Guides, Not Spokesmen

Indirectly, with all due concessions for logical consequences, divine providence, and human nature, I’m going to tell you why there are packs of feral children killing 73-year-old men in the streets of Philadelphia today.

To do so I’ll have to tell you about a politically active black pastor in a major city. No, not the guy who just popped into your head. Or that other guy either.

We need to go back further to a man named Richard Allen who founded the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) church in Philadelphia. In the words of W.E.B. Dubois, the A.M.E. church is, “the vastest and most remarkable product of American Negro civilization.”

Begun in controversy in 1794 in Philadelphia, the A.M.E. church grew to over four million members at its high point and covered almost the entire lower 48 states. One of its more humble churches was the spiritual starting point for yours truly. In a way, Bishop Allen was my spiritual great-grandfather.

Silver and Gold

Richard Allen was born into slavery on February 14, 1760 to Benjamin Chew. Along with his parents and three siblings Allen was sold to an urbane heathen named Stokeley Sturgis. Sturgis was not master of his finances, however, and eventually he sold off Allen’s mother and two of his siblings to pay debts.1

At some point in his teens, and with the blessing and encouragement of Sturgis, Allen began attending Methodist meetings. In time, Negro Richard, as he was then known, met Jesus.

“I was upwards of twenty years of age,” Allen wrote in his autobiography, “during which time I was awakened and brought to see myself poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost. . . I obtained mercy through the blood of Christ.”2

Allen and his older brother were converted and Allen taught himself to read and write. He felt the call to preach and went from house to house telling slaves about Jesus Christ. Sturgis was so impressed by Allen and his brother’s character and work ethic after becoming Christians that he requested Allen bring a pastor to his house to preach about Jesus.

After “some months” of preaching by a pastor named Freeborn Garrettson, Sturgis came to faith in Jesus Christ and felt that holding slaves was incompatible with his new life. He allowed Richard and his brother to hire out their time as blacksmiths so they could earn money to pay for their manumission.3

Sixty pounds of gold and silver later, Negro Richard was a free man. He changed his name to Richard Allen was eventually ordained as a circuit preacher in the Methodist church.

Black Pastors Matter

Through the early 1780s, Allen pastored mostly white Methodist churches in Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In 1786, Allen was called to preach in Philadelphia. It was to be his last stop. He writes:

February, 1786, I came to Philadelphia. Preaching was given out for me at five o’clock in the morning at St. George’s church. . . it was a great cross to me but the Lord was with me. . . I thought I would stop in Philadelphia a week or two. I preached at different places in the city. . . I soon saw a large field open in seeking and instructing my African brethren, who had long been a forgotten people and few of them attended public worship. I preached … wherever I could find an opening. I frequently preached twice a day, at 5 o’clock in the morning and in the evening, and it was not uncommon for me to preach from four to five times a day.4

By the end of 1786, Allen had 42 free Blacks under his care and the care of his great friend, Absalom Jones. And the numbers were increasing. Allen and Jones petitioned the local elders to erect a meeting place and start a congregation for the new black Christians. They were denied a place to worship and told to stop meeting on their own altogether. “We established prayer meetings and meetings of exhortation and the Lord blessed our endeavors . . . but the elder soon forbid us holding any such meetings,” Allen wrote.5

Allen and Jones persisted in ministering to the people “considered a nuisance” (according to Allen) and a number from Philadelphia continued to attend church at St. George’s until one Sunday in April, 1787, when black America was forced into its first civil rights protest.

Philadelphia Freedom

God kept sending people to St. George’s church and the leadership of St. George’s responded poorly. They segregated the black congregants to certain seats in the church. Then they removed the black congregants from those seats and told the black members they had to stand along the walls. Allen describes the final Sunday this way:

On Sabbath morning we went to church and the sexton stood at the door and told us to go sit in the gallery. . . Meeting had begun and they were nearly done singing, and just as we got to the seats the elder said “let us pray.” We had not long been upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling . . . I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees . . . having hold of the Reverend Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees and saying, “You must get up—you must not kneel here [Jones and Allen had gone to the front of the church to pray with the other ministers]. Mr. Jones replied, “Wait until the prayer is over and I will get up and trouble you no more.” By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.6

Allen and Jones, feeling the weight of the step they had taken, were immediately driven to begin “some form of religious organization”. They formed the first black mutual aid organization called the Free African Society. Through the Society members pooled their resources to “support one another in sickness and for the benefit of their widows and fatherless children”. Members were required to pay one shilling a month for distribution to the needy, “provided the necessity [of the needy person] is not brought on them by their own imprudence.” Membership was denied to those unwilling to lead “an orderly and sober life.”7

Free African societies spread from New York to Boston, but the Philadelphia Free African Society under Allen and Jones eventually (and amicably) split over religious differences. In 1794, Jones lead the majority of the group to the Episcopal church. Allen lead the rest into forming the independent Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church which met in a blacksmith’s shop.8

In 1816, black Methodist congregations from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania held the A.M.E’s first general conference and elected Richard Allen as Bishop. It was the first black Christian denomination in America and one of the first (if not the first) national organization founded and operated by free American Blacks.9

Plague and War

In 1793, as Allen and Jones were struggling against racial bigotry at the hands of their brothers in Christ, the city of Philadelphia was hit by a deadly disease and (you won’t believe this) the civil authorities botched the response to it. Health authorities initially misidentified what the disease was and from where it originated. They prescribed medical practices that did not cure the infected or slow the spread. Panic inflamed Philadelphia. Those wealthy enough to leave the city did—leaving behind the poor and helpless. Hard to imagine such a scenario, isn’t it?

In that chaotic hour, Reverends Allen and Jones filled the breach. Out of their own pockets they hired nurses to attend the sick, paid for coffins and the burials of the dead, organized 500 men to volunteer to remove the sick and dead from homes, and personally attended to the sick under the supervision of the famed Dr. Benjamin Rush. For their efforts they received a commendation from Philadelphia mayor, Matthew Clarkson.10

During the War of 1812, the city of Philadelphia was again thrown into panic—this time at the approach of the British army. Allen and Jones were once again called upon to discharge their civic duty. They put together an appeal to the black citizens of Philadelphia for its defense. Because of the reputation and standing of these two men, more than three-fourths of the city’s black men volunteered (about 2,500 men) and were sent out to defend the approaches to the city. It was an amazing response considering slavery was still the law of the land and the state of Pennsylvania had just started its last wave of emancipation in 1808.

Political Action

Bishop Allen helped organize and oversee a response to the formation of the American Colonization Society (A.C.S.). The A.C.S. proposed to end the tension regarding slavery by sending free blacks back to west Africa. Most free blacks were opposed to that idea. Bethel A.M.E. was the meeting place where free blacks of Philadelphia protested the idea and wrote out a response to the founders of the A.C.S.

The Philadelphia blacks declared that free blacks had “ceased to remember their wrongs and had rallied to the standard of their country.” They stated they could not be divorced from their enslaved brethren because of the “ties of suffering and wrong” and that “we feel there is more virtue in suffering privations with them.”11

Bishop Allen’s last public act was in 1830 when he presided over the first national meeting of black leaders at Bethel A.M.E. The convention was in response to race riots in Cincinnati that had driven out half the city’s black population. It was the first of what became the National Negro Convention Movement.12

Lost Language

I could go on. Richard Allen inspired the black leaders of Philadelphia to organize housing, apprenticeships, and schools for fugitive slaves who landed in Philadelphia and the same for the newly emancipated slaves of Pennsylvania. He dignified the despised and he was not embarrassed to associate with those of low repute. Richard Allen was not merely a spokesman. He was a guide.

Now, back to the seven savages who killed a man in the streets of Philadelphia for fun. For the first time in our history, black America has no moral voice among our elites to offer to the nation as a whole. I think it stems from the fact that for the first time in our history black elites do not live with or around the black lower class.

While the average black Joe in North Philadelphia or West Chicago lives under the gun of black warlords, the black elite can be found on MSNBC claiming that not having a proper makeup artist or hair stylist in place for a photo shoot or national television appearance is what troubles black America. There is not a Richard Allen in Philadelphia to tell free blacks not to use their liberty and memories of past injustices as an excuse for debauchery.

An elite that once was willing to suffer privation has been replaced by an elite that makes money by aggrandizing ghetto conflicts; which is all that Hip Hop culture boils down to now.

Forget about color and ask yourself which one of our leaders would risk being in the same zip code as the sick and afflicted, much less personally care for them? Which of our leaders goes into their own funds to help citizens rather than use public money or money from their “charity?” Which one of our leaders encourages the public to put aside past or even current slights to rally for the nation in a time of trouble?

You may not have heard of Bishop Richard Allen until today, but you knew him by his absence.

© Wendell Talley. All Rights Reserved.


1. Richard Allen, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen (Martin & Boden 1833) 9–10.

2. Allen, The Life and Experience, 9–10.

3. Allen, 10–11.

4. Allen, 12.

5. Allen, 17.

6. Allen, 13.

7. August Meier, Ellott Rudwick, From Plantation to Ghetto, Third Edition (New York, Hill and Wang, 1976) 106.

8. Allen, 21, 23.

9. Meier and Elliot, From Plantation to Ghetto, 101.

10. W.E.B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 1899) 18.

11. Meier and Elliot, 123.

12. Meier and Elliot, 124.


    Post authored by:

  • Wendell Talley
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    Wendell Talley is a native of Los Angeles, where he lives now. He is a past Commissioner for the Iowa Office on the Status of African Americans.

    More by Wendell Talley ›

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  1. Just to be clear, when Wendell says, “… While the average black Joe in North Philadelphia or West Chicago lives under the gun of black warlords …”, he’s referring to the “near West Side” of the city of Chicago, not the far West suburb known as “West Chicago.”

  2. I first learned of Richard Allen during my American Religious History class in undergrad. I had to read a whole book on the history of the A.M.E. and the related parties, and I’ve found it interesting ever since. Thanks for the article.

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