Looking Back: Allen Chapel Church still strong

August 30, 2009, Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post

Allen Chapel is named in honor of Richard Allen, the founding father of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Murfreesboro’s oldest black congregation was established by newly freed men and freed women in 1866 in the early months of Reconstruction. The beginnings of the Allen Chapel AME congregation, led by trustees Peter Lytle, John Reeves and John Claiborne, represent an important first step in the creation of Murfreesboro’s post-Civil War African-American community and culture. It also represented a courageous first step for the newly freed people to break away from their dual, but second-class membership, in local white congregations and establish their own religious identity and practices.

“We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and loud talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him off his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up, you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.’

With that he beckoned to one of the trustees to come to his assistance. He came and went to William White to pull him up. By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued by us in the church.” — From the autobiography of Richard Allen, first Bishop of the AME Church.

The congregation proved immediately popular with local blacks, and in 1870 the church hosted the third annual AME conference in Tennessee. The church first met in a building at State and Spring streets and then moved to a small frame chapel on South Academy Street across from the site where Bradley Academy now stands. By 1889, African Americans had established a large neighborhood southeast of Murfreesboro’s Square.

During this first generation of freedom, Murfreesboro blacks had also gained the financial resources necessary to build a new church, which would reflect their gains since Reconstruction as well as providing adequate worship space to meet the needs of a growing community.

Trustees George Hester, Henry McMurray, Maryland Hoover, A. Pampambles and Dr. J.S. Bass purchased a town lot on South Maney Avenue immediately east of the City Cemetery on Vine Street. Construction by congregation members began in 1889. Dave Hyde, Sr., dug the foundation and basement while John Scruggs and his sons Oliver and Horace made the bricks and supposedly raised the building. Rev. T.W. Thorne was pastor at the time of construction but his role in the construction and design of the building is unknown.

As with a number of AME churches, the Murfreesboro congregation selected a name that reflected almost back to the American Revolution. The name, Allen Chapel, reflected back to the works of Richard Allen, one of the founding fathers of the AME church, which grew out of the Free African Society which was established in Philadelphia, PA in 1787 by Allen, Absalom Jones and others. Those men were members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Allen and Jones were bent on their knees praying when interrupted by white trustees of the church.

When the white members of the church supported the trustees, Allen and Jones led its African-American members out of St. George’s. Many of the black congregants followed Jones, who was soon ordained as the first black priest in the Episcopal Church. A smaller group united behind Allen, who wished to remain a Methodist. They formed the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793.

In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated with Allen as pastor. Allen successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist independently from white congregations.

In 1816, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the post-Civil War days, the church was a major focal point of black life, and Reconstruction was a time of consolidation and transformation of black religion. With the death of slavery, urban blacks seized control of their own churches.

The new Allen Chapel brick church building, featuring “gable-front” style, was finished in the fall of 1889. At its completion, it was one of the finest AME churches in rural Tennessee. In October 1889, the state convention of AME churches returned to Murfreesboro for the first time since 1870 and Bishop A. W. Wayman dedicated the new building on Oct. 23, 1889.

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