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.