History of Mother AME Zion Church
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Profile of the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church – The Birth of a Vision!
The history of Mother AME Zion Church, its growth and development is one of the great stories of American history. That a handful of Black men, free and enslaves, could so successfully plan and implement the establishment of Zion Church in 1796 is nothing short of incredible. The growth and movement of Zion Church mirrors the growth and development of New York City itself. Starting in what is now the City Hall area in 1796 and the move to its present location in 1925 are moves that paralleled the city’s northward push over the last two centuries.
In 1796, a handful of Black men, free and enslaved – along with James L. Varick, walked out of the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church to establish a separate Black church called Zion.
From its humble beginnings in a stable, on Cross Street, the growing congregation worshipped until 1800, when the construction of the first church built specifically for persons of African descent was completed in New York State. From that point forward, our Church would play a critical role in every aspect of African-American life during early New York City history.
Many social organizations were founded to assist and improve the condition of the Negro, and the Mother Zion Church played a key role in the growth process.
William Miller, one of trustees of Mother Zion, was selected as the first President of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief chartered by New York State in 1810. In 1817, the New York African Bible Society would also be established from his home.
Mother Zion was also one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of slavery and championed the Abolitionist Movement. “Freedom’s Journal” the first Black newspaper published and operated in the United States from the basement of Mother Zion Church from May 4, 1827 to May 2, 1828 for almost a year!
The nurturing of great men and women is another of Mother Zion’s legacies:
Sojourner Truth transferred her membership from the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church to Zion Church in 1827. It was at the altar of Mother Zion that she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and there she was also reunited with her sisters, who had been separated during slavery. Sojourner Truth became one of foremost voices for women’s and equal rights and the abolition of slavery. It is also the church of Harriet Tubman, , Frederick Douglass and Paul Robeson.
As one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of slavery and a constant champion of abolition Mother Zion was there. In fact, Mother Zion became an important stop of the “Underground Railroad”, hiding runaway slaves behind the pulpit in a secret passageway. Our legacy is difficult to surpass as we have always been a promoter of education and racial self-help for African Americans in this great city. Although our gains as a people have been significant against tremendous odds, the challenges are ever present. Our future is filled with new stumbling blocks, different that those our forefathers and foremothers faced, but none the less requiring the same bold efforts, involvement, hard work, and firm adherences to the tenets of our faith.
Christopher Rush, our second Bishop, was founder and first president of the Phoenix Society, established in 1833. This society was considered the most progressive and democratic organization in the country at that time. It was inter-racial, pro-women’s rights, provided for adult education, training and placement. The Society also founded a high school for boys and girls.
Many of the early bishops, including Varick, Rush, William Haywood Bishop, and J.J. Clinton were noted for their social action. They promoted organizations and societies within the church to provide literacy and educational training for its members during the pre- and post-emancipation era.