- Judging the Founders: Richard Allen and the Soul of America
The art of biography is deceptively simple. Even when the subject proves a willing participant by bequeathing a cache of letters and diaries to later generations, there is little guarantee that the biographer can accurately recover the past. What should historians do when subjects like Thomas Jefferson denounce “the amalgamation of whites and blacks” in correspondence yet practice it in the privacy of their plantations? When people of influence pick up the pen to begin a new volume in their journal, how can we know they are not addressing posterity rather than their contemporaries? Worse yet, how might we prove that they are not deceiving themselves as they boast in their diaries of conversations won and political battles victorious?
The task becomes harder yet when the subject is born into humble circumstances, when the object of an historian’s investigation spends the first part of his life unable to read or write, or when the subject, even after mastering the alphabet, has to struggle merely to survive and can devote but a few moments of each day to pen and paper. Recovering the illustrious but elusive life of Richard Allen is no easy job. Despite surviving to seventy-one years, Allen left behind very few letters, and his posthumously published autobiography, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours, was written to glorify African American spirituality rather than provide personal details of one man’s life. (It may also have been edited by his sons to remove any final reflections on black emigration to Africa, Haiti, or Canada.) Allen published a good many pamphlets, often co-authored with Absalom Jones, but the early records of his Philadelphia church are as meager as his correspondence.
Not surprisingly, Allen’s public career has attracted a good number of scholars, but very few biographers. Allen and his church received their due in Gary B. Nash’s Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840 (1988), as well as in Albert J. Raboteau’s A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African American Religious History (1999). Dee E. Andrews’s recent [End Page 22] The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760–1800 (2000) contains a number of insights into the African Methodist Episcopal Church, as does Carol V.R. George’s older Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Black Churches, 1760–1840. But even George’s 1973 monograph, long regarded as the standard account of the emergence of independent black churches, was more a history of African Methodist congregations than it was a biography of the founder. Too little data existed, most scholars assumed, to sustain a full-length biography.1
Happily, Richard S. Newman succeeds brilliantly in this difficult undertaking. The author of The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic, a groundbreaking examination of antislavery activism in the years before William Lloyd Garrison and David Walker, Newman was already one of the most active scholars working in what was once dubbed “the neglected period” of abolitionism. If Allen received but a few cameos in Newman’s previous study, that monograph and his co-edited collection of black antislavery documents, Pamphlets of Protest, forged the basis for this biography.2 Newman knows this terrain, and his earlier determination to erode traditional barriers and artificial historiographical distinctions between black activism, white pacifism, and slave rebelliousness serve him well here.
Yet if Newman knows Allen’s world and discovered documents and pamphlets previously unexamined, the fact remains that former slaves left behind too few documents and too many unanswerable questions. Despite impressive detective work, Newman was unable to discover exactly where Allen was born, the fate of his first wife, the precise year in which Allen quit the segregated Philadelphia church, or even why he chose the surname of Allen upon becoming free. Newman’s response is a wise one. He lifts what in most biographies would be discussions relegated to the...