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History of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
James 1:27

In America, it is generally conceded that Methodism first shed its light in the city of New York. About the year 1766 when a plot of ground on John Street was leased and two years later purchased and the first chapel built as the John Street Methodist Church. During the entire early struggle of the new organization, Black people figured prominently in Methodism even to devoting of the building for the first organization. Between the years 1766 and 1796 the number of Black members increased greatly.

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, or AME Zion Church, was officially formed in 1821, but operated for a number of years before then. (In 1796 Peter Williams formed the basic structure of the AME Zion Church in New York and in 1801 Zion Chapel began.)

The fledgling church grew and soon multiple churches were formed based on the original congregation. These churches were attended by black congregants, but ministered to by white Episcopalian ministers. In 1820, six of the churches met to ordain James Varick as an elder and in 1821 was made the first General Superintendent of the AME Church. A debate raged in the white-dominated Methodist church over the possibility of black ministers. This debate concluded on July 30, 1822 when James Varick was ordained the first bishop of the AME Zion church.

The church can be traced back to the John Street Methodist Church of New York City. Following acts of overt discrimination (such as black parishioners being forced to leave worship), many black Christians left to form their own churches. The first church founded by the AME Zion Church was built in 1800 and was named Zion. These early churches were still part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, although the congregations remained separate.

So much so, that caste prejudice forbade their taking the Sacrament until the white families were all served. This, and the desire for other church privileges denied them, induced them to organize among themselves.

The first church organized in 1796 and built in 1801 was called Zion Chapel. The founders chose this name because, "it was the name most frequently used in the Bible to designate the church of God," even Zion Hill before there was worship house. Among the leaders of the movement was James Varick, who was the first Bishop and to whom is attributed the founding father of the Zion Church. Zion church was incorporated in 1801 by the name "The African Methodist Episcopal church in New York". Methodist Episcopal was always in the title to exhibit the retention of the doctrine and form of church government under which the denomination originated. "African" was prefixed to the rest of the title of this church because it was to be controlled by descendants of Africa, in the interest of humanity, regardless of race, color, sex or condition. Therefore, these people of African descent, with an indubitable in the Fatherland and abiding love of kinship, desired to maintain their identity, their ancient cultures and background for posterity. Because another organization came into existence around the same time, with the same title, and so much confusion was brought about, the General Conference of 1848 voted to make Zion a part of the denomination name, henceforth, to be know as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. From the very outset the Zion Church has been in the forefront in the battle for full citizenship and freedom in this country.

The AME Zion Church encompasses all the United States, Canada, Caribbean Islands, England, Africa, India and South America, and it is under the supervision of twelve (12) elected Bishops.

Through the years the AME Zion Church has provided educational opportunities for young people by establishing schools on a secondary as well as college level. Full-time educational programs continue to be offered by Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC, Hood Theological Seminary also in Salisbury, NC, Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill, SC, Lomax-Hannon Junior College in Greenville, AL and the AME Zion Community College, Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa.

NOTE:  The AME Zion Church is not to be confused with the similarly-named African Methodist Episcopal Church which was officially formed in 1816 by Richard Allen and Daniel Coker.

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