“The plain and simple gospel suits best for any people.”
Richard Allen and his associate Absalom Jones were the leaders of the black Methodist community in Philadelphia in 1793 when a yellow fever epidemic broke out. Many people, black and white, were dying. Hundreds more fled the city. City officials approached Allen and asked if the black community could help serve as nurses to the suffering and help bury the dead.
Allen and Jones recognized the racism inherent in the request: asking black folks to do the risky, dirty work for whites. But they consented—partly from compassion and partly to show the white community, in one more way, the moral and spiritual equality of blacks.
PREACHING IN HIS SLEEP
Allen was born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760. He was converted at age 17 and began preaching on his plantation and at local Methodist churches, preaching whenever he had the chance. “Sometimes, I would awake from my sleep preaching and praying,” he later recalled. His owner, one of Allen’s early converts, was so impressed with him that he allowed Allen to purchase his freedom.
In 1781, Allen began traveling the Methodist preaching circuits in Delaware and surrounding states. “My usual method was, when I would get bare of clothes, to stop travelling and go to work,” he said. “My hands administered to my necessities.” Increasingly, prominent Methodist leaders, like Francis Asbury, made sure Allen had places to preach. In 1786 the former slave returned to Philadelphia and joined St. George’s Methodist Church. His leadership at prayer services attracted dozens of blacks into the church, and with them came increased racial tension.