ALLEN, RICHARD One of the earliest black leaders in the United States, Richard Allen was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Born a slave in Pennsylvania in 1760, Allen was raised on a Delaware plantation. An early and zealous convert to Methodism, Allen was determined to preach the Gospel. Earning enough money by cutting wood and driving wagons to purchase his freedom, the youthful preacher traveled and proselytized throughout the Middle Atlantic states during the 1780's, ultimately settling in Philadelphia in 1786.
As the result of numerous racial restrictions and pressures imposed on black worshipers at Philadelphia's St. George Methodist Church, Allen and similar-minded blacks decided to establish their own church in 1787. Named the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Allen's newly-formed organization became the nucleus of one of the earliest and most influential black religious denominations in the United States. In 1816, Allen called a meeting of representatives from other "separate" black churches in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. This meeting resulted in the formal establishment of the AME Church on a national basis. Allen, in turn, was elected bishop of the new denomination, a position which he held until his death in 1831.
Currently, the AME Church is divided into eighteen episcopal districts, most of which are in the western hemisphere. With nearly six thousand separate churches and a membership roster of approximately 1.2 million, the AME Church continues to exercise a tremendous influence in black communities, both in the United States and abroad.
The AME Church should not be confused with the AME Zion Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was established in New York City in 1796 under the leadership of Peter Williams and James Varick. Similar to the experiences of Allen and his fellow Philadelphians, New York blacks were more or less forced into creating their own separate religious denomination in view of the existing discriminatory practices found in the predominantly white Methodist churches in the city. Although some differences do exist, the doctrines and liturgy of the AME Zion Church and the AME Church are essentially the same. Current membership of the AME Zion Church is well over one million.