Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

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Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philad.. Image provided by Library Company of Philadelphia

6th & Lombard Sts.

Mother Bethel stands on the oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African Americans in the United States. The history of Mother Bethel reflects the prominent role that African Americans played in shaping and growing the city of Philadelphia. Richard Allen, a former slave born in bondage to Philadelphia's notable Chew family (Cliveden, the Chew estate, is famous for its role in the 1777 Battle of Germantown) and later a lay Episcopalian minister, founded the congregation in 1787 and purchased the land in 1791. The congregation was a breakaway faction of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, located at 4th and Arch streets. When the white congregants tried to force black members into segregated galleries during service, the blacks walked out, leading to the birth of a new denomination. Allen purchased an old blacksmith's shop, had his team of horses drag that structure to the Sixth and Lombard site, and from there convened a 10-person congregation that eventually became the "mother" of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America.

By 1837, almost three-quarters of all black worshippers in Philadelphia were Methodists. The next largest denomination among blacks was Episcopal, reflecting the population of the city's second largest African American congregation, Jones' St. Thomas African Episcopal. Methodism's appeal to African Americans lay in its informality, its emphasis on love and its encouragement of emotional expression at services. Other Protestant denominations stressed absolute piety and rigid ceremony, and were characterized by restrained methods of worship and more paternalistic leadership. Methodists were early abolitionists and focused on serving the community's social needs. African Methodists retained this social focus with an evangelical style. The AME church stressed reform rather than conversion, and provided ways of ordering daily life through community; congregants often met at "prayer bands" — informal gatherings in people's homes. For the recently freed and the fugitive, the self-determination and communal acceptance offered by AME congregations was often more welcoming than other denominations.

Richard Allen was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1799 and became the first bishop of the AME in 1816. In the mid-1800s Mother Bethel provided an important sanctuary for fugitive slaves as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The present church building, erected in 1889, replaced three earlier church structures on this site. It underwent extensive restoration and renovation in 1987. Mother Bethel continues to advocate the self-determination and independence advanced by Richard Allen and his congregation, and serves as a living link to the dynamic and history-making African American community that once populated this Society Hill neighborhood.

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