Richard Allen the Church-Planter

“If your church disappeared overnight, would your neighborhood notice? Would anyone miss you?” More than once, I’ve heard a speaker at a church-planting conference ask questions along these lines. The speakers intend to be provocative, to ask questions which will make leaders wonder whether their congregations are making an impact on their cities by meeting real needs in their neighborhoods. The question is a simplistic test of any congregation’s connection with its surrounding, but it’s particularly relevant for church-planters. In some understandings of church-planting, the pastors or leaders of the church seem to succeed because they are great community organizers.

Take Richard Allen for one example. I’m now reading Richard Newman’s Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. Allen is known as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which began when Allen planted Bethel Church in Philadelphia. Allen was by nature entrepreneurial, and founded businesses and social organizations as well as his church and denomination. In all of these ventures, Allen was thinking beyond himself, seeking the good of both free and enslaved African-Americans and the new country in which they lived. Because of this, Newman even argues that Allen should be considered among the “Founding Fathers” of the new United States. He writes, 

Allen believed himself to be a member of two founding generations. He was a black leader who built reform institutions to redeem African Americans and he was a broader moral leader who wanted to redeem the American republic from the sin of racial subjugation. (p. 21)

What made Allen a successful “founder” involved more than simply his vision for change or his entrepreneurial personality. Allen had a gift for bringing people together, and he connected with his diverse community in such a way that people joined and followed him. Two events which took place early in Allen’s career display this gift:

As mentioned above, Allen founded Bethel Church and the AME denomination. These institutions started when Allen and several other black Christians walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in protest of newly enforced segregated seatingAllen had been born into slavery, and it was while a slave that heard Methodist preachers proclaiming the Gospel and its liberating message. When Allen entered the ministry, he did it as a typical itinerant Methodist preacher. He was bi-vocational, preaching early in the morning and then working a variety of day-jobs to support his ministry. Once he settled in Philadelphia in 1786, his congregants were primarily the black men and women who attended St. George’s Methodist Church. The black population of the congregation grew so much under Allen’s leadership that the white leaders of the congregation became anxious. At some point during Allen’s years there, the white leaders built a balcony and declared that a new policy of segregated seating in worship would be enforced. On the Sunday that the policy was first enforced, Allen and all the other African-Americans in the church walked out as one “body” (p. 64). 

But the events of that day were not spontaneous. The date of this legendary event is uncertain, but Newman seems to favor a later date, around 1792 or 1793. Several pieces of evidence suggest that the walk-out Allen helped lead was an intentional act of non-violent activism, planned in advance in order to make a point to the white church members. Allen dreamed of leading an independent black church long before that fateful day, as evidenced by his efforts to have the Free African Society (which he also founded) consider supporting an independent black church as early as 1789. This suggests that much went on behind-the-scenes to rally the black members of St. George’s to respond together to the discrimination they experienced. The events which took place later in St. George’s were choreographed to make a point: racial discrimination had no place in the Kingdom of God, and Allen’s followers would accept it no longer. 

Allen’s response to Philadelphia’s 1793 outbreak of Yellow Fever and its racially-charged aftermath also displays Allen’s gifts in community relations. When the Yellow Fever struck Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush, a famous physical and signer of the Declaration of Independence, invited Allen and his flock to respond to the crisis. Rush did so on the basis of the mistaken belief that black people were immune to the Yellow Fever. Inaccurate as that assumption was, Allen and his friend Absalom Jones agreed to help because they believed that “black aid to white citizens would help the cause of racial justice” (p. 88). Throughout the crisis, Allen and other black leaders rallied black volunteers to serve as nurses and aid workers, often doing work that involved physically touching those who would have considered their caretakers virtually untouchable because of their skin color.

Racism resurfaced after the crisis ended, though, with whites accusing blacks of exploiting whites and profiting off of their suffering. Allen and Jones responded to the criticism in print, publishing an essay which defended their motives and documented the sacrifices blacks had made to serve their white brothers and sisters. In doing so, Allen stepped boldly into both the public sphere and the use of new media and technology. These steps strengthened his influence in the community beyond his congregation.

Allen’s leadership in each of these instances raises questions for us who claim to be “church-planters” today. First, if the leaders in our community needed something, would they call us? Today, will respected community members or civic leaders call upon us when the neighborhood is in crisis? I have a friend who pastors a church in Rockford, IL, who joined the local chamber of commerce precisely to build the relationships that could lead to such service. How can we build similar relationships in our own contexts today?

Second, Richard Allen’s life challenges us to consider if we are both confident and shrewd enough to act prophetically when necessary. When we react to injustice, are the measures we take as carefully calculated and wisely executed as those Allen took? Are we such examples of integrity that when criticized, we can respond with dignity and confidence? The more we are able to answer these questions affirmatively, the more our churches will leave a positive impact upon their neighborhoods.

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