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. Allen founded Mother Bethel AME after the church he had been attending, St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in Philadelphia, began segregating its parishioners by race.
The perceived need to segregate white and black parishioners at St. George had its roots, ironically, in the preaching of Richard Allen who had been an itinerant preacher and in 1786 began preaching a 5 a.m. sermon at St. George. Allen’s sermons proved so popular with black Philadelphians that St. George soon became overcrowded. As black attendance at the church increased, however, so too did race prejudice. When the ruling body at St. George decided that blacks should be segregated and seated in a newly constructed balcony, Allen and his followers decided it was time to leave and start a new church.
With financial assistance from individuals such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and President George Washington, Allen purchased a piece of land at 6th and Lombard streets in Philadelphia. He also bought an old blacksmith shop and moved it to the 6th and Lombard location. The Blacksmith Shop Meeting House, as the structure came to be called, was remodeled into a house of worship and dedicated on July 29, 1794. The pastor of St. George, the Reverend John Dickins, suggested that the new church should be called “Bethel” for the gathering of thousands of souls. The church still carries this name today.
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