The Origin of the A.M.E.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
began in New York City in 1796. Just as, several decades earlier, John
Wesley founded the Methodist Church in England in an attempt to remake the
Church of England from within, the A.M.E. Zion Church grew out of a spirit of
reform. Despite Wesley’s deep opposition to slavery and his championing of
poor and mistreated people, both white and black, not all of his followers
remained true to his ideals. Although black people had been accepted as
worshippers in the Methodist tradition since it was first brought to America by
Wesley and his brother Charles in the 1730s, black Methodists were often poorly
treated by their white brethren. The church, by then known as the
Methodist Episcopal Church, granted preaching licenses to a few black men, but
they were rarely allowed to preach, even to other black members of the church.
Preaching to white Methodists was out of the question. These black
preachers were not allowed to join the Methodist Conference, the church’s
decision-making body. In many Methodist churches, black worshippers were
segregated from white members and were forced to sit in the church gallery
rather than in the main area of worship. Burial rights for black
Methodists were also at issue.
In the late 18th century, two
distinct groups of black Methodists, one in Philadelphia, and one in New York
City, formed their own churches. Both groups initially took the name
African Methodist Episcopal Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion
Church had its origin in New York, under the leadership of James Varick, Abraham
Thompson, June Scott, William Miller, and several other black men who worshipped
at the John Street Church. Most of the leaders of this first A.M.E. Zion
church were free men, but slavery was still legal in New York, and many church
members were slaves.
By 1801, the group was incorporated as the
African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York. For the next two decades,
they remained affiliated with the white-dominated Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1820, however, the A.M.E. Zion leaders voted to leave the Methodist Episcopal
Church, and they published their first discipline, or rules and regulations for
church practice. In 1848, “Zion” was added to the name of the New York
A.M.E. church to honor the name of their first church, as well as to distinguish
this group from the Philadelphians, whose first church was known as “Bethel.”
From its earliest beginnings, the A.M.E.
Zion Church has been known for its spirit of reform and activism. In the
19th century, the church was in the forefront of the antislavery
movement. Several of the best-known black abolitionists, including
Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, joined the A.M.E. Zion