thumbnail of Africans in America; 103; Brotherly Love; 
     Interview with Jeffrey Leath, Pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church,
    Philadelphia
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So, I guess we should start at the beginning and although our show starts in 1793, let's talk a little bit about Richard Allen's conversion with the circumstances around that where how he came to this understanding of God and Christian. Okay, Richard Allen was born a slave into the family of Benjamin Chu who was to become a Supreme Court Justice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was sold along with his brother to a Stokely Sturgis who had a plantation just outside of Dover, Delaware. At the age of about 16, he came under the influence of Methodist preaching. He got permission from his master to hear preaching and was converted. The preacher was a notable Methodist by the name of Freeborn Garrison which is an interesting
name. In fact, it's inscribed at Olsen George Church which he passed at one point. Richard Allen's conversion was typical of the day. He went through a period of mourning, grieving about his sinful nature and then to this glorious awareness of the mercy of God through Jesus Christ. In fact, his wording for his experience was that his dungeon shook and his chains flew off and in his words and glory to God I cried. It is this sense of release and a sense of freedom that comes when one has a spiritual experience and this was the same experience which Richard Allen sought to help others to come to realize in their own lives. You touched on briefly something else I want to talk about, this idea of wretchedness
and the idea of despair, like with Jorina Lee we see it all, but I just want to make you wear it because I hold your feet still. Okay. Well, that's fine, but I'll tell you what, I'll take them off so that if I do move them they won't make as much noise. Okay. We find it a lot in Jorina Lee's narrative, for example, this idea of despair and wanting to kill oneself and just being so burdened with one's own sinfulness. I'm wondering if you think there's a connection between that and a condition of slavery. For someone like Richard Allen, that idea of existential kind of despair. Actually the feeling of despair and wretchedness is something that is common to the human condition and it is interesting when you read the conversion accounts of persons who were not slaves and those who were, you have the same sense of wretchedness and disparity that
had nothing to do with the outward condition of life as much as it did with how one was morally and spiritually interacting with one's outward condition. So that even John Wesley talks about wretchedness, though by most of our standards, he was a pretty clean living guy, but it was a depth and I think that it is important to take note of how individuals were reflective about their inner nature and their inner condition, something which we often are ignorant to in our own busyness. We don't take the time to really reflect on who we are. But for Girena Lee and for Richard Allen, there was this deep sense of their moral condition which was important enough to them to focus upon as they went along their daily life.
I'm wondering what then is the role of Christianity in the life of someone who is enslaved or someone who is indentured or someone who is in a situation which is in a moral situation and what does it mean to try to live a moral life? The moral life becomes the response to one's life of faith to be merely a moral person does not necessarily indicate that one has religious commitment at all, hence we have humanists. But to be moral as a fruit of one's relationship with God is a different approach and that's the approach of Richard Allen and others.
In fact, the whole abolitionist's cause as it was rooted among people of faith is the fact that their faith led them to be moral. But there are some people who did not have much of a relationship with God yet who advocated a moral life despite that because they thought it was the right thing to do according to their humanistic values. Richard Allen's conversion becomes clear that he was more serious about industry, being industrious himself, but also his life begins to take on meaning and purpose and that's what Christianity did for Richard Allen and does for those who are genuinely converted.
They have a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose and as a result, their lives take on often new definition and that's true whether you're talking about Charles Colson or whether you're talking about Richard Allen or Jerina Lee or Jeffrey Leath. It's the one's life takes on definition as a result of the relationship that one has with God which is mediated through Jesus Christ, the sense of release from sin does that. For Richard Allen, this newfound freedom which was extensive because it was spiritual first and then it became translated into an experience of physical freedom. Through Richard Allen's influence, his slave owner, who was not a believer, was subject
to hearing preaching and while hearing preaching on his plantation, Richard Allen's slave owner, Stokely Sturgis, was himself converted. The famous text that was preached was being weighed in the balance and found wanting and hearing that Stokely Sturgis was so impressed that Stokely Sturgis then offered Richard Allen the opportunity to purchase his freedom and it was an opportunity because he allowed him to work beyond the normal day for wages for other slave owners in the area. It's interesting when you read Richard Allen's account, there was this effort that one had to show that religion made a person better, a religion did not make a person lazy or give
a person an excuse not to do things they ought to do. So Allen, as he's thinking back on how it was that he lived on the plantation, Stokely Sturgis' plantation was always a little ahead of everyone else's in terms of his work because there was a sense of commitment. People saw their lives as being tied up to their faith and a governed everyday kinds of things. Can you talk a little bit more about that, the role, spirituality in everyday life, what these feelings are, can you say release from sin, release from sin, can you talk about what that feels like? The release from sin is freeing because it allows one's mind to and one's spirit to be dedicated to other things, to be open to other things.
So many of us are so preoccupied with what we aren't and what we are and we carry around these burdens of guilt in terms of wrongdoing where we know that we've done wrong and we don't have meaning, we don't have purpose in our lives. We don't see any direction, there's no five minute plan, let alone a five year plan for our lives, we don't see an end for it. At the point of conversion, one all of a sudden sees that there is a purpose for life from the cradle to the grave, one has direction, one has focus and so with that mark, now one is open to experience other things, one is open to the inspiration. And sometimes that's been artistic, whether it's been music or art or in literature, one becomes open because one does not have the blockages of finitude.
Conversion opens up infinity. One is connected to an infinite God and one is connected to this infinite God in a positive way, where it is not one of dread, but it is one of love. And... Yes. Okay, so you were talking about what this release from sin, shall I? Sure. The release from sin is important in the experience of Richard Allen because it put him in touch with an inner self, he was freed from this sense of guilt for things that he was personally responsible for. And it is interesting because slaves who, in other ways, were projected as people who were always dependent for everything on the master. The master provided the food, the master provided the shelter, the master provided the clothes
and you provide the labor. But there was this sense that humanity is more than just food and shelter and labor. Humanity is about this inner self and that this slave is a live human being with emotions and with a spiritual self just like everyone else. And so as a result, the slave takes on this responsibility for his or her moral self. And as being responsible for this moral self, what we see is in Richard Allen, the conversion experience released him to do greater things. How do you want to... So all of a sudden, for Richard Allen, whose life is wrapped up in a meaningless experience of bondage, of servitude, he has this new hope, he has this new direction and this comes
about because he now has a relationship with this eternal God. It has personal meaning for him and this personal meaning is that he is released from responsibility for his personal sins because of a relationship with God that Christ died for him, not just for the oppressors but for him. And it's this message of liberation that is going to determine the rest of Richard Allen's life. His mission in life becomes to share this experience of release with the world and especially with people of color who are in both physical as well as spiritual bondage. But what this experience does is it puts one in contact with the eternal, with the infinite. So this finite person, all of a sudden, has an opening to the flow of creative powers,
has this energy to apply oneself because one has purpose, one sees direction and it becomes opportunity for a person whose life has no meaning and there's nothing but despair and they don't see any option except I may as well die today as to die tomorrow. Now there's this purpose created where I can go on. I have something to do or as the more current gospel song says, I feel like going on and that's the experience for a Richard Allen and for others who have this religious experience. I feel like going on. I feel like not only going on with work but I feel like going on with my marriage. I feel like going on with my kids or acting crazy.
I feel like I just feel like moving forward because I can do that. So does that mean you disagree with religion as an opiate of the people philosophy? Genuine religion is not the opiate of the people. I think that fained religion is the opiate of the people because a false religion is something I'll wait. From the beginning or kind of in the middle here, being in touch with the infinite, being in touch with the eternal, all of a sudden gives one purpose and it energizes. Religion is not the opiate of the people if it's real religion because to be an opiate
means that one has something that is putting one in a fantasy world and keeping one from dealing with reality. And religion for Richard Allen did just the opposite. Religion for Richard Allen did not make him oblivious to reality but it actually opened up a brand new reality for him because there was not only the reality of the external world but there was the reality of the internal world. In terms of what religion was doing for Richard Allen and for others is this bringing about a life in a new world which was so natural, which is so African in terms of the religious experience on the continent of Africa where one sees this dual nature and of course it was only the oppressor who thought that
the Okay. Richard Allen was born in Philadelphia. The conversion of Richard Allen is central to the way the rest of his life unfolds. Indeed, being born again for Richard Allen was literal
as well as spiritual because life really begins for him with his conversion. He describes it as in very classical terms and as it relates to what other Christians would have been experiencing at the day, grieving over his sinfulness, feeling a sense of wretchedness, feeling as though he deserved eternal damnation. And then he comes to this experience of the gospel. He hears this good news that Jesus has died for his sins and because he believes this and because he is able to internalize this sense of Jesus dying for my sins, he experiences what we call conversion, this release. His description of it is interesting because though he was a slave at the time, his imagery once again is classical. My dungeon shook, my chains flew off and glory to God I cried. While many people
focus in on the dungeon shaking and the chains flying off, the really significant point is that is the glory to God I cried for it because what that says about the conversion experiences not only is it an unburdening in terms of guilt and in terms of sin but it is a matter of coming into relationship with God so that all of a sudden the glory of the Lord is central to one's life. And what that did for Alan is it put his entire life into a brand new perspective. He suddenly has purpose for living. He sees meaning in his daily existence, he sees life in terms of the long run as well as the short run and for Alan then everything else that he is doing is connected to this conversion experience. I remember earlier you were saying that part of the whole problem
with a situation of slavery and people like Alan was the sense of I did not know who I was and but Christianity gives you that to remember that. Yes. Christianity puts an individual in kind of a cosmic perspective that one does not see oneself as just a slave, just a laborer, someone who is dependent on the slave master for clothing, food and one who just gives to the slave master labor but Christianity opens up this sense of a whole person. I am a spiritual person as well as a physical person. I am a person who has emotions. I am a person who has a soul and I am a person who can relate to God that despite what the world around me may be saying in terms of my humanity or my being less than human, the fact
of the matter is I am very much human and I do have the ability to relate to the divine and for Richard Allen and for Christians in every age is this sense of being able to relate to the divine. Absalom Jones and the other African Americans took their seats where they thought they belonged and the elder said let us pray. So Absalom Jones naturally knelt and was in prayer when one of the trustees of St. George Church came up and said you have to get up and Absalom Jones was wondering why and he says you are in the wrong place you must get up and Absalom Jones says well if you just wait until the prayer is over I will get up and will trouble you no more and he said no you must get up now and as a result Absalom Jones got up and the others around him including Richard Allen decided they would walk out and about 42 walked out of St. George Church
that day and that is the beginning of the independent African Church in Philadelphia. For Richard Allen religion was anything but an opiate for Richard Allen and for Christians influenced by the spirit of Richard Allen's preaching religion became in fact the stimulant for life. To be an opiate means that one seeks shelter in a false world so that one does not have to face reality and for Richard Allen it was just the opposite. He began to see not only the real world but he saw a larger world there was a world of exterior space and there is also the world interior space and the two are related. It was something that is very African in terms of its origin where African people basically recognize this sense of different layers of different worlds so that
there is spirit in the tree and there is spirit in nature as well as in me and this is what opens up for Richard Allen. He sees a world that is larger than the small world and as a result because the world is bigger it means that the person can be bigger and what we find is that when people accepted the faith it did not make them content to be slaves what it did was it opened up to them the possibilities that are available to those who see themselves as children of this eternal and almighty God. Christianity helped slaves recognize that slavery was wrong and it also provided
really a very interesting and complex mechanism for dealing with slavery. On the one hand it helped the slave to relate to their daily experience so that they continue to have hope in terms of facing the challenges of every day but it did not necessarily make them docile and that's where many critics of Christianity I think have missed the point because the slave once converted does not become more docile instead the slave once converted sees a certain fullness of life which they then are our challenge to address not at least of which becomes a whole realm of morality not only how do I treat others but how am I being treated and there is a sense
of judgment how will all mass a deal with God on judgment day and just as the master has a deal with God on judgment day so do I as an individual. Richard Allen clearly was so deeply committed and so that not only are we looking at his conversion but also his sense of call to preach and that becomes an important point because every Christian has this call to witness but Richard Allen clearly had this call to actually
preach the gospel and we see that being connected to the conversion experience for him in many instances which is not uncommon so when he comes to Philadelphia he's preaching and in fact preaching brings him basically to Philadelphia he preaches at farms he preaches in open air situations wherever he gets an opportunity and he's preaching to a mixed audience which is a significant point because he was not preaching just to the Africans and even though he was preaching to a mixed audience still what we see in his autobiography is that this was his calling he had a calling to preach specifically the good news the gospel to people of African descent so he was not forced
into that but that was something that he that he chose in terms of in terms of being inspired to do that. So what would Philadelphia have been like when he arrived there I mean like what did you think of that balloon and that that letter that I gave you and like what kind of a moment that was Philadelphia. Philadelphia was the center of the nation. Philadelphia was not only the place where the government was in formation and things were hustling and bustling because the Capitol Congress was in session and the Constitution was soon to be completed but you have notable persons George Washington popping in and out of town but it was also a place of great commerce it was a place where immigrants were coming and settling so it was a place of many cultures many languages. Can we actually start that over from 1793 instead of like when he actually came in
same thing. Can you start over that could I start to answer to that question over like Philadelphia in 1793 okay I have to leave out a part about it right okay all right in 1793 Philadelphia was a bustling urban situation you you had a lot of commerce you have people who are immigrating from around the world it was a place of many languages and as well as cultures because of that it was a place that was open to some of the new ideas whether it's a balloon ride or or or whatever it might be we're talking about Philadelphia being the center of the nation in many different respects science and other things of of of a progressive nature we're all coming
through Philadelphia so absolutely and the reason Richard at one of the reasons Richard Allen is such a prominent figure is because he was in Philadelphia and the since the eyes of the nation were on Philadelphia the eyes of the nation were on Richard Allen there were other black preachers and other cities and they did not rise the same level of prominence in large measure because it just wasn't Philadelphia and and their their their instances of denominations that can be documented for example Peter Spencer in Wilmington Delaware Spencer was a tremendous leader but he he was in Wilmington and he wasn't in Philadelphia and so you you have this focus in terms of Philadelphia being a a major place of commerce and and as such Philadelphia was also a
a place along the underground railroad so that the message of liberation and what Richard Allen and what what Mother Bethel actually meant in in the spirit of African-Americans was being carried along with slaves as they passed through they had good words to say about Philadelphia they had good words to say about the the the way they were escorted through Philadelphia on their way to freedom what did you think of that moment where was the balloon I mean can you talk about I mean could you imagine Richard Allen watching that or what what did you think when you read that he hadn't read it before no you mentioned the thing about dominion over the air yeah well the the way Benjamin Rush describes his the balloon as being a fulfillment of of of scripture and is interesting how even for someone with a reasonably liberal outlook that there is this sense of where scripture is
in the lives of individuals and they look at the progress of humanity as being an unfolding of scripture so that for Rush to point out a text from Genesis where God gave man the dominion over all of the creation so okay man has already dominated sea with ships and and the land is able to till it and traverse it now man is able to conquer air and it's it's indicative of the kind of excitement that was attended upon life in Philadelphia in the 1790s what kind of character do you think Rush was eccentric Benjamin Rush was a a a bit eccentric some descriptions of him have him walking briskly through town he he associated himself with a number of different
denominations always kind of a surcher as it regards regarding religious matters but clearly a person who was devoted to humanity the African church well it's it's an interesting episode where you have both white and and and and Africans African-Americans who are in in a situation of fellowship and appreciation it showed how dependent and interdependent they they were and at an early point that there was that there was this this reaching out in terms of fellowship it was not
a matter of it was there was no condescension it was it was a matter of hospitality it was a matter of joy it was a matter of lifting some of the more more common aspects of life which are common and as Rush describes it I think he was pleasantly surprised at the fact that there could be fellowship across class barriers as well as racial barriers I think Richard Allen would have shared in that occasion in like mine we have to keep in mind that Richard Allen was on friendly terms with Bishop Asbury and and and others he was a person who was well-known in the city of Philadelphia by whites as well as by blacks so for for Richard Allen that would have been appropriate that that there should be some mutual sharing and mutual celebration um this is just
about the time when um the method's denomination is being formed right 1793 1794 84 right okay I was just thinking about the idea opinion that we were talking about a couple of days ago that what what does communion mean you know and how is this well what it shows is the fact that prejudice is something that is a matter of an individual heart is not anything that has to be a part of the system per se um you have Benjamin Rush and other prominent white citizens of Philadelphia sitting at a table uh being served by African-Americans and then serving African Americans and eating at the same place but at the same time in terms of the religious institution you have riffs and congregations um across the land where people don't want to um partake of
the sacrament from the uh same chalice and um so there is this sense of um um there's a sense of this fellowship that is possible for people who have the right spirit and have a right mind to fellowship and so we go from there right into now a fever when people do pull together and keep them out they say now that cut because now that is our god so start talking about yellow fever sure the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 present an interesting time in in Philadelphia Philadelphia being this hustling bustling a metropolis uh suddenly became like a ghost town um the streets were were um basically um empty because people were afraid to leave their homes um folks would take the corpse of those who had
died and just leave them lying in the street which was creating a health hazard some people were dying inside the house and no one knew they were really dead or they feared that they might be dead and so no one would would go in um the the city was in utter turmoil hot a load of coffee that had been tainted was just rotting at the dock which um they suspect what they suspected was the cause of the yellow fever not having any idea that maybe this ship actually brought in a mosquito bearing the the disease um um those who brave the elements so to speak were soaking handkerchiefs and vinegar and breathing through this handkerchief with vinegars uh vinegar soaked handkerchief over their face um hoping not to catch this germ that just mysteriously they thought was was in the air um in the midst of the panic though there were those who with a more calm
approach realized that something had to be done in order to safeguard the city and we see an interesting alliance between people of science like Benjamin Rush and uh people who had a a civic responsibility about them like Richard Allen and Abslyn Jones of course for some there was a the myth that um African-Americans could not contract the disease that they were somehow immune the fact of the matter is that many African-Americans did and did indeed indeed die from the disease they they were not immune and it was even thought that um as a result of this epidemic or some other Richard Allen's first wife Flora uh died but the the issue was not so much the risk the issue was what do we have to do to save our community what do we have to do to keep disease and ravaging the community and and the response was um well we'll we'll we'll we'll go and do
whatever is necessary Benjamin Rush used Richard Allen and Abslyn Jones and others they recruited to bleed patients uh which was the uh proposed cure of the day one of them anyway and um they also uh went into homes took out the the the the the the uh corpse and would bury them um and and all of this was was done um out of a spirit of wanting to help it it was it was there was no profit motive it was a matter of civic responsibility and um were they also trying to prove that they could be false citizens but they were worthy like innocent you know I don't I I don't think that the issue is worthiness as much as if we are going to be citizens then it is our responsibility
they they saw themselves as as false citizens and because there were citizens they saw that they had a responsibility and not only that they were also Christians uh so they they are Christians and they are citizens and they saw this as as civic as well as religious responsibility so what happens in the aftermath of the fever Matthew Kerry comes back and accuses them of some wrongdoing what kind of a moment it's uh well it's it's certainly hurt them because yeah um the the the fact that there will be an accusation um by Matthew Kerry that that there was impropriety um that among the the volunteers for the most part some receive some compensation but very very little and a strict accounting uh was provided in terms of any exchange
of funds and and the reason that I think that it that it hurt Richard Allen Epson Jones and we get a little bit of it in in their written response to the accusation a public written response is the fact that they were living like a citizen who is involved and who is responsible and instead they're being treated like a criminal um and and we we see this over and over again with Richard Allen and Epson Jones more and more of their lives they are trying to claim the American experience and the American dream and because of the reactions of others they are finding that these efforts are being rebuffed. So do you think Allen was the solution? Yes to a certain extent I think that he was dissolution in that um um African American citizens were not received even as well as some
others perhaps um although immigrants in general not well received in Philadelphia uh the French for example were not well received and um um you you you you have prominent French citizens who became involved in an effort to show a civic and community spirit um but I think that Richard Allen was more realistic because he recognized that in addition to civic responsibility with yellow fever in 1793 and um a willingness to defend the city in 1812 against um against the attacks of the British um he also recognized that what would make the difference is money and so um being a good business person and being industrious um um being one who employs and and and one who is
productive that was going to make the difference and Richard Allen recognized that early on so that business matters um take on a much greater sense of prominence prominence with Richard Allen sure after the crisis in Philadelphia passed um basically because the fall came the mosquitoes died uh then people became more reflective on the the experience and Richard Allen and Afton Jones came under attack uh basically because um it was thought that uh the African-Americans had acted inappropriately they were charged with robbing the dead uh they were charged with um um um not providing an accurate count of the number of people who were buried and and therefore
overcharging in in terms of the small fee that that was that was given um per per per body um exorbitant wage being charged for people to act as a nurse for example and um Richard Allen and Afton Jones promptly responded to the charge which later it became clear that the charge was undeserved but um it was such an indignity was unnecessary and and had to have been disappointing to Richard Allen Afton Jones after they and others like them had basically put themselves their lives on the line for the sake of the public good so how do you think this influences Richard Allen later like when he's um he's you know the past in charge of Afton and he gets into this sort of conflict with the white Methodist over the
ownership of that church. Well I think Richard Allen was wise enough to know that even though one lives in American society with some of the benefits of American society that basically prejudice is something which reaches to the hearts of individuals and when prejudice takes over reason quits as a result I think that in terms of Richard Allen dealing with whites whether it be the in in in the church or civically he can't expect them to act rationally because he recognizes that they don't look upon him as the man which he indeed indeed was. So what happens when they try to the church goes to sheriff's they um we talk about that health process. The um the the details
are pretty sketchy we know that Mother Bethel Church um was put on the auction block it's suspected that some technicality was found and basically the the um Methodist Church was trying to get the building beyond the reach of Richard Allen so that he ended up paying an exorbitant amount in order to buy back the land or redeem the land basically which had been purchased in 1791 um it was a it was a matter of of of of trickery and once again it was a reminder that even though they were in the north they were in the promised land they thought still the the ravages of of prejudice were being being felt Richard Allen was a proud man was a man of principle the very
purchase of the property on which Mother Bethel now stands um was a matter of principle um he he made a deal for the land and even though the society did not want to build originally on this land he had already made a commitment so there was a matter of one's word there's a matter of pride and so here after having gone through so much to have the land taken away land is important and even for a city dweller land is important for Richard Allen and as as it is for people of color and um when we when we see the African-American heritage we have to see the importance of land and it's not just Africa it's a plot of ground in Philadelphia and other places across the country where African-Americans have invested their their heart their soul their blood and that's what makes
America a special place to African-Americans and that's why colonization was so unpopular with Richard Allen because the feeling is this is something that we have worked for this is something we have fought for and this is something we'll die for. So do you think that after that whole business in 1812 around the sheriff so do you think he began thinking that he had to really separate from white methods or where do you think the idea for the denomination came from? well one of the best theories that I've heard so far is that Richard Allen was waiting for Asbury to die. Richard Allen and Asbury had a very good relationship and Asbury was thrilled to death that Richard Allen and and the mother Bethelites were devout Methodist a part of the fellowship and so what we what we see is the thought of separation was around early and in fact when when you
you look at the African supplement of 1807 what we find is that there was this fear that there might be separation but when Asbury died and I think that this is where these points do connect Allen trusted Asbury he did not necessarily trust all Methodists or all whites he had a relationship with Asbury with Asbury off the scene I think that he was little he was a little uneasy about where the future might be and in order for the for the church to grow and to thrive separation was the only viable alternative because whether it's there were constant threats the the threat of the sheriff's sale was unnecessary these attempts to take control over Bethel Church were seen as
being something that one had to always protect oneself from and and eventually it took a declaration of the Supreme Court of the state of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to declare Mother Bethel an independent institution but the but the issue here is who is the one person to be who who gives you rights and so the heart of the Bethel experience is we will not put into the exclusive hands of whites the ability to control our lives especially as it relates to our religion and as a result independence meant we now have a black bishop we we now have blacks who are making these decisions for black people so what do you think that meant to the parishioner I mean
how do you think they were impacted by the the denomination or who were the parishioner like what was that diverse group it was a diverse group you you had people obviously who economically had some resources although Bethel in 1816 was primarily made up of folks of very meager income one figure had Bethel with as many as 3,000 members by 1818 or so and that compared to 1500 which Morris Brown had in Charleston at around the same period so you're you're talking about perhaps a large fellowship clearly the building didn't accommodate 3,000 in terms of worship but the the reason that people wanted to be a member and wanted to be a part was because
once again this issue of ownership this was a church which the people of color owned and they didn't owe anyone for it because it was theirs they didn't have to answer to anyone else for it it was theirs it was it was totally within their control and and that's the legacy of the independent black church movement and and and Bethel church and in particular because it was the sense of this is something that the oppressor can where the oppressor cannot reach us this is truly a refuge mother Bethel church is a as a special place in all of the world because the spirit of Richard Allen and what Richard Allen has represented to people of color throughout the
world it kind of resonates from this place when you look at the chair on which he sat or a pulpit which he built with his own hands you get a sense of his very presence the whether it's the ballot box that was used to elect trustees which which was in and of itself something tremendous if you can imagine these disenfranchised black folks who come and they're able to vote okay mother Bethel church is a special place for people throughout the world because you can feel the spirit of Richard Allen as well as the movement which Richard Allen was certainly a prominent
feature of and and of which he was the leader whether it's the chair on which he sat or the pulpit which was made with his own hands and from which he preached you can feel Richard Allen there you have a sense of his presence and the symbols of of a freedom in fact the pulpit is called the liberty pulpit because it represents freedom of people something with which people could identify something that was their own and and that that symbol itself is epitomized in the ballot box a people who were disenfranchised in terms of the their civic responsibilities many of them not being able to vote could come to church and they were voters they're able to select the trustees who would represent them they were able to choose leadership for themselves and when
you look at the ballot box and you imagine these people many of whom could not read or write looking at images and a slot on the ballot box and being able to decide one over against another and dropping a marble in the box it makes it makes a difference it it does something when you think about Sarah Allen about home very little is said but who was clearly a prominent figure and a very important part of Richard Allen's success in terms of her rent book here's a woman who makes a mark yet she was fixing tatter clothes for preachers she was giving money to slaves who are on their way north to find new lives of freedom she was able to manage business affairs and and keep track of of finance in in a in a way that was efficient and and to see and to know
it becomes an inspiration because it let's you it lets you know that we as a people have not only come a long way not only do we have a long way yet to go but it let's us know that this spirit is still alive and and and this motivation is still present so as Richard Allen of course is yeah and I think early one um what how do you think the philosophy had changed from that first conversion it's been well I think Richard Allen um um certainly matured and by the time for his death you you can see a person who was um in many instances more reflective rather than impulsive natural kind of transition yet
Richard Allen is um even more committed a part of a part of the epithet for Richard Allen is the fact that he courageously fought a long period of illness before he finally succumbed in death and um so I think what we see is the the courage of this man in life became the courage in which he entered into a new life and I you have to keep in mind death was not a fearful thing for Richard Allen uh because death was a part of this plan this life plan that was set into motion with conversion death was something uh uh to to be um uh cherish because it was entry into the other world yes I think I think not only Philadelphia but black folks in Philadelphia had changed because they realized that they were not going to be accepted by the majority culture with ease
um by 1830 don't forget we have the um first uh national convention uh which Richard Allen uh convened here at at at Bethel and um as as a result what we see is folks beginning to dig in and become entrenched for this long struggle that they saw in the horizon um so we have this how do we live for today and also how do we live for tomorrow what is it that will make things better for our children and our grandchildren and this planning and strategizing was beginning to form an earnest um uh yes scripture we picked up well we don't have a lot in terms of the sermons which Richard Allen preached um but um one one sermon that is mentioned by an observer is a sermon that was preached in Baltimore in 1817 um Richard Allen preached twice that day
the first sermon didn't go over very well and um one of Richard Allen uh I won't say a detractor but uh uh Daniel Coker the pastor of Bethel church in Baltimore um was trying to make an excuse for Allen after that uh first sermon but in the in the evening sermon Richard Allen preached on this text from Revelation the 20th chapter the 12th verse and I saw the dead small and great stand before God and the books were open and another book was open which is the book of life and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books according to their works and the observer's um notation about this episode is that when Richard Allen finished preaching on this text you could feel the transition of power from Baltimore and even from Coker who was a
prominent person in his own right uh to Allen so that he firmly had the entire um fellowship in his grip people now saw him as this genuine bishop as this genuine father figure he was he was in place and the text is significant I think because it it pulls out so many of the themes theological as well as um moral and social that would have been um um uh the foundation of Richard Allen's preaching the whole business of judgment even in the conversion of Jareena Lee when when she talks about how Richard Allen opened the door of the church um he used very traditional sentence um if you are willing to flee the wrath of God and and on that particular occasion Jareena Lee really uh went forward because she wanted to flee the wrath of God and so here in this text we we have the elements of judgment we also have this element of if I am going to if I am going to go
to heaven then I must live um right in this life I I must walk according to the way that uh the Bible teaches me to walk and I I can imagine for someone as sincere as Richard Allen was in terms of his preaching um uh going marvels places with a text such as that so you mentioned Jareena if you want to talk about her conversion a little bit the the conversion of uh Jareena Lee okay the conversion of Jareena Lee uh once again is in many instances typical of conversion experiences which we um have recorded from the time um um um the what is a little bit different about Jareena Lee though in terms of shall I start again okay you want to move the camera okay the conversion experience experience of Jareena Lee was very much like the conversion
experience of others of the day um the elements are the same and and and there is a typical pattern however what is a little bit different about Jareena Lee is this depth of spirituality that you don't see even as Allen talks about his own conversion um it's brought on in in some measure because of this encounter with a class leader who talks to her and invites her to look at some deeper things of God as it relates to her own spirituality then she goes far beyond that of her class leader uh to to the point where we see not only is it a matter of conversion but also this woman has this incredible gift of connectedness of of connection with the the eternal so that she is um in in an ongoing communication uh beyond this world and and and then is and then is able to
um have one foot in this world and spiritually one foot in another world seemingly uh and bridging the gap and and helping others and inspiring others with her own preaching as she's there bridging the gap what do you think her connection is to slave she preaches the slaves a lot um where we don't really hear that from Richard Allen's right now or at all these why do you think I did well during the Lee was an incredible woman and and a pioneer in in the in the real sense of the word because she was traversing ground which was absolutely um brand new there may have always been
a number of women in the church but not in a leadership position um and leadership not necessarily in terms of being a pastor but for a woman to be a spokesperson for a woman to speak and to declare and to claim a position of authority as Jareena Lee did and to preach with the kind of power that we can imagine she uh with which she preached um the um it is it is it is it is just it is almost beyond imagine she can comparison she had no role models there were there were no Caucasian um preachers female preachers after whom she might pattern herself there was no justification and then the social ridicule not only did she have to withstand the ridicule of being uh an African-American but she also had to withstand the ridicule of being a preacher which was a uh to be a woman preacher um um in in what was still very much a man's world um had to have been
difficult and what it shows I think is the depth of her commitment and the fact that being obedient to God was more important than um all of the perks which society might offer so where do you think her sense of authority came from her her authority came from on high and she knows that she there she she has this sense of um Bishop Alan didn't call me to preach um no one called me to preach God called me to preach and I have to respond because God called me to preach it's it's like with the prophets of old with Jeremiah talking about uh if I don't preach it's like fire shut up in my bones and for gerinally I I'm sure that there was the same sense of if I don't preach it's like fire shut up in my bones and so lest I faint let me preach
and what about the idea of excellence I mean this is like a common thing we hear in like Denmark that's it and also in that turn this idea of America being the new age of black people being the chosen people yes um for the the parallels between african americans and the children of Israel and the Bible um are are consistent you have it at every stage um Richard Allen uses a phrase for example that um he asked the question is there not enough corn in Egypt um and um as he was describing the American experience and and why americans why african americans should remain an american and not immigrate um so uh there is a sense of uh the key concept though it is deliverance and um
of course for for different ones at different times it meant different things for example if you're in the south the north became the promised land however for many in the north the promised land was not it was no longer a place but it was an experience it was a time of acceptance it was a time of being able to take hold of the american dream of live liberty and the and the pursuit of happiness um so what we what we see is in terms of exodus is something that is physical going from slavery to a place where freedom is at least possible but it's also something that is spiritual it's something where I think black people even today are grappling with this whole business of of an exodus they're feeling this sense of of wanting to reach and wanting to claim this promised land and and and and and it's in that spiritual social sense that um we we see Richard Allen others uh constantly referring and and and for which they yearned
so do you know anything about net turn is religious the last is not specifically enough yeah would you feel comfortable saying anything at all about it well uh the interesting thing about net turner and uh demark visi and and and the insurrections that that took place is that they had religious fervor about them that the issue here is God made us to be free God is empowering us to claim this freedom which God has promised to us and and so what we what we see is that uh with with with net turner um for some that's a sociological phenomenon but in fact it was really a religious phenomenon it would not have been possible um one historian uh has has commented that um in order to get people to go to war and to do something significant
like that one has to make it important enough to them to the level of religion and that's true you don't it's just freedom itself is not going to carry the weight that that we think it might carry unless you raise it to level of religion both you mentioned these these interesting also because he harkened back to the old testament for almost all of his biblical justification for what he does and what he plans and how he feels what do you think about that um it is typical whether as demark visi or benjamin rush the bible is the guide for what people are believing thinking and how they want to live uh and and it was no accident that in charleston the churches were shut down because they believe that the churches were fomenting um insurrectionists thinking and in a sense they were right because the church was opening this horizon people were
experiencing this conversion so that all of a sudden um they see themselves as a part of this larger world this larger god this cosmos where they have rights that the slave master had denied them where do you think about the old testament part do you think that significance that both demark actually and that turn are both strictly old testament absolutely the old testament has a story and the old testament is where we see god acting as a liberator the new testament becomes in many respects more abstract but um for for the old testament it is very clear the exodus is very much um uh physical in the old testament in in in the new testament this sense of liberation is um is more abstract it is spiritual um but in the old testament you you have everyday life and you have these um um you have these personalities who through the spirituals are are really brought
to life and and you have an experience of oppression which is easy to communicate so that for for the african-american they can relate to shadrach mishak and abednego uh they they can relate to dangling the dying lions den they can relate to moses and and and this uh crossing the river into a promised land because in their own experience of life um that they are in a wilderness and in this bondage and and and life liberty um joy are within reach it's not impossible and that's why they have hope because this life is just beyond the river it's right there we can get there is possible and and as long as they have that hope uh then then their lives take on fuller meaning and and and and and and and a different kind of significance uh including this revolutionary spirit because if god is the god who is helps joshua at the battle of jericho then god is also the one
who will help me if i have to take my freedom by force of course saint george's uh church methodist fiscal church uh was home to a number of african-americans um uh including richard alan when richard alan finally settled in philadelphia he um became a preacher at saint george's often given the responsibility of preaching the five o'clock service and no doubt because that was a service that was attended in large part by the uh african-american members saint george's uh did some renovating and they had a progressive policy of segregation and at first uh black members were allowed to sit intermingled in the in the congregation
uh then as time went on they were forced to sit along the sides and it's interesting in the pattern of saint george because that means that in the middle you would have white males uh to the the the next section out would have white females and then the outer sections would have black males and and and females um the um the the process of segregation though reached a point in a pinnacle in uh 1787 november uh and it was at that point when the african-american members came into worship they thought and they heard the new policy and the new policy was you should go to the gallery um we're not sure whether a gallery was a balcony or what it was but it was an area which Richard Allen remembers as being called the gallery and when they got there the elder said let us pray and so they knelt in prayer um the um prayer at it the prayer um was interrupted though
for absolute Jones because he was told by a trustee that he should get up off of his knees and had to move and the mistake he made was he was sitting at the front of the gallery instead of the rear of the gallery and so for um uh absent Jones his response was if you will just wait until prayer is over then I will get up and leave and trouble you no more but the trustee was insistent that he should get up immediately and as a result absent Jones Richard Allen and about 42 of the african-american members walked out of saint george as a as a group and uh that was the beginning of the independent uh african church in philodalkia
Series
Africans in America
Episode Number
103
Episode
Brotherly Love
Raw Footage
Interview with Jeffrey Leath, Pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia
Contributing Organization
WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
AAPB ID
cpb-aacip/15-w950g3j70v
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Description
Description
Jeffrey Leath is interviewed about Richard Allen and his conversion to Christianity and the conversion of his owner, the role of spirituality in everyday life, Richard Allen's mission to share his religious experience, the beginning of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Christianity as a means to deal with slavery, Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793 and accusations of African Americans for impropriety, Philadelphia during the Federalist period, Richard Allen's loss of his land and repurchase, Mother Bethel Church and the Liberty Pulpit, Richard Allen's sermons, the conversion of Jarena Lee, longing for The Promised Land.
Date
1998-00-00
Topics
Women
History
Race and Ethnicity
Subjects
American history, African Americans, civil rights, slavery, abolition, Civil War
Rights
(c) 1998-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
Media type
Moving Image
Duration
01:18:04
Embed Code
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Credits
: WGBH Educational Foundation
AAPB Contributor Holdings
WGBH
Identifier: Leath_Jeffrey_03_merged_SALES_ASP_h264.mp4 (unknown)
Duration: 1:18:05
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Citations
Chicago: “Africans in America; 103; Brotherly Love; Interview with Jeffrey Leath, Pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia ,” 1998-00-00, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 4, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-w950g3j70v.
MLA: “Africans in America; 103; Brotherly Love; Interview with Jeffrey Leath, Pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia .” 1998-00-00. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 4, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-w950g3j70v>.
APA: Africans in America; 103; Brotherly Love; Interview with Jeffrey Leath, Pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia . Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-w950g3j70v