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A Brief History of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Upon this rock...

The story of Mother Bethel cannot be told without first telling the story of the
founder, Bishop Richard Allen. According to Allen, he was born on February 14,
1760 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the condition of slavery to a Quaker lawyer,
Mr. Benjamin Chew. Chew, who at one point served as Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and personal attorney to the Penn
Family, was a wealthy landowner who owned property near the Philadelphia water
front, at Cliveden (which is now the Germantown section of the city), and farms in
Delaware. Allen, whose father was African and whose mother was bi-racial, literally
could have been born at any of these Chew properties. What is known for certain is
that the family was purchased by a Delaware planter, Mr. Stokley Sturgis, when
Allen was seven years old. Later, Allen’s mother was again sold along with three of
her six children, leaving Allen, his older brother, and a sister on the Sturgis
plantation. There is no record of the fate of Allen’s father after this time.

Allen later contended that Sturgis was a tender and humane man who was more
like a father to his slaves. However, even with a "kind" owner, Allen still held that
slavery "was a bitter pill". As he and his brother grew older, they were permitted to
attend religious meetings of the Methodist Society. In 1777, at the age of seventeen,
Allen was converted to Christianity by the preaching of Freeborn Garretson and
joined the Methodist Society. Allen’s conversion was such a powerful experience that
later wrote about saying that "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." Allen and his brother’s new religion led them to work even harder in their
assignments on the plantation, as they knew that the prevailing myth of the day
was that Christianity made slaves useless.

Allen’s industrious example was so convincing that his owner was convinced that
Christianity made slaves better, not worse and he allowed Allen to invite Methodist
preachers to hold worship services in the Sturgis home. It was during this time that
Sturgis was also converted and joined the Methodist Society. Garretson, like many
of the early Methodist preachers, had adopted an anti-slavery stance and he
reminded Sturgis that he couldn’t get to Heaven owning slaves. This ultimately led
Sturgis into a deal that allowed the Allen brothers buy their freedom. Allen earned
2,000 Continental dollars over the next few years by working extra jobs and hauling
salt for the American Army during the Revolutionary War, thus earning his
freedom.

Allen was now free to go and do what his heart truly wanted, to preach the Gospel.
He began traveling in 1783 and set about preaching in Delaware, New Jersey,
Pennsylvania and Maryland. He often walked so much from one place to another
that his feet would become severely blistered. In the winter of 1784, Allen attended
the "Christmas Conference" of Methodists in America. This historic event was held
in Baltimore, Maryland and the Methodist Church established itself as a separate
denomination from the Church of England. Allen turned down an invitation by
Bishop Francis Asbury to travel with him to preach in the southern states, choosing
instead to continue preaching in the northeast.

Allen’s choice would prove to be providential. In 1786, the pastor of St. George’s
Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in Philadelphia invited Allen to begin preaching
a 5am worship service. Allen accepted and as a result, the attendance of Black
worshipers at St. George’s began to increase. However, the hostile attitude of the
White officers and members also began to increase. Although St. George’s began as
a church where Blacks and Whites worshiped together without regard to race,
attitudes began to change quickly with the influx of new Black converts.

Once in Philadelphia, Allen became fast friends with Absalom Jones, who would
remain his co-laborer in the Gospel throughout his life. The two men, along with
other free Blacks, recognized the need for organization to meet the many unmet
needs of their fellow Black citizens. Their conversations led to the founding of the
Free African Society (FAS) on April 12, 1787. This mutual aid society provided
assistance to the sick, to widows, to orphans, and helped in the burying of the dead
for families regardless of religious affiliation. Although a founder, Allen was often at
odd with the body due to the heavy Quaker influence which he often found at odds
with his Methodist style of worship. However rocky the relationship was, Allen and
Jones were both committed to the uplift of their fellow free Blacks.

Back at St. George’s, Allen’s preaching was drawing so many new Black congregants
that the building could no longer accommodate the growing congregation. He met
with other Blacks to discuss the possibility of organizing a church of their own, but
was met with opposition (with the exception of Absalom Jones, William White, and
Darius Jinnings). White church elders also rejected Allen’s vision of an independent
Black church, preferring a segregated St. George’s. To that end, a new balcony was
constructed and upon its completion, Allen and others arrived at church only to be
shown the new seating arrangement. In his own words, Allen describes the events of
that morning:

"He (the Trustee) told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take
the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took
those seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and 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, H-- M--, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him off
of his knees, and saying, ’You must get up--you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones
replied, ’Wait till prayer is over.’ Mr. H-- M-- said, ’No, you must get up now, or I will
call for aid and force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ’Wait until prayer is over and I will
get up and trouble you no more.’ 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 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."

This exodus led the group of exiles to begin to raise money for their own church. Dr.
Benjamin Rush (a signer on the Declaration of Independence) and Robert Ralston
were the first to lend financial backing to Richard Allen. Even the first president of
the United States, George Washington, contributed financially to the effort. During
this time, the group appointed Allen, Absalom Jones, William Grey, and William
Wilcher to locate a parcel of land on which to build an African church to worship
God in peace. In 1791, a lot was selected on the corner of Sixth and Lombard
Streets. The lot, belonging to Mr. Mark Wilcox, was purchased by Allen, but the
congregation soon decided they wanted a different parcel of land on 5th Street, just
south of Walnut Street. Allen now had to decide what to do with the property.

Adding to Allen’s stress of holding a piece of land that the congregation no longer
wanted, he was soon faced with a more pressing dilemma. Much to his surprise, the
majority voted to affiliate with the newly formed Episcopal Church, the American
version of the Church of England. An appointed committee solicited Richard Allen to
serve as the church’s first pastor. He declined, however, because he felt that the
simplicity of the Methodist faith was more suitable for Black people. Absalom Jones
was then offered the position and accepted the calling, later becoming the first
African American priest of the Episcopal Church. Jones and the members of the
African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas erected their building. Demonstrating that
Allen’s disagreement with the body was not from ill feelings, he participated in the
groundbreaking ceremony, removing the first spade of dirt and he prayed that God
would bless their endeavors.

It should be noted that the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 forced a yearlong
postponement of fundraising for both Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in building
their respective churches. Both men, along with many members of the FAS worked
heroically at the call of Dr. Benjamin Rush serving as nurses to the sick, carrying
the infirmed to the hospital set up at Bush Hill, and burying the dead. Later, Black
aid workers were maligned in pamphlets by Matthew Carey who alleged that
Blacks were taking advantage of sick Whites and stealing from the dead. The
published response of Allen and Jones with a pamphlet of their own not only forced
Carey to print new versions with a more accurate account of their work, but it was
also the first copyright given to Blacks in America.

The First Church

Allen went to work on building a church and purchased an old blacksmith shop,
which he had hauled to the property at 6th and Lombard Streets. Carpenters were
employed to retro fit the structure into a place of worship. Allen asked Bishop
Francis Asbury to lead the dedication services, which he did on July 29, 1794.
Asbury preached the first sermon and dedicated "The Blacksmith Shop Meeting
House" as a new place of worship for America’s first Black Methodist Society. The
Reverend Dickins, pastor of St. George’s at the time, prayed that the house be called
"Bethel" for the gathering of thousands of souls. The name stuck!

By 1795, Bethel’s congregation numbered 121 and ten years later it was up to 457.
In 1799, Allen was ordained to the office of deacon, making him the first ordained
Black person in the MEC. Also in 1795, the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society
appealed for Richard Allen’s support to assist thirty runaway Jamaican slaves. He
provided the church as a place of refuge and aided in the training and integration of
the runaways into the black community. The first church continued to provide
shelter for runaway slaves.

The Second Church

By 1805, a larger building and additional land were needed to accommodate the
growing membership. The church trustees purchased Allen’s two lots adjoining the
church on the north side and two on the south side for a sum of 700 pounds. The
second church, a crude rough cast block structure replaced the "Blacksmith Shop
Meeting House" that same year. Even with its own building to worship under its
own vine and fig tree, Bethel experienced continued discrimination and prejudice
from their white Methodist brethren. Ironically, St. George’s sought to require
payment in exchange for sending their clergy to preach for Bethel and to have
Bethel’s land transferred into the Methodist Conference. Allen became even more
dissatisfied as white ministers retreated from their antislavery principles and
attempted to thwart the sovereignty of black congregations.

From 1794 to 1816, the relationship between Bethel Church and St. George’s was a
mixed bag, to say the least. At times, it was amicable and all got along just fine. At
other times, however, it was so tense that the St. George’s leadership sought to take
the books and keys of the church, insisting that the congregation and all property
belonged to them. At times, things were so bad that the members of Bethel sat in
the aisles of the church to prevent the pastors of St. George’s from taking the pulpit
to preach. It was this rocky interaction that led Allen and the officers to amend the
articles of incorporation to include the "African Supplement" in 1807. Rather than
set them free, the supplement led to a final showdown in the Pennsylvania courts.
In 1815, St. George’s successfully managed to auction off Bethel, and Allen was
required to buy back his own church for $10,125. A series of rulings in lower courts
led to an 1816 hearing before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Richard
Allen and the members of Bethel were declared free from MEC control.

In April of 1816, Allen and 15 representatives from other Black Methodist
congregations in Baltimore, Maryland; Wilmington, Delaware; Salem, New Jersey;
and, Attleboro, Pennsylvania convened the first General Conference at the newly
freed Bethel Church in Philadelphia to establish and organize the African
Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC).

At this first conference in 1816, Daniel Coker was first elected bishop. However, he
resigned the next day before being consecrated to the office and Richard Allen was
then elected and consecrated the first bishop of the AMEC. The AMEC soon took
into its ranks several thousand members in the city of Charleston, South Carolina,
who led by Morris Brown walked out of White MEC congregations.

In 1817, Allen and Bethel’s second building hosted approximately 3,000 people of
African descent to protest the formation of the American Colonization Society
(ACS). Allen, Absalom Jones, and businessman James Forten were the key
organizers. This even greatly shaped the Black resistance from that moment until
the end of the Civil War against the plan to send all of America’s free Blacks to
Africa, while leaving the enslaved behind. While a few Blacks (including Daniel
Coker) followed the ACS, most refused to have anything to do with it largely
because of the outcome of this meeting.

It was also in the second building that Jarena Lee became the first woman to
receive "authorization" to preach. While attending a worship service at Bethel, the
preacher in the pulpit began to struggle with his message and stopped preaching. It
just so happens that the text he used was one that she had recently been reading.
Without permission and with Richard Allen in attendance, she sprang to her feet
and began to preach! She was fearful that Allen would rebuke her and cast her out
of membership. However, Allen was so moved that he gave her official standing
(although not the right to full ordination) and she began to preach throughout the
region with his blessing.

In 1824, Allen sent his brother, Henry and others to Haiti to establish churches and
help build up the free Black nation. In 1830, the first major Black Convention was
held at Bethel Church under Allen’s watchful eye. The AMEC under his leadership
continued to spread as new churches were established.

Bishop Richard Allen passed away at his home at 150 Spruce Street on Saturday, March 26, 1831. It is said that he was sitting at his front window in a rocking chair. His remains, along with those of Sarah, his second wife and Bishop Morris Brown, are entombed at Mother Bethel to this day.

The Bishop was twice married. He married his first wife, Flora, on October 19,
1790. She worked very closely with him during the Bishop’s early years of
establishing the church from 1787 to 1799. They attended church school and worked
together purchasing land, which was eventually donated to the church or rented out
to families. Flora Allen died on March 11, 1801 after a long illness. The couple bore
no children. The whereabouts of Flora’s remains are unknown.

Sarah Bass Allen, Allen’s second wife has been characterized by her contemporaries
as "a mother in Israel". It is said that her work enabled Allen and his fellow
ministers to carry the spreading of the Gospel. Sarah was said to be a counselor to
the young and old, and did much to assist the Bishop in his ministry. Born into
slavery in 1764 in Virginia’s Isle of Wight County and brought to Philadelphia at
eight years of age, little is known about her early life, except that she obtained her
freedom by 1800. Their marriage ceremony was performed by Reverend Ezekiel
Cooper of St. George’s Church on August 18, 1801. Richard was born of this union in
1802, followed by James, John, Peter, Sarah, and Ann.

Sarah’s primary responsibilities included managing the Allen household, collecting
rent from their properties, and raising their children. She also supported Allen’s
activist causes and assisted him in the work of Bethel. It is said that the initial
work of the Missionary Society of the AME Church was born from Sarah’s hands.
The work of Bethel included the founding of what would later be called The Sarah
Allen Missionary Society. The society’s beginnings found root out of her concern for
the unkempt appearance of the ministers at the AME church’s first Annual
Conference, which inspired her to organize the Daughters of Conference (officially
designated in 1827).

Upon the return of Bishop Allen’s first traveling preachers, he felt that their
physical condition was too "seedy" for an invitation to supper. So, he joined them
later that night. When Sarah inquired of their whereabouts, the Bishop related the
condition of their clothes. She was quoted as saying "...they had ventilators in their
elbows, knees and trousers!" Sarah and other women from the church spent the
entire night sewing and repairing the preachers’ clothes. These AME women cared
for the ministers by mending garments, providing food and garnering material
support for survival. The work of the Daughters of the Conference continued long
after Sarah’s death.

Sarah’s support of Allen reached beyond the ministry and included the hiding,
clothing, and of feeding runaway slaves in their home. Mother Sarah Allen lived to
be 85 years old. She passed away July 16, 1849.

The Third Church

After his death, Bethel continued to grow which resulted in the need for a new
building 10 years after his passing. The third church, known as the "Red Brick
Church", was built at a cost of $18,000.00 in 1841. The structure was made of
bricks and stone. Steven Smith, a wealthy prominent citizen and treasurer of the
Bethel AME Corporation, made generous contributions towards the construction of
the building. The cornerstone was laid on June 2, 1841 with Bishop Morris Brown
(Allen’s successor) in attendance.

Bishop Daniel Payne, in The History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,
Volume I, described the interior as more elegant than the earlier buildings, which
had been built free of ornamentation, like most Methodist churches of that era. The
pulpit area was the most impressive feature in the sanctuary. He noted that the
pulpit area was the most imposing feature in the sanctuary.

The building was remodeled in 1870. The congregation worshipped in the "Red
Brick Church" for forty-eight years and like its predecessors, served the needs of the
community. During the Civil War, the church was used to recruit Black soldiers into
the Union Army. The last services were held on the third Sunday of June, 1889,
with Reverend Cornelius Schaffer presiding. The structure was demolished August
7, 1889 to make way for the fourth church. Members worshipped in Horticultural
Hall, located on Broad Street until the completion of the new church.

The Fourth Church

In preparation for the construction of the fourth church, the trustees were
authorized to purchase Reverend Josiah Eddy’s property, located on the Southeast
corner of Sixth and Alfred (now Addison) Streets, for a sum of $2,150. Reverend
Eddy was a member of Bethel for many years and served as an assistant minister.
Ground breaking for the fourth church occurred on August 24th at 9:15 AM with
Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, Pastor C.T. Schaffer, officers, members and many
visitors in attendance. On Thursday, November 7, 1889 at 2:00 PM, Bishops Henry
McNeil Turner and Alexander W. Wayman, Pastor Schaffer, the Presiding Elder,
many ministers, officers of the church and a throng of people witnessed the laying of
the cornerstone.
The new church was dedicated on Sunday, October 26, 1890. The
bishops and ministers assembled at the parsonage and walked to the church, where
the Trustees presented the keys to the bishops. The church hosted programs with
prominent citizens and participating organizations. The festivities concluded on
Thursday, November 21, 1890 with a concert of various choirs from around the city.
The constitution and by-laws have been amended several times since 1796. On
March 5, 1953, the last two added "Mother" to the name of the Bethel and permitted
women to participate in the business of the Corporation. A new chapter was written
in the history of Mother Bethel with the election of Mrs. Willie V. Simpkins as a
trustee on April 8, 1957.

Through the years, Mother Bethel has heeded the call of a downtrodden people.
From the rostrum of Bethel were heard the many voices of prominent citizens and
abolitionists of the period, pleading for justice and denouncing slavery. Noted
persons to speak at Mother Bethel included such legendary figures as Lucretia
Mott, Fredrick Douglass, William Still, Alfred Love, Jabaz P. Campbell, James
Forten, and Octavius Catto.

Large sums of money were collected to support the efforts of the Underground
Railroad, which was a system of support to runaway slaves escaping from the south.
In 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation, Mother Bethel received and helped
many former slaves who arrived in Philadelphia. In like manner, members of Mother Bethel again aided in assisting Blacks from the south (most notably South Carolina) in the early 20th century during the Great Migration as southerners came north in search of industrial work. During the Great Depression, Mother Bethel aided in the feeding and clothing many who were out of jobs and money.

Beginning with the purchase of a parcel of land in 1791, more than two centuries
and four buildings later, Mother Bethel continues to serve as an active participant
on the world stage, advancing the spiritual, social, and civic causes germane to
African Americans and others. The doors of Mother Bethel remain open to those
who have often been considered by society as the "least of these".
A complete list of the 52 pastors who have served the Mother Church:

Richard Allen * 1787-1818
Jacob Tapisco 1818-1824
William Cornish 1824-1825
Morris Brown * 1825-1834
Joseph Cox 1834-1840
Richard Williams 1840-1844
William Moore 1844-1846
Willis Nazrey * 1846-1848
John Cornish 1848-1852
Henry J. Young 1852-1853
Henry Davis 1853-1855
Richard Robinson 1855-1857
John Cornish 1857-1858
William D.W. Schureman 1858-1860
Joshua Woodlin 1860-1862
Jabez P. Campbell * 1862-1864
William Moore 1864-1865
James Hollon 1865-1867
Deaton Dorrell 1867-1870
James M. Williams 1870-1871
Henry J. Young 1871-1873
Theodore Gould 1873-1875
Robert F. Wayman 1875-1877
George C. Whitfield 1877-1879
Levi J. Coppin * 1879-1881
Joseph S. Thompson 1881-1883
Cethe C. Felts 1883-1884
Joseph S. Thompson 1884-1886
John W. Beckett 1886-1888
Cornelius T. Shaffer * 1888-1889
William H. Heard * 1890-1892
William D. Cook 1892-1895
Theodore Gould 1895-1896
Levi Coppin 1896-1900
Thomas W. Henderson 1900-1903
William H. Thomas 1903-1904
R. William Fickland 1904-1907
Montrose W. Thornton 1907-1912
Coleman C. Dunlap 1912-1916
Robert J. Williams 1916-1920
Harry P. Anderson 1920-1925
J. Campbell Beckett 1925-1930
Henry P. Jones 1930-1942
Eustace Blake 1942-1950
John D. Bright, Sr. * 1950-1960
Charles E. Stewart 1960-1965
Henry J. White, Sr. 1965-1972
Joseph L. Joiner 1972-1984
Simon P. Bouie 1984-1986
Richard F. Norris * 1986-1993
Jeffrey N. Leath * 1993-2008
Mark K. Tyler 2008-present

(*) Denotes former pastors who were elected and consecrated to the office of Bishop.

For more information on Bishop Richard Allen, Mother Bethel, or the AMEC, refer
to Bishop Allen’s autobiography at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/allen/allen.html, Bishop Payne’s History of the AMEC, Vol. I at http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/payne/payne.html, or
Bishop Smith’s History of the AMEC, Vol. II. at http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cssmith/smith.html

 

 
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