Sunday, April 11, 2021

The year was 1816. Today we remember the ordination of the first Black Bishop in America, Richard Allen. The reading is from Phyllis Wheatley.

It is the 11th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I'm Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1816.

It would be hard to underestimate the role of the AME Church in the story of American Christianity. The church that started in an old blacksmith shop grew eventually to 5 churches and eight clergy and became the most prominent African American denomination in America with over 7,000 churches and 2.5 million members. The story of the early AME Church is wrapped up in the story of Richard Allen, but before we get there, let me break down the "A," the "M," and the "E."

The A stands for "African." This was a church made up of slaves of African descent. When white churches wouldn't let them be fully integrated members, they started their church.

The M stands for "Methodist" this is the offshoot of Anglicanism developed by the Wesley Brothers. It had a reputation as inclusive, and Wesley was a rare voice in the church when condemning slavery. "Methodist" is also a theological distinction as they follow the "25 Articles". Imagine taking the 39 Articles of the Church of England and removing the 14 elements influenced by Calvinism, this is what Wesley did, and these "25 Articles" are the doctrinal standard of Methodism.

The E stands for Episcopalian, which can mean many things, but in this case, it simply means what it says. Episcopalian means "we have Bishops."

Ok, So Richard Allen. Allen was born into slavery in 1760. He was converted by an itinerant Methodist preacher in 1777. Richard began to preach on the plantations and in local churches for slave services. He eventually was able to work for his freedom and purchase it at the price of two thousand dollars (this meant he had to earn that from other jobs outside his non-paid slave labor).

His preaching caught the attention of Francis Asbury. Asbury was the English-born Methodist who would become one of the first bishops of the Methodist Episcopal church. Asbury invited Allen and other African Americans to attend St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia, a church with 10% of the congregation being African American.

Allen would preach at the early morning services for the church, but the later services were still segregated. In 1787 Absalom Jones, a former slave, had been praying before the service in the middle pews. A few white parishioners asked Jones and his friends to leave, and they said they would when they were finished praying. The white parishioners grabbed the men and expelled them before they could finish praying.

In response to this, Richard Allen began preaching at congregations that were either entirely black or integrated. He was harassed and threatened by the Methodist Episcopal Church, but in 1794 he bought an old Blacksmiths shop and converted it into a church. The Methodist Episcopal church still claimed Allen and his church as belonging to them. Francis Asbury came to the aid of his old friend and blessed his church, and ordained Allen as a deacon. But the damage was done.

In 1815 the often comically retrograde American supreme court ruled that Allen had the right to his building and freedom of association for his church body. This led to an "Ecclesiastical Compact" with other black churches and the African Methodist Episcopal Church's foundation.

The first meeting of representatives from the various churches came together in 1816, and it was on this, the 11th of April in 1816, that Richard Allen was ordained as the first Bishop of the AME and was thus the first black man ordained as a bishop in the United States. For the rest of his life, Allen served his local church but was devoted to growing the denomination into the midwest and the south.

The story of the AME Church is one of endurance against racial prejudice and a desire to take the Gospel to the poor and despised. This is also the story of Richard Allen, the first bishop of that church body, who was ordained on the 11th of April in 1816.

The reading for today comes from former slave Phyllis Wheatley. This is her "On Being Brought from Africa to America."

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 11th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at The show is produced by a self-styled bishop in a congregational denomination, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who meant it when he said, "often comically retrograde." You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.

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