Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn visits hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and writes about them.
At 19 years old, Mark Kelly Tyler conceded that within the next two years, he’d either be killed or in jail. It was 1985, and he was slinging drugs and in a gang in Oakland, Calif., getting into situations he says today that he probably shouldn’t have gotten out of alive.
Somehow, faith stepped in.
“You get to a place where in life, you just kind of hit rock bottom,” he said. “And the only thing you could do was look up.”
Tyler started going to church with his grandmother, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, more commonly known as the AME. He started studying religion and history and the autobiography of Malcolm X and exactly where his family came from. And then came the pull to preach.
Thirty years later, Tyler is a top organizer in Philadelphia’s black community and the pastor at Mother Bethel AME, the genesis of the AME church and the structure that sits on the oldest parcel of land owned continuously by African Americans in America.
For this month’s Secret Philly, we went inside Mother Bethel — OK, OK it’s not *that* secret — for a tour of this historic church and a look at the tomb of the man who started it all.
Mother Bethel was first dedicated in 1794, but its history dates far before that and is inextricably tied to the founder, Richard Allen, who eventually became the first bishop of the church.
Born in 1760 in Philadelphia, Allen was a slave who belonged to Benjamin Chew, at one point the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and personal lawyer to William Penn’s family. As a child, Allen and his siblings were sold to a Delaware farmer who allowed them to worship and attend meetings with the Methodist Society, where Allen was first drawn to God.
By age 23, Allen had saved up $2,000 after performing odd jobs for years and was able to buy his freedom. He began preaching, and by 1786 was asked to speak weekly at the St. George’s
Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia at its 5 a.m. service — the only one African Americans were permitted to attend.
His charismatic nature drew others. The congregation grew each week and even some whites started attending his service instead of the one later on Sundays. The elders didn’t like that though, and constructed a balcony, where they planned to relegate black worshippers.
So one day, when Allen was in the middle of a prayer service, church leaders told him and the black attendees, including another black leader Absalom Jones, to move up to the balcony. They said they wouldn’t.
“And they walked out,” Sharon Coleman, a member of Mother Bethel and my tour guide for the day, explained. “And it was really the first religious protest of that time.”
Those who walked out of St. George’s began to raise their own money (with help from people like Benjamin Rush and George Washington) in order to purchase a piece of land in Philadelphia so they could worship without being bothered. In 1791, they found a lot on what was then the outskirts of town at 6th and Lombard streets.
Meanwhile, Jones and other followers who had left St. George’s decided to align with the Episcopal church, a move Allen didn’t totally support — he thought the Methodist faith in its simplicity was more suitable for black people at the time, specifically for freed slaves who oftentimes couldn’t read or write. So he went to work on building a church and a blacksmith shop on the parcel of land.
Finally, in 1794, the Bethel Church was dedicated (the word “mother” wasn’t added to the name until 1953) and in just a year, rose to 121 members who came to hear Allen’s message of prosperity and determination. A decade later, membership topped 450.
In 1805, a larger building was erected and more land surrounding the parcel was purchased. The building at the time would become only the second of four church structures eventually put up on the land because of continuously growing congregations. The church that’s there today was built in 1889.
In the early 19th century, though, the church served as so much more than a place for worship. Allen made sure it was a common stop on the underground railroad, as Philadelphia had one of the largest black populations of any city at the time. Many African Americans lived in the Washington Square neighborhood in close proximity to Mother Bethel.
This was dangerous business at the time. People like Allen could be thrown in jail, have their homes or churches burned down or be killed for harboring escaped slaves. Still, Mother Bethel was seen as a home and a destination for those who were running from owners and slave hunters.
Allen was named the first bishop of the AME church, which is today in 40 countries and on five continents. He died in his home in 1831 and today his remains are entombed in the basement of Mother Bethel along with his wife, Sarah, and the remains of Morris Brown, the second bishop of the AME church.
Over the years, Mother Bethel has become an attraction here in Philadelphia and is a National Historic Landmark. Perhaps its most famous attribute are the towering stained glass windows inside the sanctuary.
Coleman explains that the dove represents the Holy Spirit. The alpha and omega symbols refer to God as the beginning and the end. There’s the Star of David. Easter Lillies. A depiction of early Jerusalem and a Bible.
“The windows,” she says, “they sort of minister to people.”
And while the sanctuary is an historical display in and of itself, it’s the basement of this church that holds the history of the entire AME denomination, from the tomb of Richard Allen to the original pews on which he sat to a wall with pictures of every bishop ever elected to serve the AME church.
Among the historical items in the basement are \long guns that were used by black fighters who lined up on Grays Ferry Avenue during the War of 1812 to protect the city. There are pieces of artwork dedicated to Allen and his mission to protect freed and escaped slaves. And the church kept old posters and photographs and relics that remind members and visitors of its rich history — one that wasn’t always so welcomed.
Despite pushback over the years, Mother Bethel survived and thrived. Church membership tops 500 and the church remains the anchor of the entire AME denomination. Tyler, who has been the pastor here since 2008, says it’s Allen’s legacy that led him to use his pulpit to preach not just to his congregation, but to the city.
“For much of what we do, the template was laid by Richard Allen,” he said. “For me, no matter what I do, it can never reach the sacrifice that he made.”