Founder's Day/Richard Allen's Birthday

Founder's Day/Richard Allen's Birthday

Date Observed: Mid-February
Location: AME churches worldwide

Founder's Day in African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches marks the birthday of Richard Allen on February 14. He founded the Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was dedicated in 1794. AME churches across the United States and around the globe commemorate Founder's Day, usually on or around Allen's birth date.

Historical Background

Born a slave in Philadelphia on February 14, 1760, Richard Allen and his family became the property of Dover, Delaware, resident Stokley Sturgis in 1768. Sturgis allowed Allen to attend Methodist meetings held by itinerant preachers. This exposure led Allen to convert to Methodism, a religion founded by John Wesley who was steadfastly opposed to slavery. After listening to a Methodist preacher, Sturgis also converted and became convinced that slavery was morally wrong. Because Sturgis was in debt, he offered to let Allen buy his freedom for $2,000.

Richard Allen worked at various jobs over several years to pay Sturgis. After he gained his freedom in the 1780s, Allen became a Methodist circuit rider, preaching without pay to blacks and whites in several states. He was asked to preach to African-American church members at St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia, and he eventually settled in the city. He worked as a shoemaker to support himself and his wife, Flora (who died in 1791), and later his second wife, Sarah, and the couple's six children.

In 1787, Allen helped form the Free African Society of Philadelphia, a mutual aid organization. When he learned two years later that the nondenominational society planned to become an affiliate of the Episcopal Church, Allen's dedication to Methodism prompted him to leave the organization. Allen continued to preach at St. George's, increasing the membership of black parishioners. Because of the growing number of black members, the white congregation became uneasy. In response, Allen requested a separate church for African Americans so they could worship in their own spontaneous and traditional ways. Instead, the white leaders decided to increase the seating in the church by constructing a new balcony over an existing one. African Americans helped build the new gallery and then were forced to sit there rather than in the older gallery over the main part of the church. This segregation angered Allen, but he stayed with St. George's until one Sunday in November 1787.

On that day, black members, including Reverend Absalom Jones (who later became the first black Episcopal priest in the United States), were on their knees praying in the gallery when a church official pulled Jones by the arm and ordered him and the others to get up and leave. Allen, Jones, and other African Americans not only left the area, they left the church and founded their own place of worship.

"Let Us Pray"

Years after being forcefully removed from St. George's Methodist Church, Richard Allen wrote about the incident:

When the colored people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us around the wall, and on Sabbath morning we went to church, and the sexton stood at the door, and told us to go in the gallery . . . we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below . . . just as we got to the seats, the elder said, "Let us pray." We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees . . . having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, "You must get up - you must not kneel here." Mr. Jones replied, "Wait until prayer is over." Mr. H__ M__ said, "No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.". . . With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees, Mr. L __ S__ to come to his assistance. He came, and went to William White [another prominent black member] to pull him up. 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.

Allen and others who left St. George's rented a vacant store to use for worship services for a time. While Jones went on to lead an Episcopalian congregation, Allen remained a Methodist and established his church on a plot of land that he had purchased years earlier. The church was dedicated in 1794 as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, frequently called Mother Bethel Church.

Yet, the church was not completely free of conflicts with St. George's. Pastors and trustees at St. George's wanted to force Allen to bow to their authority and tried to control financial affairs of Allen's church; in one instance, they attempted to take over church property. But Allen was determined to maintain a church that allowed African Americans to handle their own affairs while subscribing to Methodism. A lawsuit that reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court eventually decided the outcome. The court ruled on January 1, 1816, that Allen's church was legally independent. Blacks in other states followed Allen's example and established independent African Methodist churches. Allen oversaw the rapid growth of the AME's Mother Church in Philadelphia, which grew to 7,500 members in the 1820s. Several months later, at Allen's request, ministers of African-American churches from Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania met in Philadelphia to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The representatives elected Allen as the first bishop of the denomination, which quickly expanded across the United States and to other countries, such as Canada and Haiti. The denomination became, by all accounts, the most significant black institution in the 19th century. By the 21st century, the AME had more than 6,000 churches and over 2 million members.

Adding Insult to Injury

In 1793 a yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia, killing thousands. Because of the erroneous belief that African Americans were less likely to get the disease, the mayor of Philadelphia and prominent physician Dr. Benjamin Rush asked Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to help victims. In spite of their fears, Allen and Jones enlisted the help of other blacks to visit homes and to aid the suffering. They also helped remove the dead. Yet their efforts were attacked by a Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey. He accused African Americans of making a profit on the sick and stealing from victims' homes.

The mayor placed ads in newspapers defending the African Americans and criticizing Carey. In addition, Allen and Jones published a pamphlet titled A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, during the Late Awful Calam- ity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793: And a Refutation of some Censures, Thrown upon them in some late Publications. In the pamphlet the authors refuted Carey's arguments and pointed out that they had saved the lives of hundreds of people, adding:

We feel ourselves sensibly aggrieved by the censorious epithets of many, who did not render the least assistance in the time of necessity, yet are liberal of their censure of us, for the prices paid for our services, when no one knew how to make a proposal to any one they wanted to assist them. At first we made no charge, but let it to those we served in removing their dead, to give what they thought fit - we set no price, until the reward was fixed by those we had served. After paying the people we had to assist us, our compensation is much less than many will believe.

The pamphlet also included detailed listings of cash the men and their workers received for burying the dead and their contaminated beds. For coffins they "received nothing."


During his lifetime, Richard Allen's achievements went beyond establishing the AME church. He was a leader in the community and helped form numerous organizations established to improve the lives of African Americans, among them schools for black children. During the War of 1812 (1812-1814) - a nearly forgotten war waged against Great Britain to control the seas - the British threatened to attack Philadelphia. Allen, Jones, and others recruited black soldiers to serve, primarily with the U.S. Navy. Allen also wrote pamphlets and preached sermons against slavery.

In 1830, Allen presided over the first National Negro Convention in the Bethel Church, which was convened to encourage improvement in African-American lives through education, pursuit of professional occupations, and resistance to oppression. From the convention the American Society of Free Persons of Color was formed. The society published a document, signed by Richard Allen, that included an "address to the free persons of colour," criticizing the American Colonization Society that advocated relocating free blacks to Africa. At first Allen had not opposed the society, but later came to the conclusion that African Americans who left the United States would be forsaking their brothers and sisters in slavery.

Allen died in Philadelphia in 1831. Since then, he has been honored by religious, educational, and cultural institutions that bear his name. These include the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York; the Allen Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio; the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas; the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art in New York City; and the Richard Allen Museum that is part of Bethel Church in Philadelphia.

Creation of the Observance

AME churches individually organize their own Founder's Day celebrations, which are often held on a Sunday closest to or on February 14, Richard Allen's birthday. Even though this date falls within African-American History Month and may be part of that celebration, Founder's Day is frequently a separate observance in many churches.


Before AME Founder's Day worship services, some churches may hold a parade. In Savannah, Georgia, for example, the Sixth Episcopal District's parade has included horsedrawn carriages, a high school marching band, and floats.

A service usually begins with a procession of bishops, other church leaders, and a choir. In some churches choir members dress in handmade African garments. Some services include liturgical dancers. Some present dramatic renderings of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones being thrown out of St. George's Church.

One common element for Founder's Day observances is a focus on the life of Bishop Richard Allen and the founding of Mother Bethel Church. Along with honoring Allen and his wife Sarah, churches frequently recognize other AME church pioneers. In addition, several churches in an area may join together for services. Part of the message delivered may be a reminder that Richard Allen believed the church could perform four basic functions: spiritual support, evangelism, education, and building black pride.

Contacts and Web Sites

African Methodist Episcopal Church 500 8th Ave. S. Nashville, TN 37203 615-254-0911; fax: 615-254-0912

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and Richard Allen Museum 419 Richard Allen Ave. Philadelphia, PA 19147 215-925-0616

Further Reading

Allen, Richard. The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen. To Which is Annexed the Rise and Progress of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Containing a Narrative of the Yellow Fever in the Year of Our Lord 1793: With an Address to the People of Colour in the United States. Written by Himself . Philadelphia: Martin & Boden, 1833. Jones, Absalom, and Richard Allen. A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, during the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793: And a Refutation of some Censures, Thrown upon them in some late Publications. Philadelphia: Printed for the authors, by William W. Woodward, 1794. Mills, Frederick V. "Allen, Richard." In African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Nash, Gary B. "Allen, Richard." In The African-American Experience: Selections from the Five-Volume Macmillan Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History , edited by Jack Salzman. New York: Macmillan, 1998.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007