Editor’s note: Leila Pitchford-English recently visited Pennsylvania. This column is one of several about sites she visited.
Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, George Washington, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and many churches dominate Philadelphia’s historic district.
But a few blocks south is a church that dominates its geographical location and the hearts of black Christians across the nation.
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, located on Sixth Street, has a large rock facade and red brick on the rest of the building, along with decorative carvings and lots of stained glass.
And since 1787, the site has been owned by African-Americans, the longest such continuously owned parcel of land.
The AME story begins in 1777, when a teenage slave attended a meeting led by a traveling Methodist preacher.
This teen, Richard Allen, experienced a spiritual transformation that showed in his work under slavery. His owner was moved by this but could not afford to free his slaves. Instead, he offered Allen the chance to buy his freedom, which Allen did at the age of 20.
He worked various jobs and began preaching, which led him to Philadelphia, a city with many free black men. Allen was invited to preach at St. George’s, the first Methodist church in America and now the oldest in continuous existence.
Many people joined the church as a result of his preaching. However, he was not allowed to start a separate black congregation.
The growing church had to be expanded, and black members contributed to the project, which included a gallery or balcony.
The Sunday after the renovations were complete, Allen, Absalom Jones and prominent black church member William White were late to church. When they took their seats, men rushed to escort them upstairs. The black men were kneeling in prayer and requested they be allowed to finish the prayer, but a man pulled one of the black men out of his kneeling prayer pose.
As the prayer ended, the trio and many other black people left the church and eventually started congregations, but not without problems.
Allen purchased the land on Sixth Street, but some of the group wanted to build a block away on Fifth Street. That group would become Episcopalian.
After several starts, Allen was able to start a congregation, aided by several white men including Robert Ralston, a merchant and philanthropist, and Benjamin Rush, "the father of American medicine.”
Jones went on to pastor a group called the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church and would be ordained as the first black priest in America.
Allen was still attracted to the Methodist way of life.
Eventually, he was able to start a congregation called Bethel and bought an old blacksmith’s shop that he hauled to the Sixth Street site to house the church. The church was dedicated on July 29, 1794, by Bishop Francis Asbury. The church faced many struggles, including St. George’s trying to take its building, but, nevertheless, it thrived, taking on many roles for its community.
Allen preached abolition and the church basement was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The church encouraged business ventures.
In 1816, Bethel finally won the right to its independence as a church. And in a conference with other AME churches that year, it became Mother Bethel. The churches adopted the episcopal form of government, being led by bishops, and selected Allen as its first bishop
Today, the church is still active and is open for tours. The current building is its fourth and was erected in 1889. The basement is the burial site of Allen as well as a museum, and visitors are welcome to attend services.
The sanctuary is filled with stained glass windows and wood pews, but it is not air-conditioned.
Bibles for all
One block over and several streets up is a skinny building with several historical signs: the Pennsylvania Bible Society.
Its historical marker indicates it was the first Bible Society in America, founded in 1808.
In 1812, the group was the first in the United States to print Bibles using stereotyped plates. This style of printing locked the type into a page so a mold could be made, which was used to make a full sheet printing plate from hot metal, which allowed for cheaper printing.
The society has a sign in its window with more of its story, which includes names from Mother Bethel’s story.
“In the fall of 1808, Robert Ralston (a prominent merchant and philanthropist in Philadelphia) had the idea of starting a Bible society. So on Dec. 12, 1808, Ralston gathered several citizens of Philadelphia, among them Dr. Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and Bishop William White (chaplain to the Congress of the United States) and founded a Bible society whose primary mission was to provide Scripture without note or comment to all who wanted to hear it, at an affordable price or free of charge if they could not afford to buy it,” the sign reads.
The Bible House, at the corner of Seventh and Walnut streets, was built in 1854 and is still the distribution site for the group, whose mission remains unchanged, according to a sign.
Another plaque mentions the first Bible in English in America was printed by Robert Aitken on Market Street. The plaque was presented to the Pennsylvania Bible Society in honor of its 150th anniversary by the American Bible Society.