Mother African MethodistEpiscopal Zion (AME) Church, founded in 1796, is currently located in Harlem, New York. It is the oldest African American church inthe state of New York and was established when black parishioners left JohnStreet Methodist Church in that city. Thegroup, under the leadership of Minister James Varick, had grown disillusionedwith increasing segregationist practices within the Methodist churchorganization. Ministers James Varick, ChristopherRush, William Miller, and George Galbreath would become bishops and eventually be recognizedas the founding members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination.
Originally given the name “African Chapel,”the church later settled on the name “Zion” because of its biblical resonance. The first services of Zion Church were held ina rental property in what is now downtown Manhattan. Within four years the congregation raisedenough money to build their first building. Zion Church attracted many black parishioners,and served as the only African American church in New York City untilAbyssinian Baptist Church was founded in 1808.
In 1820, Zion withdrew from the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal Church andformed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Conference denomination. Introducing black religious expression whilecatering to a growing population of black abolitionists, affiliate Zionchurches sprang up, prompting the original church to distinguish itself as beingthe “Mother” church. In 1848, ZionChurch officially changed its name to Mother African Methodist Episcopal ZionChurch.
Affectionately known as Mother Zion, the church was once considered the “FreedomChurch,” having served as a station for the Underground Railroad. (Former slave Fredrick Douglass was assistedby Mother Zion in his escape to freedom; Sojourner Truth was a member of thechurch.) Social activism and collectiveresponsibility espoused by Mother Zion’s pastoral leadership led to the church beinga target of violence by anti-abolitionist groups in 1807 and 1827.