Hello everyone, we’re going back in time from our Civil War era hero, back to the Early Republic, to celebrate Richard Allen. To celebrate this surprisingly not well known founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, we got to make something incredibly fitting: a Scripture Cake. I’m very excited to share with you all about the recipe and process of making it, because it was definitely the most unique and entertaining recipe yet, but let’s start like we usually do with an introduction to the man himself.
Richard Allen was born into slavery in 1760 in Philadelphia. At the age of 8, Allen and his family, including his parents and four siblings, were sold to a Delaware farmer. In his own narrative, Allen does not elaborate much on his experiences of enslavement, simply stating that his master, though “an unconverted man” was a “tender humane man.” Allen was “upwards of twenty years of age” when the most significant thing, in his view, happened to him: his conversion. To Allen, this was the real beginning of his life, when he “was awakened and brought to see [himself] poor, wretched and udon, and without the mercy of God… lost.” After his conversion, he became a regular attender of the local Methodist meetings, and asked his master for Methodist preachers to be allowed to preach at the house, which his master allowed.
After several months of these meetings at the house, under the preaching Methodism, Allen’s master came to believe slavery to be wrong, and offered Allen and his brother to purchase their freedom. The sum took them several years to gather, but by 1783 Allen was free. He had been convinced of the centrality of becoming free to his life of salvation and so worked as a wood cutter, brick yard worker, and other hard laborious jobs in order to win his freedom. Allen’s freedom purchase became the first to be held on public file, taken by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. It is this document that reveals that Richard had, until then, been known as Negro Richard, and selected Allen as his own free name.
Following the Revolutionary war and winning his freedom, Allen became an itinerant preacher, traveling throughout the north eastern states to spread the gospel. He returned to Philadelphia in 1786 where he joined St. George’s Methodist Episcopal church, an interracial congregation where black and white congregants worshiped together, but divided by race. When Allen started there, this was not the case, but as his preaching drew more African Americans, they were required to move from their seats to the gallery. White congregants were served first for communion, and Black congregants were served last. Allen preached there but recalled an altercation in which his friend and co-leaser, Absalom Jones was pulled from his knees while praying because they were in the newly designated “whites only” part of the church. This was the catalyzing moment for Allen, Jones, and the other leaders, causing them to walk out and refuse to return. To Allen and his companions, Methodism did not allow for such racial division and so they decided to start their own church.
Here began the foundations of what would become the African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the first African American institutions in America. Allen became the first ordained minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1799, after which he and Jones worked together to found the Free African Society, a non denominational mutual aid society dedicated to Philadelphia’s African American community. Many white ministers objected to the proposed founding of a church specifically for the African American people in the 1790s, but they eventually received the support from the MEC that they needed to have their church, called Mother Bethel, formally recognized, in 1816.
The AME church went on to be a centerpiece of African American communities throughout the northern states in the antebellum era, serving as places of political engagement, abolitionist organizing, African American education, and other key self-improvement efforts. By the Civil War, the AME was a well established institution that deployed missionaries to the South to plant churches and assist the formerly enslaved population in their new found freedom. Even today, the AME thrives as a key part of many local African American communities, boasting over 2.5 million members.
Allen, who died in 1831, instigated this, now national, church, having a vision for a Methodist church that was true to its doctrinal claims of egalitarianism. Besides his contribution to the religious landscape of African American life, sources suggest that Allen and his first and second wives were conductors on the Underground Railroad, offering shelter and provisions to fugitive slaves in their home and the basement of Mother Bethel. He and Jones were also key to the understanding of yellow fever as a communicable disease, challenging the idea that white physicians proposed that African descended peoples were immune to the disease who could be used to deal with the countless dead during the epidemic of 1793.
The Scripture Cake was really exciting. We were pretty sure that this recipe was a novelty that was developed for the cookbook/Richard Allen specifically, so we were quite delighted when Kayleigh’s grandma, who is slowly becoming the resident historical cooking expert, told us that she had heard of this dish before (though she had personally never made one).
Judges 5:25 – 1 cup butter
Jeremiah 6:20 – 2 cups sugar
Isaiah 10:17 – 6 eggs
Genesis 24:17 – 1 cup water
Samuel 30:12 – 2 cups raisins
Samuel 30:12 – 2 chopped figs
Genesis 43:11 – 1 cup chopped walnuts
Exodus – 3 tablespoons honey
1st Kings 10:10 – Spices to taste
Leviticus 2:13 – 1/2 teaspoon salt
1st Corinthians 5:6 – 2 teaspoons baking powder
1st Kings 4:22 – 3 1/2 cups sifted flour
The scriptures in the scripture cake recipe were used in both the ingredients and the instructions. For each item listed for the cake, there was a corresponding Bible verse. We included these in the ingredient list above, but in case you don’t have your King James handy or memorized we thought we’d give you a taste of what we read. For the first ingredient, one cup of butter, the passage Judges 5:25 was cited: “He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.” For 2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1st Corinthians 5:6 states, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven works through the whole batch of dough?” We think you guys get the gist.
We literally laughed out loud when we saw how the Philadelphia Council used “scripture” in the recipe instructions. In perhaps the shortest set of instructions to date, these read “Follow Solomon’s advice for making good men out of growing boys that is found in Proverbs 23:14 and beat well. This is an old recipe – delicious. Bake slowly until a toothpick inserted in it will come out clean.” Some of you may be familiar with Proverbs 23:14, which reads “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” This being pretty much the only instruction for the recipe, we got right down to it.
We first added all of the wet ingredients to the mixer and combined them. It was a little runny, but we weren’t too worried. Next came the dry ingredients and finally the chopped figs and raisins. As we added every ingredient to the batter we read the accompanying verse aloud.
Once combined, we added it all to a cake dish and baked on 350. Again, there was no temperature provided by the book, but we figured 350 was a safe bet. It baked for about 40 minutes before the toothpick came out clean.
The cake was really dense and felt like it belonged in the genre of fruit cake. It was not too sweet, so we enjoyed having it with tea that evening.
This cake was perfectly tasty and we had a great time making it. It was delightful to see how people integrated the Bible into their cooking and enjoyed reflecting on how many of these verses were probably known by heart to the cooks, unlike us who had to look up every single one. We are grateful to the Philadelphia Council, and Richard Allen, for facilitating this spirit-filled afternoon.
Portrait of Richard Allen: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Richard Allen; Founder of the A. M. E. Church.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-a0a2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Text from Mother Bethel plaque: Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded on this site 1787 by Richard Allen (a former slave). This ground, purchased by Richard Allen for a church, is the oldest parcel of real estate owned continuously by Negroes in the United States. This congregation is the world’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church congregation. The first church (1787) was an abandoned blacksmith shop, hauled to this place by the teams of Richard Allen who was elected a bishop in 1816. “We all went out of the church (old St. George’s Methodist Church) in a body” and “they were no more plagued with us in their church.” – Richard Allen. May our God continue to bless Mother Bethel and all her children, now scattered throughout the world, bringing faith and hope to millions of weary souls. Ring the bells of freedom throughout the world. “Rise, shine, give God the Glory for the year of jubilee.” October 1961