The Free African Society was founded in 1787 by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. Both were born into slavery and converted to Christianity during their time in bondage.
When the reverend Freeborn Garrettson, a former slave owner, came to preach at the plantation of Stokeley Sturgis, Richard’s master, Garrettson managed to convince Sturgis through the Bible that the institution of slavery was inherently sinful. Offering each of his slaves an opportunity to buy their freedom, Allen worked especially hard to earn extra money, buying his freedom in 1780, at 20 years old. Following that, in 1784 he became officially qualified as a preacher at the Christmas Conference, which coincided with the founding of the first Methodist Church in North America.
Absalom Jones, meanwhile, was in bondage for nearly 40 years before obtaining his freedom. He was sold around to multiple masters during his time in slavery, and also married Mary King in that same period. Jones managed to purchase Mary’s freedom in 1778, thus freeing their children. However, it took him another 6 years for Jones himself to get free.
Together, Jones and Allen were among the first African Americans that were officially licensed to preach by the Methodist Church. However, after finding that they and their fellow black congregation members had to sit separately from white people, they took their black followers and walked out after prayers were finished. Rather than stick around as inferiors in a white dominated church, Jones and Allen first decided to form the Free African Society, originally dedicating it as a nondenominational group that helped recently freed slaves.
However, over time, the two would split over religious differences. Jones and his faction ended up feeling more drawn to Episcopalianism, whereas Allen wished to continue down the Methodist path. Ultimately, they went their separate ways, with Jones becoming the first black Episcopal priest in America in 1804, and Allen having become the first black Methodist minister 5 years beforehand. Despite their separation due to religious differences, the two would collaborate on various projects throughout their lives.
Richard Allen (left) and Absalom Jones (right) were the two founders of the Free African Society.