U.S. Intellectual History Blog

interesting book review

In the June 3 issue of The New Republic, Alan Taylor has published a review of Richard S. Newman’s new book, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (NYU Press).

I had never heard of Richard Allen, and have not read the book. But the review alone made me think that Allen is someone I’d like to learn more about, and perhaps include in my courses. He was born a slave in 1760, got religion at 17 from a Methodist itinerant, worked odd jobs to buy his freedom for $2,000, and made his way to Philadelphia. He became a whitewasher, shoemaker and a chimney-sweeper. (George Washington was one of his clients in the latter business.) “By 1800,” Taylor tells us, “he had become the city’s second most prosperous African American–although his property ranked him only in the middle-class by white standards.”

Allen’s main contribution, however, is in the area of religion. He continued to preach and, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the segregation in the local Methodist church, built a black church, called Bethel, where he was the minister. Taylor quotes Newman on the significance of this action: “For subsequent generations, Allen’s act of defiance had all the meaning and power of Rosa Parks’s sit-in during the mid-twentieth century.” After a great deal of intrigue, legal action and skullduggery from the local white Methodists, Allen succeeded in establishing his church under black leadership. Along with other ministers from different areas, he founded the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1816.

Newman (according to Taylor) argues for Allen’s significance in two ways. In calling him a “black founder,” he means that, on the one hand, he “pioneered black institutions and black politics.” In this narrower sense, he was a founder for African-Americans. But in a broader view, Allen “advanced a prophetic vision of America as a multi-racial democracy of equal rights and equal opportunities,” an “egalitarian vision” that “was far more daring than anything considered by the more famous white Founders.” On this reading, “Allen insisted that blacks had a sacred and prophetic mission to save the republic from the racism of white Americans.”

Having not read the book, I don’t have an opinion as to whether Allen should be thought of as a “black founder.” But the claim is at least provocative, and buying into it doesn’t seem to be a requirement for paying more attention to Richard Allen himself. At the bare minimum, I’d recommend the review, which gives a short summary of Allen’s life and of the arguments for his significance.