AbyssinianBaptist church, currently located in Harlem, New York, was founded in 1808 whena group of black parishioners left First Baptist Church of New York due to the impositionof racially-segregated seating. ReverendThomas Paul, an African American minister from Boston, Massachusetts, assisted the groupconsisting of African Americans and Ethiopian immigrants in establishing achurch. The group named the new churchAbyssinian after Abyssinia, the ancient name of Ethiopia.
Abyssinian Baptist Church became the first African American Baptist church inthe state of New York; the Reverend John VanVessler served as thecongregation’s first pastor. The church—withits already dynamic, politically astute pastoral leadership—became a stalwartpillar in the New York black community. Increasingmembership forced the church to relocate several times until 1923 when theirpresent day Neo-Gothic architectural edifice was built at 132 W. 138th Streetin Harlem between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X Boulevards. The church,constructed of limestone, features European-imported stained glass windows andan Italian marble pulpit.
Abyssinian Baptist experienced rapid growth with its gospel of social justiceand its mission of community empowerment. Over the course of its 206-year history, Abyssinian prospered under theleadership of its 20 pastors. Notablepastors include Reverends William Spellman (1856-1885); Adam Clayton Powell,Sr. (1908-1936); Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1937-1971); and Dr. Calvin O. Butts,III (1989- ). During Rev. Spellman’stenure, church membership increased to 1,600; under the leadership of Rev.Powell, Sr., Abyssinian promoted religious and social outreach within thesurrounding community.
Following the retirement of Rev. Powell, Sr., his son Rev. Adam Clayton Powell,Jr. assumed leadership of the church and their community service activities inHarlem. During Rev. Powell, Jr.’s yearsas pastor, church membership burgeoned to nearly 14,000. The church continued to provide for the needyduring the Great Depression