Mother Bethel Our Begininings
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in the nation, was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1794 by Richard Allen, a former slave.
Just one year after its founding, Bethel’s congregation numbered 121. Ten years later, in 1805, the congregation had grown to 457, and the church decided to expand. Two lots adjoining the original 6th and Lombard site were purchased and a new building was constructed to replace the original Blacksmith Shop Meeting House.
Although technically still part of the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal Church, the Bethel congregation limited membership to “descendants of the African race” in an attempt to retain a degree of autonomy. Limiting membership to African Americans, however, did not quell disagreements between Bethel and the Methodist Episcopal Church over issues such as the choice of pastors and property ownership. The courts ultimately decided in favor of independence for Bethel, and in 1816, the 1,300 member congregation joined with black congregations from Baltimore, Maryland, Salem, New Jersey, and Attleborough, Pennsylvania to form the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Allen served as the first bishop for the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Bethel AME Church has a long history of engagement with civil rights issues. In 1795 the church provided refuge to thirty runaway Jamaican slaves. In 1817 Bethel hosted a meeting where approximately 3,000 people of African descent protested the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which sought to resettle free blacks from the United States to Sierra Leone. The church provided financial support to the Underground Railroad, and following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, it helped ex-slaves who began migrating to Philadelphia. Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King have been among the many distinguished leaders who have spoken at Bethel AME.
In 1953 the word “Mother” was added to the church’s name and women were permitted to participate in the business of the church corporation for the first time. The church has been remodeled twice since 1805, the last time in 1889 when it moved to its current location on the Southeast corner of Sixth and Alfred (now Addison) Streets. Mother Bethel still has a vibrant congregation today.