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A Brief History of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

In the late 1700s, the Methodist Church in America was facing great discontent. Black members contributed generous annual assessments but were refused the right to vote within the Church. They were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the mistreatment they received. Three groups soon separated from the Methodist Church and continue their work to this day.

Richard Allen, a freeman and former slave, was consecrated bishop in the White Methodist Church in Philadelphia. With his members, he left the Church in 1793 and chartered the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

James Varick was a sexton in the white Methodist Church. Three years later, he was consecrated bishop in England and successfully chartered the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in October of 1796. Along with Peter Williams and Charles Rush, Varick is considered a forefather of the AME Zion Church.

James Varick, Founder of the AME Zion Church

James Varick

Founder, AME Zion Church

Thirteen years after that, a group calling themselves the Colored Methodist Episcopalians (now the Christian Methodist Episcopalians) split from the Methodist Church for the same reasons that the AME and AME Zion Churches had been chartered.

The 1820s saw a schism within the Church between the northern and southern conferences. The Southern Conference had developed a pro-slavery doctrine and catechism to accommodate slavery. The Northern Conference remained against slavery. These differences were not mediated until the two conferences officially split.

The session laws for North Carolina of 1836-1837 prohibited slaves from preaching in public and holding gatherings. In 1715, these laws had forbidden preaching to slaves. Oversight responsibility was appropriated to county and state governments by the session laws of 1788. Ordinances were also enacted to restrict the means by which slaves could purchase their freedom.

James Varick was elected the first bishop of the AME Zion Church in 1822. The house that he and other AME Zion leaders rented in New York was often referred to as “The Liberator and the Freedom Church” and was a frequent stop on the Underground Railroad. The AME Zion Church remained steadfast in its stand against slavery and works against oppression to this day.

In 1864, the leadership of the AME Zion Church began a serious effort to organize the efforts of local communities into viable churches with both national and international foci.   Bishop J. J. Clinton sent five men to the South to accomplish these goals.

One of the men, James W. Hood, is remembered for his aggressive leadership and great work in North Carolina, particularly in Washington and in New Bern. He upheld the rights of the Black congregation in selecting their own pastors and representing their own interests. Up to this point, affiliated White churches had retained authority over the business of Black churches in the South.

Bishop J. W. Hood

Bishop James W. Hood

After a particularly spiritual service in North Carolina, Hood presented a letter to the congregation. The letter was from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “The congregation of colored Methodist worshippers in Andrews Chapel in New Bern, North Carolina shall have the right to decide their own church relations and select their own pastor.” This decree affected all AME Zion Churches in the area and accelerated their autonomy.

In the same year, the North Carolina conference was organized by Bishop Clinton and consisted of 12 ministers and 400 members. His work in Alabama was also fruitful as he organized the State Conference there. In 1877, there were 8,954 members and a year later there were 12,590 members with a reported four hundred preachers, local preachers, and exhorters.

This remarkable growth did not come without its tribulations. The Church and its preachers became the new targets of Klan terrorist activities, including the burning of churches and church schools and the imprisonment of pastors. These pastors were sustained by their faith in God and refused to be subordinates of men. Black preachers enlightened and strengthened their member churches in the face of persecution by the Klan by drawing heavily from the New Testament.

Terrorist groups were nothing compared to the growth of the AME Zion Church. In 1856, the Zion General Conference set up the British North American annual Conference embracing New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, and Cape Breton. An Annual Conference was established in Africa in 1883. The London-Birmingham Conference was organized in 1971, establishing the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in England.

The AME Zion Church continues to work toward improved education, missionary opportunities, and religious scholarship around the world. With over one million members and 3,000 congregations in the United States alone and 141 annual conferences in twelve Episcopal Districts worldwide, the AME Zion Church is certainly making a difference.

Logo of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church