidentally found themselves sitting in new pews reserved for the congregations white members. An article in Christianity Today recounts what happened next:
“As these blacks knelt in prayer, a white trustee came over and grabbed Absalom Jones, Allen’s associate, and began pulling on him, saying, “You must get up—you must not kneel here.”
“Jones asked him to wait until prayer was over, but the trustee retorted, “No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.” But the group finished praying before they got up and walked out.” http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/richard-allen.html
This walk out led Allen and Jones to form the “African Church” in 1792. The group became part of the Episcopal Parish, though Allen wished to remain part of the Methodist Church. Both Jones and Allen did extensive work during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, while simultaneously enduring threats of expulsion from the body of the Methodist Church. In 1793, Allen left the African Church and formed Bethel Church (later Mother Bethel AME Church). The African Church later became the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
Mother Bethel AME Church
In 1795, Jones was ordained a deacon and seven years later a priest. Allen was ordained a deacon in 1799 and an elder in 1816. The two hold the distinction of being the first two African Americans to be formally ordained in any denomination.
Today, the Mother Bethel A.M.E. church stands as the oldest church property continuously owned by African Americans in the United States. Allen, who died in 1831, is buried in a crypt in the lower level of the church. Jones, who died in 1818, is buried in the Absalom Jones Chapel of the African Episcopal Chapel of St. Thomas.
Remembering the mission of Allen and Jones, remembering how the Church marginalized them and other people of color, and how these marginalized members endured and ultimately flourished, remains essential to understanding Christian history. We cannot hesitate to tell the painful stories of our past. Even the Bride of Christ can fall short of its mission to live as God’s hands and feet on earth. We must remain eternally vigilant, aware and repentant of our past sins, in order to continue the work of building Christ’s Kingdom for all.