- Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers
In the pantheon of black heroes, Richard Allen looms large. He was a man of "firsts," founding the first independent black church, coauthoring the first black protest pamphlet, and organizing the first black national convention. Yet despite these accomplishments, Allen is difficult to know. He belonged to—indeed, heralded—the very first generation of free African Americans to step into American public life. As such, his traces in the historical record pale in comparison to the giants who followed him. Among luminaries such as Douglass, Washington, Du Bois, and King, Allen's name is rarely mentioned. Recent works have resuscitated the memories of figures such as James Forten and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, but Allen, perhaps first among firsts, has gone without a champion.
This quintessential modern biography of an important African American is thus timely. In narrating the black founder's life, Richard Newman sets Allen in his time and place, engaging many critical debates animating the field. Newman tells Allen's story in passionate and lively prose, starting [End Page 551] with Allen's opaque early years in Philadelphia and Delaware, which climaxed with Allen's conversion to Methodism in 1777 and subsequent bargain with his master to free him after paying hefty compensation. In freedom, Allen continued his tireless campaign of work and self-uplift, eventually acquiring some capital and making a name for himself as an itinerant preacher.
Allen's most famous moment arrived in 1787, when he (with Absalom Jones) led Philadelphia blacks out of the segregated St. George's Church and established Bethel Church, the first independent black church in the nation. In detailing the historical controversy over exactly when and how the walkout happened, Newman reveals Allen as a savvy architect of both public perception and historical memory. Allen's coauthoring of the first black protest pamphlet in 1794 further suggests the minister's emergence as a public politician. Published in response to accusations that Philadelphia blacks had exploited their roles as nurses during a recent yellow-fever epidemic, Allen and Jones's Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People marked a new era of black public resistance to racism, relying on the power of the written word. Allen proved to be a prolific pamphleteer, authoring tracts on topics ranging from the independence of the black church, to eulogies of famous Americans, to moral meditations on the black underclass. Throughout, he stressed themes of interracial harmony and moral uplift as key to achieving abolition and equality. By viewing blacks as "consummate representatives of republicanism" (149), Allen fostered a sense of black nationalism that could coexist with American nationalism.
With the hardening of race relations in the 1810s and 1820s, Allen faced an ever more difficult challenge in reconciling black group solidarity with the unfulfilled promises of a prejudiced nation. He intensified efforts to secure the independence of Bethel, in the process uniting several independent black Methodist churches into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Newman demonstrates how institution building at home in no way negated dreams of black nation building abroad. The prospect of black colonization had long animated Allen. When his optimistic strategies of moral uplift failed to roll back the tide of prejudice, Allen concluded that only outside of the United States could African Americans hope to replicate the very "elevation" that Allen himself represented. But—in an episode that signaled an emerging world of democratic politics among black northerners—black Philadelphians in 1817 overwhelmingly rejected elite schemes of colonization, forcing Allen to [End Page 552] retreat to save his position of leadership. Only later, when the AME toyed with the notion of Haitian immigration as a "safety valve" (253) for the release of blacks' frustrated energies, was Allen able to put forth colonization schemes that satisfied his "increasingly divided soul" (184).
Meanwhile, challenges from below exercised Allen's evolving political skills. Prophetic itinerant preachers such as Jarena Lee confronted Allen with...