Richard Allen (1760-1831), activist and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was born in slavery in Philadelphia and sold along with his family to the Stokeleys of Delaware. He converted to Methodism in 1777 and joined other slaves in attending the bi-weekly meetings of the Methodist Society. Allen was able to purchase his freedom through work as a brick maker and wood splitter, occupations he continued after gaining his release. He also became an itinerant preacher, often speaking to mixed or white audiences along his stops as a wagon driver for the Continental Army during the American Revolution. In late 1784, he is believed to have attended the founding conference of American Methodism. Two years later, he returned to Philadelphia to preach.
Allen preached not only to his assigned flock at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church but also throughout the city, sometimes several times a day, to different groups of "my African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people and few of them attended public worship." But by 1792, when black worshipers had been pulled off their knees during prayers at St. George's and instructed to move to a segregated pew, the necessity of a separate black church had become painfully clear to Allen and others.
These plans were delayed by the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which killed thousands of Philadelphians. Allen and Absalom Jones organized the black community to fight the epidemic and in 1794 published A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, which detailed African-American contributions to the city's recovery during the crisis and refuted false charges of their inactivity.
At last, in July 1794, Allen's dream of a separate black church became reality with the opening of Mother Bethel, complete with pulpit carved by Allen's own hands. Although many before him had sought in vain to establish such an institution, writes Carol George in Segregated Sabbaths, it was Allen who proved able to "manipulate the winds of social change that whirled about him to achieve a relatively safe and theologically satisfying spiritual home for Black people" (7). In 1816 Allen was ordained as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Allen was also an activist in spheres beyond the church. In 1787, Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society, perhaps the earliest African-American mutual aid organization in the United States, and he opened a school for African American children in 1795. Allen campaigned vigorously against slavery and the schemes of the American Colonization Society.
On Sunday, December 29, 1799, Allen delivered a eulogy of George Washington to the congregation of the Philadelphia's African Methodist Episcopal Church. A sketch of Allen's address was published two days later in the Philadelphia Gazette. On the same page as Allen's eulogy appears an advertisement for sale of "The TIME of a NEGRO MAN, who has 6 years to serve." The white editor of the Gazette introduced Allen's eulogy by pronouncing that "it will show that the African race participate in the common events of our country--that they rejoice in our prosperity, mourn in our adversity, and feel with other citizens the propriety and necessity of wise and good rulers, of an effective government, and of submission to the laws and government of the land."
But Allen's eulogy does much more. Allen uses the occasion of Washington's death, a time when his ideals and achievements were subjects of national contemplation, to focus on Washington's eventual opposition to slavery. Although a slaveowner himself, Washington had written as early as 1786 of his desire "to see some plan adopted by which slavery may be abolished by law." Some of Washington's actions as president, however, seem in conflict with this belief. In 1793, for example, he signed into law the first federal law requiring the return of fugitive slaves. Yet upon his death, Washington's will set free his enslaved companion William Lee and provided for the emancipation of his other slaves following his wife's death. The memory of Washington, Allen argues, can best be served by abiding by his principles, "for you cannot honour those who have loved you and been your benefactors more than by taking their council and advice."
The speech text is taken from the Philadelphia Gazette of December 31, 1799.
At this time it may not be improper to speak a little on the late mournful event--an event in which we participate in common with the feelings of a grateful people--an event which causes "the land to mourn" in a season of festivity. Our father and friend is taken from us--he whom the nations honoured is "seen of men no more."
We, my friends, have particular cause to bemoan our loss. To us he has been the sympathising friend and tender father. He has watched over us, and viewed our degraded and afflicted state with compassion and pity-- his heart was not insensible to our sufferings. He whose wisdom the nations revered thought we had a right to liberty. Unbiased by the popular opinion of the state in which is the memorable Mount Vernon--he dared to do his duty, and wipe off the only stain with which man could ever reproach him.
And it is now said by an authority on which I rely, that he who ventured his life in battles, whose "head was covered" in that day, and whose shield the "Lord of hosts" was, did not fight for that liberty which he desired to withhold from others--the bread of oppression was not sweet to his taste, and he "let the oppressed go free"--he "undid every burden"--he provided lands and comfortable accommodations for them when he kept this "acceptable fast to the Lord"--that those who had been slaves might rejoice in the day of their deliverance.
If he who broke the yoke of British burdens "from off the neck of the people" of this land, and was hailed his country's deliverer, by what name shall we call him who secretly and almost unknown emancipated his "bondmen and bondwomen"--became to them a father, and gave them an inheritance!
Deeds like these are not common. He did not let "his right hand know what his left hand did"--but he who "sees in secret will openly reward" such acts of beneficence.
The name of Washington will live when the sculptured marble and statue of bronze shall be crumbled into dust--for it is the decree of the eternal God that "the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance, but the memorial of the wicked shall rot."
It is not often necessary, and it is seldom that occasion requires recommending the observance of the laws of the land to you, but at this time it becomes a duty; for you cannot honour those who have loved you and been your benefactors more than by taking their council and advice.
And here let me entreat you always to bear in mind the affectionate farewell advice of the great Washington--"to love your country--to obey its laws--to seek its peace--and to keep yourselves from attachment to any foreign nation."
Your observance of these short and comprehensive expressions will make you good citizens--and greatly promote the cause of the oppressed and shew to the world that you hold dear the name of George Washington.
May a double portion of his spirit rest on all the officers of the government in the United States, and all that say my Father, my Father--the chariots of Israel, and the horsemen thereof, which is the whole of the American people.