Throughout the 1700 and 1800s, Philadelphia was home to a large community of free African-Americans, many of whom were descendants of enslaved Africans forcibly brought to America. Members of the community formed churches, schools, businesses, and charitable societies. One of these churches, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, would become an important part of the community and influence African-American religious life throughout the country.
The history of Mother Bethel is inextricably bound up with the history of its founder, Richard Allen. Born into a slave-holding household in Philadelphia in 1760, Allen and his family were later sold to Stokeley Sturgis, a farmer in Delaware. In 1777 at the age of 17, Allen became a religious believer after hearing the preaching of a traveling Methodist pastor. Allen convinced his master to allow a minister to preach at the farm. When Sturgis heard the abolition influenced sermon, he agreed to allow Allen to buy his freedom. After three years of working nights and odd jobs, Allen became a free man at the age of 20.
For the next few years, Allen supported himself by taking manual labor jobs while traveling extensively through several states and preaching on the Methodist circuit. In 1786, Allen was invited to preach to African-American members at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia where he was required to lead services at 5am so as to not interfere with the worship of the white congregants. As the African-American membership at St. George’s grew under Allen’s leadership, racial tensions in the congregation also increased. In 1787, Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society, an organization to provide aid to members of the black community. When Allen, Jones, and other African-Americans left St. George’s in protest of racial discrimination, they turned to the Free African Society as a source of religious leadership. The Society under Jones’ leadership would eventually organize the African Church, now known as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, in 1792. Allen, however, wished to maintain a connection with the Methodist church and purchased land at 6th and Lombard Streets for the construction of a church. On July 29, 1794, Bethel Church was dedicated at the location. Facing interference from other Methodist congregations, Allen successfully fought in court for the right of Bethel to exist as an independent congregation. In 1816, Bethel joined with other black Methodist congregations to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Bethel became Mother Bethel and Allen was appointed the first bishop of the church.
Allen and Mother Bethel continued to play a role in the life of the free African-American community of Philadelphia. The church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Allen remained an active leader of the church working for the rights of free and enslaved African-Americans. Constructed in the 1890s, the current Mother Bethel church building still sits at 6th and Lombard on the oldest parcel of real estate in the United States continuously owned by African-Americans. Richard Allen died on March 26, 1831. He and his wife Sarah are interred in a lower level of the church.