This short look at the life of Richard Allen began with two questions and how the answers to those questions can become a practical application in our Christian lives. How was Christ glorified in this 18th century pastor during the time of slavery? For reformation to take place in our time, what responsibilities are before us, in order that Christ will be glorified?
Christ was glorified in this 18th century pastor through Richard Allen’s personal walk with Christ and the gathering of the community of African American believers. Allen’s Christian life can be characterized as one who was constrained and compelled with the desire to make Christ known to the people. Through the realization of his own state of sin which was worse than the man made slavery into which he was born and then the proclamation of sin and atoning work of Christ, this was the message that Allen proclaimed everywhere he went. Our pattern of conduct must be the same. We as believers must have the eagerness in prayer and proclamation of the Gospel, to those who are unconverted. Men are slaves to sin, bound in the wickedness of their thoughts, words and deeds. The words of our Saviour ring true, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34) and the same also rings true to all slaves of sin, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Next the community of believers must unite, under the common purposes of equipping the saints and building up the body of Christ. The African American believers led by Allen, provided each other with the Scriptural support, prayer support and fellowship flowing from Christ grace to endure the trials they were facing. Secondly the believers were being built up. Suffering was building their faith. Persecution was refining their Godly character resulting in their confession that God alone would be their source. Believers, there will be times when you will suffer when you stand to exalt the glory of our God and His Son Jesus Christ. It must not be an experience in which we retreat and hide, “but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy”(1 Peter 4:13).
Now to our second question of what responsibilities are before us? I speak to those who call themselves pastors, teachers, elders, etc. The highest lesson, the greatest example we find in the life of Richard Allen and the glory that God received out of his life is the following: The importance of the sufficiency of Jesus Christ alone and the sufficiency of Scripture alone. At their greatest trial, at the moment when they face exclusion, Allen and the African American believers proclaimed Christ alone and Scripture alone. Those who hold yourselves to be leaders in your local body, declare, Christ alone. The pastor who will not labor in the Word of God, dig into each book, chapter and verse, teaches others not to be diligent to labor in the Word of God. If you are teaching anything than what is clearly outlined by Christ and the apostles, turn from your man made doctrines and back to doctrines of Jesus Christ.
The establishment of the first African American fellowship which would eventually become independent of the Methodist church in 1815, was a reformation orchestrated by Christ Himself. Christ, using Allen’s slavery, freedom, conversion and preaching, brought about a change in the visible church and America reminiscent of Luther’s work in Europe. The African American body of believers were the recipients of God’s grace, through the exaltation of Christ, a knowledge of the sufficiency of Scripture and gaining a true understanding of their equality in Jesus Christ.
The modern day local churches, that have large are predominantly African American must learn the lessons of these free and bond people. Zeal for the worship of Christ, freely, was contained within the bounds of exalting Christ and learning the Scriptures. What is the solution for the decline in African American churches? It is the return to the centrality of Jesus Christ. Secondly, the local church must return to seeing Scripture as the sole source of how God instructs His people(2 Tim 3:15-4:1-3).
The glory of Christ will be revealed in the African American community. Community leadership, with all its good deeds, will not measure up to the eternal weight, work and worth of Christ, who must be the object of all our affections. Pray that God would revive hearts to exalt Christ alone. Pray that God will use men and women, the priesthood of believers to herald the risen King in the public square, in their home fellowships and church buildings. God, His Son Jesus Christ is to be gloried as our supreme joy in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Christ the Redeemer, was Richard Allen’s joy. Through every aspect of life, Christ must be the all satisfying center to bring lasting change to our local churches.
All quotes are from:
Allen, Richard, The Life, Experience and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen. Martin and Boden, Philadelphia, 1833.
Richard Allen is a man who is constantly on the move. Allen is constantly moving from Baltimore, Radnor, Lancaster and Philadelphia from 1785-1786. Where ever Allen went, it was a priority that He was preaching the Gospel. Allen joined a Rev Richard Watcoat to preach on the Baltimore circuit and when he moved into Pennsylvania, Allen joined with a Rev Peter Morratte and Irie Ellis along the Lancaster circuit.
In 1786, Allen is in Philadelphia and begins preaching from time to time at St. George’s Church to which he became a member. Allen had only intended to remain in Philadelphia for about two weeks, but God had a different plan. Allen saw a great need to preach to a great many of Africans in the city, therefore he began conducting open air preaching twice a day. Morning and evening and sometimes four to five times a day, Allen was out, in the public declaring the Word of God, unashamedly. As many began to gather, Allen began discipleship of African believers, established prayer meetings, ministering with at least 42 individuals. It was at this point that Allen realized these believers needed a place to gather and worship.
Richard Allen planned this to be a two week trip and it became a labor for the glory of Christ. He saw a great need for ministry. He labored daily to see Christ formed in people. Here was a free slave, going abroad executing the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. Here we see the move of the Holy Spirit upon a believer to do a work for the glory of God and the joy of believers. Overall we continue to see the compelling, unfettered desire to preach Christ. Let us all pray to the Lord to stir our hearts, to leave our pews, our home fellowships, to declare the glory of the Gospel of Christ to men in the public square.
Brother Allen forms a bond with three other African American men at St Georges; Rev Absalom Jones, William White and Dorus Ginnings. The four sought support within their local church, St Georges to establish a place of worship for the African believers but were vehemently denied. Yet the group remained faithful.
Allen records that, “We felt ourselves much cramped; but my dear Lord was with us, and we believed, if it was his will, the work would go on, and that we would be able to succeed in building the house of the Lord. We established prayer meetings and meetings of exhortation, and the Lord blessed our endeavours, and many souls were awakened; but the elder soon forbid us holding any such meetings; but we viewed the forlorn state of our colored brethren, and that they were destitute of a place of worship.”
What example do we see in this body of believers? They kept their eyes fixed on Christ. They continued to do the works of the ministry, equipping the saints and building up the body of Christ. The believers followed the example of the early Church of Jerusalem, continuing “ steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers… Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved”(Acts 2:42,47).
The African American believers experienced an unfortunate event during corporate worship at St George that would encourage their faith in Christ through suffering. In the midst of prayer time, Absalom Jones was told to move in the middle of prayer because he was in the seating reserved for Whites. Absalom Jones requested to move upon the completion of prayer. Two members of the church rejected his request and proceeded to drag him on his knees out of the church. Reverend Allen remembers this as the critical event in the birth of the African Methodist Episcopal Church:
"we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church. This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct. But my dear Lord was with us, and we were filled with fresh vigor to get a house erected to worship God in.”
Out of this unnecessary and unconceivable incident, Allen saw this as an opportunity for his people to move forward to worship God unhindered.
The African American believers gathered some money and purchased a storage room to meet in. The believers were threatened and told they would be publicly disciplined if they would not cease their gatherings. Allen and the believers would eventually receive some support from one Dr. Benjamin Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston of whom Allen states, “I hope…will never be forgotten among us.”
So Allen has been in Philadelphia since 1786 and been ordained by God to establish a local fellowship for African American believers. Receiving opposition from within their own local church, St. George and without, they continued steadfastly trusting in Jesus Christ.
It is on or about 1794 and the Methodist Conference sends and elder Mr. J-M- to demand the African American believers to stop raising money to build their own place to worship. Two separate times this meeting occurs, and on the last meeting, God’s sovereignty is manifested. The African American believers declared to the elder,
“We told him we had no place of worship; and we did not mean to go to St. George's church any more, as we were so scandalously treated in the presence of all the congregation present; "and if you deny us your name, you cannot seal up the scriptures from us, and deny us a name in heaven. We believe heaven is free for all who worship in spirit and truth." And he said, "so you are determined to go on." We told him--"yes, God being our helper." He then replied, "we will disown you all from the Methodist connexion." We believed if we put our trust in the Lord, he would stand by us.”
What did they elevate as primary? Who did they see as the only one who would gain them entrance into heaven? Who did they see as their only sufficiency? They saw Christ as their only sufficiency. “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God… And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work”(2 Cor 3:5, 9:8). They declared only Christ as the one who provided entrance to Heaven. “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die… I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 11:25-26, 14:6).
Finally, they elevated Scripture as the final authority! “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works”(2 Tim 3:16-17).
In 1794, after raising a enough money to purchase a plot of land in Philadelphia, Bethel AME was officially opened with Richard Allen as the first pastor. Allen once again looks to God, giving Him the glory. “My dear Lord was with us, so that there was many hearty Amen's echoed through the house. This house of worship has been favored with the awakening of many souls, and I trust they are in the kingdom both white and colored.” The first African American church was birthed and more importantly, Christ was magnified.
The African American local churches like many other local churches in America are in need of reform. Many of the local fellowships are characterized by minimal doctrinal teaching, lack of church discipline and sadly no clear proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At one time in it’s history, the African American church, used to be the center of gravity for a body of Americans, attempting to find their place in a desegregated world.
Reform requires bold action, which has its genesis in the Spirit of the Living God. Nehemiah records the people calling for the Word of God to be declared. Ezra boldly brought the Word of God and expounded it to the people at the Watergate. This move of God was profound, because through the proclamation of God’s Word, He revived a recently bound people from Babylon. So now, we look to our Christ, our glorious Christ, who alone will be the cause and glory of reform.
Richard B. Allen is one such man in church history whom God, by His sovereignty, used to shine forth His Word to the African American in the 18th century. Therefore, let us look at; 1)How was Christ glorified in this 18th century pastor during the time of slavery? 2) For reformation to take place in our time, what responsibilities are before us, in order that Christ will be glorified?
The Early Years
Richard B. Allen was born February 14, 1760 in the state of Pennsylvania as a slave. It is sixteen years before the infant America declares its independence from England under the document of the Declaration of Independence. There are close to 300,000 African slaves present in the American country, extending from the southern colonies and up into the north of the country. One of six children, Richard as a young child and his entire family were sold to the Stokeley family in the state of Delaware.
Allen comments that the Stokeley family and particularly the master was a “good master,” yet none of the family was converted to the Christian faith. Several years later, an unfortunate yet common event shook the Allen family. The Stokeley sold Richard Allen’s mother and three of his siblings because of financial strain. Allen remained at the Stokeley home with one brother and one sister. This was a common occurrence for slave families in which they were split up and sold through out the country.
Allen’s life was a general snapshot of the experiences of over a quarter million African American slaves during the birth of the United States. Allen, his family, a whole population of people were bound to a life of servitude, which was at the pleasure of the master. Is that any different than the previous condition of regenerated believers? Is that not the description of millions of unbelievers currently in the world today? Sin is the master of all those that are dead and unregenerate. Paul describes this state, “ye were the servants of sin…servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity”(Rom 6:17,19). Men are bound in sin, slaves to their passions and the only payment for a life of servitude, of slavery, is death. Please remember the slave condition from which Christ has purchased you by His precious and eternal blood. Take this gift of grace, proclaim it to captives, to slaves who are working for the payment of death.
At the age of twenty, Allen is converted to faith in Jesus Christ, acknowledging the gift of God’s grace. Journaling his conversion, Allen states,
“I was awakened and brought to see myself poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost. Shortly after I obtained mercy through the blood of Christ, and was constrained to exhort my old companions to seek the Lord. I went rejoicing for several days, and was happy in the Lord, in conversing with many old experienced Christians. I was brought under doubts, and was tempted to believe I was deceived, and was constrained to seek the Lord afresh. I went with my head bowed down for many days. My sins were a heavy burden. I was tempted to believe there was no mercy for me. I cried to the Lord both night and day. One night I thought hell would be my portion. I cried unto Him who delighteth to hear the prayers of a poor sinner; and all of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and glory to God, I cried. My soul was filled. I cried, enough for me--the Saviour died. Now my confidence was strengthened that the Lord, for Christ's sake, had heard my prayers, and pardoned all my sins.”
I would like to highlight some important points in Allen’s conversion experience. First we see, he was certain of His conversion by his acknowledgement of sin and standing without mercy before the Living God. He states, “I obtained mercy.” Second, we see that his faith was challenged. How many times have any of us been challenged as to the genuine nature of our conversion? We are told we are just going through a phase or just trying to fit in? Well, Richard Allen provides us with practical fruit, in that he examined himself, not in light of others but in the presence of the Jesus Christ Himself. Lastly, I would like to point out that twice, Richard details how he was “constrained,” he was forced, to seek the Lord and preach the Gospel.
Our conversion is not based upon feelings or our subjective feelings. Allen’s testimony shows us that the certainty of our faith rest alone in Jesus Christ. We “must look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith”(Heb 12:2); “in whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him”(Eph 3:12); “for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day”(2 Ti 1:12).
Secondly, we find from Allen’s conversion that he was compelled, constrained, forced to declare Christ to those around him. Isn’t this reminiscent of the woman at the well who proclaimed, “Come see a man who told me all that I ever did?” Can this be the Christ”(Jn 4:29)? Or the man born blind who proclaimed to the Pharisees, “I was blind, now I see…If this man were not of God, he could do nothing” (Jn 9:1-7). We are compelled to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our testimonies are useless if they do not exalt the character and glory of Jesus Christ. Allen’s zeal, empowered by the Holy Spirit must be ours as well. Preach the Gospel!!
Richard Allen joined the Methodist denomination and fell under the instruction of John Gray. Allen’s master, who was unconverted, encouraged Allen and his brother to attend services at least twice a week. Allen records, “at length, our master said he was convinced that religion made slaves better and not worse, and often boasted of his slaves for their honesty and industry.” In the greater context of the time period, this was rare, in that many slave owners, especially in the south, feared the conversion of slaves. Conversion of slaves, led to the education of slaves. Slave masters were therefore apprehensive in allowing their slaves to be converted in some parts of the country. Thus the masters willingness to encourage Christian growth in Richard Allen was a picture of God’s sovereignty, bringing the Word of God to the ears of Allen.
It would be through God’s sovereignty that Richard Allen and his brother’s life would change forever. During one night of preaching that occurred at the Stokeley residence Allen records the miracle that would happen in the home and change his life forever. “Freeborn Garrison preached from these words, "Thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting." In pointing out and weighing the different characters, and among the rest weighed the slave-holders, my master believed himself to be one of that number, and after that he could not be satisfied to hold slaves.” God through the preaching of His Word brought freedom to the lives of the Allen boys. What is our lesson here? The Word of God is thoroughly sufficient for all manners of life. This is a sad commentary in which many of our local churches have refused to clearly teach and preach the Word of God, opting instead to become financial advisors and pop-psychologist. The Word of God brought conviction to the heart of Mr. Stokeley, resulting in Richard Allen receiving freedom. This freedom was not only to move about the country but to learn and most importantly the freedom to preach the Word of God.
Richard Allen is now a free man to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After spending some time serving in the Continental Army, Allen was on the move throughout the northeast, preaching the Gospel. Beginning in 1783, Allen began itinerant preaching from Wilmington, Delaware on to New Jersey. Sometime in 1784, Allen settled in Radnor, just outside Philadelphia were the Water’s family gave him housing. It would be here that Allen had the rare experience to preach over several weeks at the Water’s congregation that was majority white. Imagine the scene of having a black man, stand in the pulpit and preach to a majority white congregation, at a time when African Americans were not encouraged to read or learn the truths of the Christian faith. The people commented concerning Allen’s preaching, “this man must be a man of God; I never heard such preaching before.”
The significance of these moments can not be overlooked. Allen could have been rejected, thrown out and worse. Yet the Lord Christ saw to it that Allen would declare His Word to souls. Our encouragement is that we may be called one day to preach to those who want to harm us, ridicule us and despitefully use us, yet Christ is standing right their with us. As Stephen in power declared Christ to those who “were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth” (Acts 7:54), for the words they heard. Be encouraged that Christ is faithful, in life and death, to those who seek to bring Him glory.
After his time in Radnor, Allen moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he was given more opportunities to preach. Allen was constrained to preach his Redeemer, where ever he went. In congregations, neighborhoods and circuit preaching, Allen desired to exalt Christ. We can learn from Richard Allen, that a pastor must have an eagerness, a zeal to exalt Christ and His Word to the people at every opportunity. Secondly, Christians must redeem the time that God has given to them. What we can learn from Allen is that it he appears never to have squandered an occasion to speak on Christ.