The first overt protest action in Philadelphia where African Americans challenged racial discrimination occurred in a church on a Sunday morning. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, class leaders in St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, decided that their piety and their dignity demanded that black worshippers at St. George’s be given the respect due all of God’s children even if they were not treated equally with white worshippers. After Jones and another black leader of the Free African Society, William White, were accosted during the church service by white church officials who demanded that they move from balcony seats they were occupying a large group of black worshippers - led by Jones and Allen - walked out of the church. So far as we know The Rt. Rev. Richard Allen was the only person to write an eyewitness account of the events that transpired. It is unclear if the young Richard Allen made notes about what happened contemporaneous with the event but the following narrative is found in Bishop Richard Allen’s memoir The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen published posthumously in 1833.
“A number of us usually attended St. George’s Church in Fourth street; and when the coloured people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us around the wall, and on Sabbath morning we went to church and the sexton stood at the door, and told us to go in the gallery. He told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took those seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and 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, H-- M--, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, “You must get up--you must not kneel here.” Mr. Jones replied, “wait until prayer is over.” Mr. H-- M-- said “no, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and I force you away.” Mr. Jones said, “wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.” With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees, Mr. L-- S-- 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 with us in the church.
This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct. But my dear Lord was with us, and we were filled with fresh vigour to get a house erected to worship God in. Seeing our forlorn and distressed situation, many of the hearts of our citizens were moved to urge us forward; notwithstanding we had subscribed largely towards finishing St. George’s Church, in building the gallery and laying new floors, and just as the house was made comfortable, we were turned out from enjoying the comforts of worshiping therein. We then hired a store room, and held worship by ourselves. Here we were pursued with threats of being disowned, and read publicly out of meeting if we did continue worship in the place we had hired; but we believed the Lord would be our friend. We got subscription papers out to raise money to build the house of the Lord. By this time we had waited on Dr. Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston, and told them of our distressing situation. We considered it a blessing that the Lord had put it into our hearts to wait upon those gentlemen. They pitied our situation, and subscribed largely towards the church, and were very friendly towards us, and advised us how to go on. We appointed Mr. Ralston our treasurer. Dr. Rush did much for us in public by his influence. I hope the name of Dr. Benjamin Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston will never be forgotten among us. They were the two first gentlemen who espoused the cause of the oppressed, and aided us in building the house of the Lord for the poor Africans to worship in. Here was the beginning and rise of the first African church in America.”
Historians have disagreed over the date of the incident and there has been much speculation as to whether it was an impromptu action or a planned protest. Those historians who have deeply researched the issue know that the Free African Society was founded in April of 1787. The date is printed on the preamble of the Society’s founding document. The walk out occurred in late 1791 or early 1792. The bills for the construction of the balcony are dated 1792 and the St. George’s officials whose full names match the initials identified by Richard Allen are only serving in those capacities in 1791-1792. The black worshippers had helped raise the money to enlarge the church by building the balcony. They seemingly went willingly to the balcony – but adding insult to injury – they were then accosted for not sitting in the right seats in the balcony. The members of the Free African Society likely had plenty of time to plan a response if they had knowledge that they would be asked to move from segregated seats on the first floor of the sanctuary to segregated seats in the balcony. Richard Allen, however, writes about the incident as if he is chronicling an unsuspecting unfolding event. Some versions say Allen was “pulled up off his knees” but Allen clearly indicates that he watched Absalom Jones and William White being “pulled up.” It appears from the surviving minutes of the Free African Society that they had already embarked upon the process of forming an independent nondenominational church. Some historians suggest that these plans infuriated clergy and lay leaders in the established churches. After they left St. George’s the members of the Free African Society rented rooms for worship. They secured the services of the assistant Episcopal priest at St. Paul’s Church - The Rev. Joseph Pilmore - to officiate at these services until they could build The African Church of Philadelphia. Pilmore, ironically, as a young man prior to his Anglican ordination, had served as the first pastor of St. George’s appointed by Methodism’s founders Anglican priests The Rev. John Wesley and The Rev. Charles Wesley. Rev. Pilmore was held in great esteem by many black and white Philadelphians. He survived illness himself during the devastating Yellow Fever epidemic of 1792 and continued ministering to the sick and the dead. His wife was a niece of famed Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet and a relative of Deborah Read Franklin otherwise known as Mrs. Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps one of the most touching tributes to Rev. Pilmore was made by Abraham Wynkoop. Abraham, as a child, would have been cared for by Absalom Jones when Jones was enslaved to Abraham’s father Benjamin Wynkoop. Abraham named one of his own sons Joseph Pilmore Wynkoop.