Free African Society Is Founded

The Free African Society, the first major secular institution with a mission to aid African Americans, paved the way for later institutions such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The society existed for less than a decade, however, before its membership merged with African American churches and other religious organizations with similar agendas.

Summary of Event

Both the origins of the Free African Society Free African Society and the long-term repercussions of its founding form an essential part of the religious history of African Americans. The [kw]Free African Society Is Founded (Apr. 12, 1787)
[kw]Founded, Free African Society Is (Apr. 12, 1787)
[kw]Society Is Founded, Free African (Apr. 12, 1787)
[kw]African Society Is Founded, Free (Apr. 12, 1787)
African Americans;organizations
Free African Society
[g]United States;Apr. 12, 1787: Free African Society Is Founded[2720]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 12, 1787: Free African Society Is Founded[2720]
[c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 12, 1787: Free African Society Is Founded[2720]
Allen, Richard
Jones, Absalom
Rush, Benjamin original organization itself was of short duration: About seven years after it was organized, it disappeared as a formal body. In its immediate wake, however, closely related institutions emerged that tried to take over its proclaimed mission.

Generally speaking, prior to the 1790’s, people of African slave origins who managed to obtain their individual freedom had only one option if they wished to practice Christianity: association, as subordinate parishioners, in an existing white-run church. Several churches in the American colonies before independence, including the Quakers and Methodists, had tried to identify their religious cause with that of the black victims of slavery.

Richard Allen, born in 1760 as a slave whose family belonged to Pennsylvania’s then attorney general, Benjamin Chew, was destined to become one of the earliest religious leaders of the black segment of the American Methodist Church Methodist Church. As a youth, Allen gained extensive experience with Methodist teachings after his family was separated on the auction block in Dover, Delaware. Allen was encouraged by his second owner, Master Stokeley, to espouse the religious teachings of the itinerant American Methodist preacher Garrettson, Freeborn Freeborn Garrettson. Allen’s conversion to Methodism was rewarded when Stokeley freed him at age twenty to follow the calling of religion. His freedom came just as the Revolutionary War ended.

For six years, Allen worked under the influence of Methodist evangelist Benjamin Abbott and the Reverend (later Bishop) Whatcoat, Richard Richard Whatcoat, with whom he traveled on an extensive preaching circuit. Allen’s writings refer to Whatcoat as his “father in Israel.” With Whatcoat’s encouragement, Allen accepted an invitation from the Methodist Episcopal Church Methodist elder in Philadelphia to return to his birthplace to become a preacher.

Portraits of African Methodist Episcopal Church bishops, including Richard Allen, who cofounded the Free African Society in Philadelphia. Surrounding the portraits are scenes depicting Methodist education (Wilberforce University), the AME Church book depository, and mission work in Haiti.

(Library of Congress)

At that time, Philadelphia’s religious environment seemed to be dominated by the Episcopal Church Episcopal Church. This church had been active since 1758 in extending its ministry to African Americans. It was St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church (Pennsylvania)[Saint Georges Methodist Episcopal Church] St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, however, that, in the 1780’s, had drawn the largest number of former slaves to its rolls. Once the circumstances of blacks’ second-class status became clear to Allen, he decided that his leadership mission should be specifically dedicated to the needs of his people. Within a short time, he joined another African American, Absalom Jones, in founding what was originally intended to be more of a secular Secularism;and Free African Society[Free African Society] movement than a formal denominational movement: the Free African Society.

Absalom Jones was older than Allen and had had a different set of life experiences. Born a slave in Delaware in 1746, Jones served for more than twenty years in his master’s store in Philadelphia. He earned enough money to purchase his wife’s freedom, to build his own home, and finally, in 1784, to purchase his own freedom. He continued to work for his former master for wages and bought and managed two houses for additional income. His success earned him great respect among other free blacks and opened the way for him to serve as lay leader representing the African American membership of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.

Traditional accounts of Jones’s role in the founding of the Free African Society assert that, when Jones refused to comply with the announcement of St. George’s sexton that African American parishioners should give up their usual seats among the white congregation and move to the upper gallery, he was supported by Richard Allen, in particular. The two then agreed that the only way African Americans could worship in an environment that responded to their social, as well as religious, needs would be to found an all-black congregation. Some sources suggest that Jones’s reaction to the reseating order was the crowning blow, and that Allen previously had tried to organize several fellow black parishioners, including Giddings, Doras Doras Giddings, White, William William White, and Jones, to support his idea of a separate congregation, only to have the idea rejected by the church elders.

Whatever the specific stimulus for Allen’s and Jones’s actions in 1787, they announced publicly that their newly declared movement would not only serve the black community’s religious needs as a nondenominational congregation but also function as a benevolent mutual aid organization. The latter goal involved plans to collect funds (through membership fees) to assist the sick, orphans, and widows in the African American community. Other secular social assistance aims included enforcement of a code of temperance, propriety, and fidelity in marriage. It is significant that a number of the early members of the Free African Society came to it from the rolls of other Protestant churches, not only St. George’s Methodist Episcopal congregation.

The dual nature of the organization’s goals soon led to divisions in the politics of leadership. Apparently, it was Allen who wanted to use the breakaway from St. George’s as a first step in founding a specifically black Methodist Church. Others wished to emphasize the Free African Society’s nondenominational character and pursue mainly social and moral aid services. Within two years, therefore, Allen resigned his membership, going on to found, in July, 1794, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Although this move clearly marked the beginnings of a specifically African American church with a defined denominational status, Allen’s efforts for many years continued to be directed at social and economic self-help projects for African Americans, irrespective of their formal religious orientation.

By 1804, Allen was involved in founding a group whose name reflected its basic social reform goals: the Society of Free People of Color (United States) Society of Free People of Color for Promoting the Instruction and School Education of Children of African Descent. Another of Allen’s efforts came in 1830, when Allen, then seventy years of age, involved his church in the Free Produce Society Free Produce Society in Philadelphia. This group raised money to buy goods grown only by nonslave labor to redistribute to poor African Americans. It also tried to organize active boycotts against the marketing and purchase of goods produced by slave-owning farmers, thus providing an early model for the grassroots organizations aimed at social and political goals that would become familiar to African Americans in the mid-twentieth century.


The Free African Society passed through several short but key stages both before and after Richard Allen’s decision to remove himself from active membership. One focal point was the group’s early association with the prominent medical doctor and philanthropist Benjamin Rush. Rush helped the Free African Society to draft a document involving articles of faith that were meant to be general enough to include the essential religious principles of any Christian church. When the organization adopted these tenets, in 1791, its status as a religious congregation generally was recognized by members and outsiders alike.

More and more, its close relationship with the Episcopal Church Episcopal church (first demonstrated by its “friendly adoption” by the Reverend Pilmore, Joseph Joseph Pilmore and the white membership of St. Paul’s Church in Philadelphia) determined the society’s future denominational status. After 1795, the Free African Society per se had receded before a new church built by a committee sparked by Absalom Jones: the African Methodist Episcopal AME Church Church. This fact did not, however, prevent those who had been associated with the Free African Society’s origins from integrating its strong social and moral reform program with the religious principles that marked the emergence of the first all-black Christian congregations in the United States by the end of the 1790’s.

Further Reading

  • Conyers, James L., Jr., ed. Black Lives: Essays in African American Biography. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1999. A collection of fifteen biographies of African Americans, including Richard Allen.
  • George, Carol V. R. Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches, 1760-1840. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. A scholarly account that includes discussion of the African American churches’ eventual abolitionist activities.
  • Mukenge, Ida Rousseau. The Black Church in Urban America. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. A comprehensive historical account, emphasizing changes that came by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Mwadilitu, Mwalimi I. [Alexander E. Curtis]. Richard Allen: The First Exemplar of African American Education. New York: ECA Associates, 1985. This short volume focuses on the career of Richard Allen, including his functions after 1816 as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. An examination of Philadelphia, which by the late eighteenth century had become an urban black center. Describes relations between whites and blacks, the Quaker antislavery movement, and the creation of black institutions. Contains a great deal of information on Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, the Free African Society, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • _______. Race and Revolution. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1990. Three essays focusing on the Northern states’ failure to abolish slavery after the Revolutionary War. Describes how free blacks responded to this failure, including the creation of separate African American churches. Contains supporting documents, including a text by Absalom Jones.
  • Phillips, C. H. The History of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America. 1898. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1972. Written by the editor of the church’s official newspaper.
  • Raboteau, Albert J. “Richard Allen and the African Church Movement.” In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. A scholarly account of the Free African Society’s origins, suggesting that Allen and Jones had discussed the special need for a separate African American church well before the “gallery event” so frequently cited.

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