Richard Allen, who would found one of the first African-American Christian churches, was bom in Philadelphia, but sold to the Stockley family of Delaware along with the rest of his family. An extremely bright child, Allen taught himself to read and write.

He worshiped at Methodist church meetings, and at the age of 23, with the money he earned as a day laborer, pur¬ chased his freedom and began traveling with a minister who taught him to preach.

By the age of 26, he had returned to Pennsylvania, and had begun holding prayer meetings. Like other Methodists, Allen and his friend Absalom Jones wor¬ shiped at St. George’s Methodist Episco¬ pal Church in the city.

Within a year of Allen’s arrival in Philadelphia, St.George’s had become so popular that the church ruled that black congregationalists must retreat to the back of the gallery. Absalom Jones was asked to move during prayer and forcibly pulled from his knees when he asked if the prayers could be con¬ cluded first.

Rather than endure such treat¬ ment, Jones, Allen and the rest of the African-American congregation left St. George’s and formed the Free African Society. This event inspired Allen to found his own church where African-Americans could worship freely.

Through laboring as a shoemaker, Allen bought a plot of land and began construc¬ tion. By 1794, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was complete. Allen was named its first bishop.

Attracting a huge congre¬ gation, the AME grew past its borders, severing its ties with the Methodist Church and uniting with other African Methodist churches. Soon the expanded congregation includ¬ ed thousands of members unit¬ ed under one national organiza¬ tion.

The church thus became the foundation of the African- American community, provid¬ ing a training ground for black leadership and unifying efforts opposing slavery and racial dis¬ crimination.

Churches have remained an invaluable institution in African-American communi¬ ties because of the work of men like Allen and Jones, who counted freedom of religion among the highest rights of men.