THE MOST IMPORTANT HYMNAL YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
5 Lessons from Richard Allen on the Songs of the Church
Devon is the worship pastor at Grace Church Clarksburg. Devon also serves Sovereign Grace Music by contributing to recordings, leading events, and developing strategies for training leaders and better serving local churches.
Most likely, you’ve never heard of Richard Allen. If you are familiar with the name it is because you know him as the founder of the oldest African-American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Much ink has been spent on Allen’s role in the development of African-American Christianity, but considerably less attention has been paid to his contribution to American hymnody. Not long after establishing one of the first African-American churches in the young United States, Richard Allen published a hymnal to give voice to his congregation. This hymnal may be the most important hymnal you’ve never heard of.
In 1760, Richard Allen was born in Delaware into slavery. While a slave, Allen heard and responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He writes dramatically of his conversion when one night he thought “hell would be my portion. . . [so] I cried unto Him who delighteth to hear the prayers of a poor sinner, and all of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and glory to God, I cried, enough for me—the Saviour died.” He couldn’t contain his newfound hope in Christ, and as he worked to buy his freedom he became a preacher.
As an itinerant preacher in early American Methodism, Allen traveled throughout the Mid-Atlantic region with the likes of Francis Asbury and Freeborn Garrettson. His preaching led him to Philadelphia in the 1780s, the burgeoning center of the young American republic, as well as a growing community of free African-Americans. In Philadelphia, Allen not only found a welcoming audience for his preaching but was also given a consistent platform to proclaim God’s Word. In 1786, Allen was asked to establish a service for African-Americans at the venerable St. George’s Methodist Church. Meeting at 5:00 AM each Sunday morning and sitting under Allen’s preaching they became a growing portion of the congregation at St. George’s.
The increase in numbers made it necessary for the church to add a gallery to their facility. This addition involved the whole congregation, as white and black, rich and poor, joined together to see the project completely. But upon completion of the gallery, a shocking incident took place that shaped the trajectory of African-American Christianity for centuries to come. Allen, Absalom Jones, and other black members of St. George’s arrived at church shortly after the gallery had opened. They expected to sit in the seats above where they normally sat. Richard Allen recounts what happened next:
“Just as we got to the seats, the elder said, ‘let us pray.’ We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees . . . pulling [Absalom Jones] up off of his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up—you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘wait until the prayer is over.’ [The trustee] said ‘no, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and I force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ‘wait until the prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.’ With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees . . . to come to his assistance. . . . By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.
The incident at St. George’s that sad morning prompted Allen, Jones, and others to establish their own place of worship, where they could gather as God’s people without hindrance. Allen writes, “We were dragged off of our knees in St. George’s church, and treated worse than heathens; and we were determined to seek out for ourselves, the Lord being our helper.”
On successive weekends in July of 1794, Jones and Allen began leading the first two African-American congregations in Philadelphia. There were two churches and not one due to Allen’s ardent commitment to Methodism. Allen’s church became known as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and though the ensuing years were filled with much hardship, God continued to build his church. Allen proved to be a very capable pastor, caring for the needs of his congregation through his preaching and faithful ministry. Indispensable to his work was the priority of the church in song.
To aid his church’s voice, in 1801 Allen compiled fifty-four hymn texts without tunes and published them as A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister. This work was the first hymnal produced by an African-American expressly for an African-American context. We can learn at least five lessons about congregational singing from Allen’s remarkable work:
1. The songs of the church are first a local project. There is a particular nature to how we should approach what we sing in church. Our songs are meant for a particular people in a particular place at a particular point in time. For Richard Allen, pastoring in Philadelphia, there were several affordable hymn collections his church could have used. But God had brought a unique people together to form Bethel and they needed a unique set of songs to sing. So Allen compiled a hymnal for this congregation’s use. The reality is, no two congregations are exactly alike, and while we should all proclaim the same gospel and the same Word, local contours will differ. For Allen, this was reflected in a consistent emphasis on the hope of heaven and on a Savior who is a friend to sinners and a comfort in trouble.
2. The songs of the church can stay a local project. There were as many as fifteen of the fifty-four texts in Allen’s collection that had never before been published, and many of these were never published again. Most of these songs arose from this local context and served this local church. These were songs likely only known by Allen’s congregation and seemingly only sung for a season. And that’s okay. These hymns don’t represent wasted resources or wasted effort, but serve as a reminder that many of our songs will seldom go beyond the walls of our church. Some of our songs are only for our congregation, only for a season of time, and can still beneficial in giving voice to praise and edification.
3. The songs of the church are a pastoral opportunity. The example of Richard Allen shows that the pastor’s role in the church’s song is not one of detachment. Rather, he plays a central part in shaping God’s people into who God has saved them to be. Allen saw curating a certain collection of songs to serve his congregation as part of his pastoral work at his local church. The church’s weekly songs are full of pastoral opportunity if we simply take it. They help shape the theology and hearts of the worshipper.
4. The songs of the church are tools for building up the church, not tools for cultural preservation. Because of the opposition that shaded much of Allen’s ministry, it would have been easy for him to incorporate songs that reflected and spoke only to his cultural context. A large part of Allen’s life and ministry sought to do just that: give expression to an often marginalized African-American faith. But when it came to the songs his church sang, Allen humbly looked at the many traditions around him and drew from various streams in order to serve his local church.
Too often our songs become primarily tools of cultural preservation. This is what the “worship wars” of the late 20th century was all about, where typically one group sought to hold onto their traditional expression while another aimed to incorporate contemporary practices. Christian singing is should be a reflection of culture, but it also must transcend culture. The gospel is a message that meets us where we are yet ties us to something far beyond our earthly context. Allen’s example in relying on a combination of some of the better known hymns and sources of his day from various denominations, coupled with several texts that had never before been published, provides a roadmap for how we might push out from our own tendencies to be preserve a culture with which we’re most familiar.
5. The songs of the church should give real hope in the midst of real suffering. A brief survey of the texts that Allen compiled show a willingness to press into suffering by talking about it. But this isn’t for the sake of self-focus, self-expression, or self-pity. The point of expressing our pain and laments is to point to our hope. Text after text in Allen’s collection root the singer in the Christian’s real hope in looking back at Christ’s work, in articulating God’s present comfort, and in looking forward to future glory. The songs that filled the minds and voices of Bethel did this. And the songs we sing should do the same.
Amidst suffering, amidst hardship, God’s people have a voice and Allen saw it as his duty to ensure that his congregation articulated God’s praise through song. One hymn Allen included in his collection, first appeared in the collection of another often marginalized preacher, Native American Samson Occom. It’s a fitting summary of the way Richard Allen used hymns to emphasize the dignity and purpose of God’s people:
What poor despised company
Of travelers are these,
That’s walking yonder narrow way,
Along that rugged maze?
Why they are of a royal line,
They’re children of a King;
Heirs of immortal crown divine,
And loud for joy they sing.
Richard Allen, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen.: To Which Is Annexed the Rise and Progress of the African Methodist Episcopal ... to the People of Colour in the United States, 1831; Reprint (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015), 9.
The initial church that was being established determined to be united with the Church of England. They requested Richard Allen become their minister. Allen recounts, “I told them I could not accept of their offer, as I was a Methodist. I was indebted to the Methodists, under God, for what little religion I had; being convinced that they were the people of God. I informed them that I could not be anything else but a Methodist.” 22–23.
Allen, A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns, Hymn XI; See also Samson Occom, A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs; Intended for the Edification of Sincere Christians, of All Denominations. (New London, CT: Timothy Green, 1774), Hymn XLVI.