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PHILADELPHIA – Black History Month started strong when a “Forever” commemorative stamp was unveiled Feb. 2 and dedicated to the life and witness of Richard Allen (1760-1831), founder and first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).
The stamp dedication was held at Mother Bethel AME Church, the very site where Allen transformed a blacksmith shop into the first church of an independent black religious denomination in the United States. The AME Church today has 2.5 million members in more than 40 countries, spanning five continents. 2016 is the bicentennial of the AME Church.
|A crowd applauds the unveiling of a stamp commemorating the life and witness of AME Church founder Richard Allen. The ceremony occurred Feb. 2 at Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. USPS photo.|
Vernon Jordan, adviser to former President Bill Clinton, a leading figure in the civil rights movement and former president of the Negro College Fund, presided over the event that drew more than 700 participants. Rev. Dr. Mark Tyler, the 52nd pastor of Mother Bethel Church, welcomed the packed house that included a dozen AME bishops and various general officers, including AME historiographer Rev. Dr. Teresa Fry Brown and AME Church members from Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram’s First Episcopal District encompassing most of the northeastern United States and Bermuda. Richard Lawrence, a descendant of Richard Allen; dignitaries from the United States Postal Service (USPS) and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also spoke at the gathering.
Rev. Alfred Day, general secretary of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History (GCAH), attended for The United Methodist Church’s history agency and also represented Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson.
The unveiling of the stamp stirred great anticipation and enthusiasm from the gathering and gave occasion to remember and celebrate Allen’s accomplishments as a preacher, entrepreneur, community organizer and activist. Allen, a former slave, came to Christianity under the preaching of a Methodist circuit rider near Dover, Delaware.
After purchasing his freedom, Allen quickly made a name for himself as a traveling minister throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Settling in Philadelphia, he was asked to preach to his fellow African Americans at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. He quickly rose to prominence, co-founding a self-help organization called The Free African Society to assist African Americans in need. He later rallied black Philadelphians to serve as aid workers in the city’s devastating yellow fever epidemic.
When racial tensions and hostilities stemming from increasing segregation boiled over at St. George’s Church, it became apparent that the growing black membership Allen had gathered would be best served as an independent congregation. In America’s original civil rights movement, Allen led black congregants out of St. George’s. He purchased an old blacksmith shop and moved it to land he owned about a mile away. Bethel Chapel was dedicated in 1794 and soon attracted several hundred members.
Allen spent years in conflict with white Methodist Church supervisors. At one point they tried to sell the Bethel Chapel out from under him, but as a successful businessman, Allen was able to buy the building back at auction. After a campaign that included sit-ins and a judgment by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the congregation secured its independence. In 1816, Allen summoned other black leaders to Philadelphia, where together they founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, electing and consecrating Richard Allen as its first bishop.
“During the ceremony, Richard Allen was hailed as America’s black founding father,” said Day of the GCAH. “I take the strongest exception to that. Richard Allen is a not a black founding father – he is an original, authentic American founding father as much as Washington, Adams, Hamilton or Franklin. His legacy of shaping American independence and freedom is as significant as any of the shapers of this nation. It has taken us too long to recognize this.”
Day continued, “This Wesleyan progeny took the Methodist idea of experiencing 'amazing grace' and God’s life-changing, difference-making love in Jesus Christ, and facing indignity, intimidation and injustice head on, [and] Allen turned it into empowerment and social change.”
Allen commemorative “Forever” stamps are available at all USPS locations, where a limited number of First Day of Issue covers may also be available.
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