Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was, of course, one of the main leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. What is lesser known today is King’s training and ministry as a Baptist pastor. Even fewer people know the long history of African American ministers promoting civil rights.
That history begins with the Reverends Richard Allen (1760-1831) and Absalom Jones (1746-1818). Allen and Jones were foremost founding fathers of the African American independent churches and of the American Civil Rights movement.
Allen traveled extensively, preaching in Delaware and Pennsylvania. In February, 1786, he preached at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Thinking that he would be there one or two weeks, ministry needs led Allen to a settled place of service in Philadelphia.
Concerned for the wellbeing of African Americans in this parish, he established prayer meetings. “I raised a society in 1786 of forty-two members. I saw the necessity of erecting a place of worship for the coloured people.”
It was at this time that the Rev. Jones united with Rev. Allen. Their little band met great opposition, including “very degrading and insulting language to us, to try and prevent us from going on.”
Notwithstanding, they established prayer meetings and meetings of exhortation, with many people becoming Christians. Their growing congregation, still without a building, often attended services at St. George’s Church. When the black worshippers became more numerous, the white leaders “moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us around the wall.”
It was at this juncture that one of the most noteworthy events in the American Civil Rights movement occurred. Taking seats that they thought were appropriate, prayer began. Allen describes the scene.
“We had not long been 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 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 I will force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ‘Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.’”
By the time the second usher arrived, prayer was over, and, according to Allen, “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.”
The Birth of the Independent Black Church
As a result, Allen and Jones birthed the first independent Black Church in the North when they hired a store room and held worship by themselves. Facing excommunication from the “mother church,” they remained united and strong.
Allen stirringly recounts the situation. “Here we were pursued with threats of being disowned, and read publicly out of meeting if we did continue to worship in the place we had hired; but we believed the Lord would be our friend. . . . Here was the beginning and rise of the first African church in America.”
Some twenty years later, when increasing numbers of African Americans could not worship without harassment in the Methodist Church, Allen and others called a conference which established the first African denomination in America. It was resolved, “That the people of Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc., should become one body, under the name of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”
Civil Rights, Then and Now
While Americans rightfully pause to remember the historic work of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is equally important to reflect on precursors to his work. The Revs. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones paved the way for heroic African American ministers to pursue civil rights, equality, and religious freedom for all Americans.
Join the Conversation
1. Out of the evil of racism, God brought the good of the establishment of the first independent Black church in America. How is God creating good out of evil in your life circumstances?
2. Where does the church in American still need to overcome racial and cultural barriers to experience true oneness in Christ?
Note: This post is based upon material from the book Beyond the Suffering (http://bit.ly/1IRXq6).