Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

The emergence of Black churches at the beginning of the nineteenth century was crucial to the survival of Black people in Pennsylvania and in the North because it provided two key resources. First, it provided a sense of meaning and destiny grounded in hope. Secondly, the Black church provided the institutional base for the economic, social, and political struggle of Blacks, including the struggle to eliminate slavery and all forms of racism. For Blacks throughout the nineteenth century, religion was both an instrument of protest and a source of relief.

If there is a question of the uniqueness of Black re­ligion, it is to be seen in the creative way Black ministers fashioned, reshaped, and improvised the religious beliefs they adopted from the Methodists and other evangelical groups of the Great Awakening. Black believers created a world view from these beliefs, an abiding patience which provided them with the resources to endure and over­come slavery, suffering, and the hostile environment of discrimination and segregation. On the other hand Black experience conditioned one of the main questions the Black. church posed, “What is a Christian in America and what does it mean to be an American?”

American Christianity proved a paradox, for Black people were not included in its scope, and in the South Scripture provided a justification of slavery. In the North, white Christians segregated Afro-Americans in church service and discriminated against them in secular life. The founders of the first Black churches in Pennsylvania, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, insisted that these practices contradicted the Scripture as well as God’s design. Black people were to be first-class citizens in the United States as well as in heaven.


Richard Allen and the Origins of Black Religion in Pennsylvania

In February, 1786, the Methodist elders invited Allen to return to Philadelphia. The elder in charge asked him to preach to various Black groups, to which he readily agreed, as part of an evangelistic crusade of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Episcopal churches to reach Black freedmen in Philadelphia. Preaching at various places enabled Allen to reach many Afro-Americans. He noticed that few of his Black brothers attended any church at all. He was moved by the condition of Afro-Americans in Philadelphia: “I soon saw a large field open in seeking and instructing my African brethren who had been a long forgotten people, and few of them attended public wor­ship.”

Encouraged by his initial successes and troubled by the condition of his Black brothers, Allen proposed to establish a separate place of worship for people of color. Opposition from Blacks and whites stymied his early effort to move toward Black independence.

Allen started separate prayer meetings for Blacks, however, because much of the preaching in the white churches was irrelevant to the critical religious and social needs of freedmen. It was in these denominational prayer meetings that Blacks heard from Allen that God looked upon all men as equals and that the freedmen, through their own efforts, should obtain all the rights and respon­sibilities guaranteed by the Constitution. Encouraged by this hope, Blacks looked forward to these gatherings rather than the Sunday services in the evangelizing white Christian churches.

Unable to organize a Black church, Allen became a member of St. George Methodist Church, where he was permitted to preach frequently to mixed audiences. He possessed the charisma characteristic of the great Black preachers. When the Afro-American community in Phila­delphia learned that he was going to preach on a certain day, it would turn out in large numbers. The leaders at St. George decided that the best way to handle the situa­tion would be to segregate the seating for Blacks. Blacks had already suffered many indignities in St. George, as had the Black membership in most white-controlled churches. Some at St. George had been expelled from membership for the smallest violation of church discipline. Blacks were not considered for official duties.

The St. George authorities selected the most inappro­priate time to segregate the church. It was on a Sunday morning in November, 1787, just after the reading of the announcements, while Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and William White, three Afro-American members of the congregation, were kneeling before the altar in prayer, that the trustees moved to segregate Blacks in the gallery. After the trustees failed to remove Jones and White, most Blacks in St. George “went out of the church in a body and [St. George Church] was no more plagued with us.”

The basis for a new fellowship outside St. George was the Free African Society, formed eight months prior to the separation. The society in reality was a mutual-aid society for the benefit of members who were sick and “widows and fatherless children.” Black churches, in years to come, began their organizations with this same structure and philosophy.

The inclusion of “African” in the name of the organiza­tion established a pattern followed by many Black organiza­tions in the nineteenth century. Reference to themselves as members of the “African race” was an early expression of race pride, and to be known as an “African” society showed that the members of the Free African Society sought Black identity, self-sufficiency, and self-determina­tion. This may be disturbing to some young modern Afro-American leaders who believe this quest is their invention.

Another important aspect was the formation of a re­ligious society which did not stress denominational ties and required only a simple faith demonstrated by living a moral life. Acts of charity and works were the test of faith.

Jones and Allen, after their separation from St. George, though remaining friends, soon parted company; Jones organized the African Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Allen organized Bethel A.M.E., which became the mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. The two men now moved from involvement with a mutual aid society – the Free African Society – to founding free Black churches which satisfied the educational, social, and economic needs of the Black community.

In 1816, several religious leaders met with Allen in Philadelphia. Before this time several churches bearing the designation of African Methodist Episcopal Church had been organized in a number of cities. At the Philadelphia meeting the denomination was officially organized and became, and still is, a national church.

Richard Allen’s example in organizing the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) was an important development in Black religious autonomy. Though some independent Black churches were established within white church bodies, most Blacks sought and obtained complete autonomy and self-government. For example, in 1807 the first African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia was formed by twenty-two former members of the First Presbyterian Church. Its first pastor was an ex-slave named John Gloucester, who had worked under a white minister in Tennessee. The First African Baptist Church was organ­ized in 1809, when the Blacks broke away from a con­servative white congregation. They called the Reverend Mr. Cunningham of the eastern shore of Virginia, a slave who purchased his freedom while pastoring the church. Finally, an A.M.E. church was organized and established in Pittsburgh in 1808, with Lewis Woodson as pastor.

In all of these schisms Methodism served as the fountainhead for supplying ministers. For instance, the Methodist Episcopal church supplied the following ministers: the Rev. Absalom Jones, African Episcopal Church; the Rev. Richard Allen and the Rev. Daniel Coker, African Metho­dist Episcopal church; and James Varick of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.

Probably the more important basis of unity was to be found in the theological outlook of the founders of independent Black churches. Richard Allen and the others were preeminently evangelists and believed God called them to free Black people’s souls from sin and their bodies from physical, social, political, and psychological bondage.

The Quakers, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists were not so successful in attracting Black communicants. In part, this was due to the forms of worship. The Quaker’s quietude went against the grain of the Black experience and its “joyful noise” approach. The ritualistic and routinized approach of the others were alien to the spontaneous and extemporaneous nature of Black worship.


Black Religion as the Basis for Black Resist to Slavery and Social Protest

Colonization marked the emergence of Black protest. The American Colonization Society was organized in Washington, D.C., in December, 1816, by ex-slaveholding southerners. Simply stated, the movement advocated solution of the slave crisis by transporting Blacks to some other country. In most instances, the officers advocated sending Blacks to Africa.

The response to the threat to their existence as a free people was quick and decisive. During the period of 1817-1830, Black ministers and churchmen in most major cities in the North held protest meetings. The most important public protest took place at Allen’s Bethel Church in Philadelphia in the latter part of January, 1817. Bishop Richard Allen and a Black Episcopal churchman, James Forten, convened the meeting. Three thousand free Blacks were there, including Rev. John Gloucester, of the First Black Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia; Rev. Lewis Woodson, Bethel A.M.E., Pittsburgh; and his layman, John B. Vashon.

Several of the resolutions passed at this meeting contained important propositions pointing to the objections of Blacks against colonization. In the preamble they declared they were entitled to remain in America because their parents cultivated this land and fertilized it with their blood and sweat. Furthermore, they abhorred the stigma cast on free people of color to the effect that they were a dangerous and useless part of the community. They preferred to suffer in America with the slaves than to have a temporary sanctuary in Africa. Finally, they affirmed their confidence in the justice of God, the humanitarianism of the free states, and the providential care of a loving and righteous God.

Colonization failed because the movement could not sustain a religious zeal among Blacks. Black religion triumphed because its program of moral reform appealed to the free Blacks’ determination to obtain freedom and equality in America; Black religion triumphed because it taught the liberating power of the gospel to set one’s body and soul free from political and religious bondage; and finally, one can assume that Black religion defeated the colonization program because it appealed to the Blacks’ sense of destiny and their new perspective on the meaning of their experience in America. Listen to Richard Allen: ” … this land which we have watered with our tears and our blood is now our mother country and we are well satisfied to stay where wisdom abounds and the gospel is free.”

The defeat of the colonizationists signified the Black community’s acceptance of the emerging Black religious leadership and the development of the Black church into a formidable vehicle of protest.

Last, but not least, the conflict with the A.C.S. helped Black ministers develop an antidote for the poison of racial inferiority. Blacks were children of God, Black ministers maintained, and were created in His image. A favorite text was “He … hath made of one blood all nations … ” (Ezekiel 37:22). Too, the new theology portrayed a glori­ous destiny for Black people and proclaimed that the God of history and of the Bible would deliver them from the lion’s den, and “Israel from Pharaoh’s hand.”

Black religious leaders and laymen participated in anti-slavery activities throughout the State and nation. Robert Forten was an early supporter of William Lloyd Garrison and his early contributions sustained the Liberator in its early years. In Pittsburgh, Garrison had the support of Rev. Lewis Woodson, and laymen John B. Vashon and Martin R. Delany, the Black emigrationist. In general, Pennsylvania Black ministers were very influential in turning Garrison against the A.C.S. and in urging him to demand immediate abolition of slavery and no compromise with slaveholders. Garrison’s support was very helpful in bringing about the defeat of the colonizationists.

Richard Allen and Robert Forten were major leaders in the early Black National Convention meetings. Richard Allen and the Rev. Thomas Paul of Boston recognized that the moral-reform methods developed to defeat the Amer­ican Colonization Society’s program were not adequate to meet the new political realities of the 1830’s. State legislative halls in the North and South were revising Black codes, developing new fugitive-slave laws, and taking the vote from Black freedmen. Black clergymen and lay­men were alarmed and frightened by the spectre that one day laws would be passed to make refugees of all freed men.

These men decided to call a national convention as a political technique to solve their problem. Richard Allen saw the Convention as a means to mobilize Black leaders from all over the nation in an effort to plan and execute a program to meet the new legal and political restrictions being placed on their freedom. Allen and those who gather­ed in Philadelphia in 1830 believed such a unified effort would help them nationally.

The National Convention movement proved to be a useful instrument. It enabled Black ministers to transform the religious moral-reform and self-help programs into secularized moral-reform and self-help programs. Allen, Forten, and the other Black Pennsylvanians’ basic concern for Black unity, moral reform, and self-help thus became a national movement. Moreover, the religious perspective of Black religion continued to surface, as one reads resolu­tions in the minutes calling for days of prayer and fasting, and education of youth and adults.

Black churchmen and laymen were becoming very active in the Underground Railroad long before 1800. The homes of Allen and others were open day and night to receive runaway slaves, to give them succor and relief, to help them adjust to their new environment, and to rescue them from bounty hunters and slave catchers. Their churches and homes were stations. The church members and ministers were key conductors. Some of the better­-known Blacks were Robert Forten, Robert Purvis, and William Still of Philadelphia, and John Vashon, Abraham Lewis, Rev. Lewis Woodson, and John Peck of Pittsburgh. Often those who operated the Underground Railroad participated at the same time in vigilante groups whose purpose was to rescue – legally or illegally – runaway slaves who were captured and about to be returned. Violence was considered an appropriate way to rescue a fugitive slave.

The Black ministers also used the selective buying and boycott method of protest. Richard Allen helped organize the Free Produce Society of Philadelphia. He also was instrumental in having it become a national program by aiding the passage of a resolution which made it an aux­iliary of the National Convention Movement. This group pledged and urged others also to purchase only produce made by free labor. Regrettably, it never developed into an effective national group.

Black leaders took advantage of holidays and special days of prayer and fasting and used them as instruments of protest. These gatherings provided the opportunities to denounce publicly the racism of Americans, which violated the ideals of the Fourth of July. Speakers affirmed the dignity and equality of Black people and pointed out their outstanding achievements. In sum, the special occa­sions for celebration were used to change attitudes and develop a unified Black ethos.

Among those called upon to speak in Pennsylvania and other parts of the nation were Absalom Jones, Rev. Joseph M. Carr, George Vashon, James Forten, and Martin R.Delany. These men and others used these events, as would Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960’s, to touch the heart and conscience of American society.

Last, but not least, the Black preachers’ sermons, speeches, and writings were very influential instruments of protest. Black people listened to the ministers because they were “called by God” and possessed charisma. They were also some of the best-educated persons in their commun­ities. For these reasons and others, Black ministers were held in high esteem in their churches and in the community. They were expected to provide guidance in all areas of life.

Sunday morning services and prayer meetings had religious as well as political implications. These meetings were occasions for shouting and rejoicing and a time for promoting unity and resistance. Very seldom did a week pass that the preacher did not remind his people of the conditions of the slaves and their responsibility as ex­-slaves and freedmen to work to help the slaves to be free.

Black preachers’ sermons blended religion and freedom from bondage so well together that to talk about one was to talk about the other. Salvation and freedom were one and the same. Black people, inspired by such sermons, received strength to carry on the struggle against racism and slavery and were less willing to accept the second­-class role that white people tried to force upon them. The blend of religion and the struggle for freedom is clearly demonstrated in an excerpt from a sermon by Absalom Jones in 1808:

The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppres­sed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his’ name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character, as he is in his wisdom and power … he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors. He came down into the United States, when they declared, in the constitution which they framed in 1788, that the trade in our African fellow-men, should cease in the year 1808: He came down into the British Parliament, when they passed a law to put an end to the same iniquitous trade in May, 1807: He came down into the Congress of the United States, last winter, when they passed a similar law, the operation of which commences on this happy day.

The Black preacher used the press as well as sermons and speeches. Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other preachers supported the press financially and by writing articles. Their articles frequently appeared in newspapers and journals, such as the Liberator, Emancipator, and The Colored American. They also wrote pamphlets and had their sermons and speeches included in the minutes of conventions, meetings of benevolent societies, and church conferences. Indeed, the press opened its pages to Black ministers, thereby enlarging the scope of their in­fluence.



In view of all that has been said in this essay, I believe that the emergence of Black religion in Pennsylvania was a decisive factor in the Blacks’ struggle for freedom and equality in Pennsylvania and the nation. Black clergymen and laymen from Pennsylvania provided essential leader­ship, especially to Black communities in the New York, New England, Middle Atlantic, and Ohio areas. I am con­vinced that their influence shaped the institutional and organized life of Black people in this area in such a way as to bring about a unified approach to the freedom strug­gle.

Black religious leaders shaped the content and method of protest. They promoted and developed a non-violent solution to the problem of violence by calling for moral reform and non-violent resistance to slavery and racism. They promoted political strategies and emigration as alternatives to armed revolt and coercive colonization.

Finally, it would appear that Richard Allen and other Black religionists did much to provide a unified Black ethos. Briefly stated, the basic beliefs that made up the ethos are:

  1. An affirmation that they were children of God, human beings, and thus not an inferior race. This affirma­tion of the dignity of Black people was the foundation of their refusal to accept second-class citizenship in the church and society.
  2. A conviction of the sovereignty, righteousness, justice and mercy of God. Such a God judges both white men and Black, and requires of all people acts of mercy, justice, and charity toward the poor and needy.
  3. A hope and promise of freedom, that by God’s grace and help, they would obtain all the rights, preroga­tives and responsibilities that were promised in the Dec­laration of Independence and guaranteed by the Con­stitution.
  4. A profound belief in the power of the gospel to regenerate society. These Blacks had an optimistic out­look on life, in that they believed that society was on the verge of a major transformation that would hasten their liberation.
  5. A sense of destiny, springing from the belief that God actually intervenes in history and from their under­standing of the Ethiopian prophecy. God was a liberating God who delivered Daniel, and the children of Israel, and surely He would deliver them. This sense of destiny in­spired them to risk their lives for the ultimate goal of liberty and equality by means of protest and action.
  6. America and not Africa was the mother country for the sons of Africa. As such, they had all the rights others possessed, and the responsibility to shape this nation according to God’s will. Thus they claimed the right to resist any laws that conflicted with God’s call to be free and just.

I earnestly believe that Black religion contributed far more to the liberation of Black Americans than the activity of the white abolitionists. We must hereafter give more. weight to the religious factor. For what Black ministers communicated to Black people was far more important than what they read in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It meant more to them than what they heard from legislative halls regarding the rights of men, equality, and liberty and justice for all.


Rev. Charles Coleman received his B.D. and S.T.M. from Andover Newton Theological School in 1956. Since that time, Reverend Coleman has served in various teaching positions at Meredith College, Raleigh, North Carolina at the Divinity School, Shaw University; and as the Dean of Men at Shaw University. His work on the Afro-Americans of Nova Scotia has appeared in Comment. Reverend Cole­man is the Program Director of the Office of Religious Affairs at The Pennsylvania State University.