Celebrating Christ and Remembering Dr. King: Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, New York, 20 January 2008

By Hayes, Alan L. | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Celebrating Christ and Remembering Dr. King: Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, New York, 20 January 2008


Hayes, Alan L., Anglican and Episcopal History


Celebrating Christ and Remembering Dr. King: Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, New York, 20 January 2008

Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York City, is widely regarded as the most influential of all African American churches. In fact, some contend that it is America's most prominent church, period. It played a vital role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when that section of New York became (as many believe) the cultural and spiritual center of black America. Its campaigns against segregation in New York during the Great Depression laid a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement in the American South two decades later. It has been identified as the first mega-church; by 1937 it was reportedly the country's largest Protestant church, with a membership of fourteen thousand. The four pastors who have guided it since 1908 have been leading civic personalities-three of them, in fact, internationally recognized celebrities. Its ministry of faith, social activism, and cultural integration in a marginalized and oppressed community has been an inspiration to a host of nonmembers, from nonmembers Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Barack Obama. Its members have included persons of distinction in many spheres: in the performing arts, for example, W. C. Handy, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and Cicely Tyson. St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harlem was once a close rival (its members have included Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, and W. E. B. Du Bois), but it has declined into less than a shadow of its former greatness, while Abyssinian flourishes yet.

In 2008 Abyssinian Baptist Church celebrates its bicentennial anniversary. Among its many special activities this year, the most exciting for historians is a research project involving a team of scholars, including Genna Rae McNeil of the University of North Carolina, on the history of Abyssinian in its various contexts. Until this work is completed, extremely interesting if undependable versions of the congregation's history are available in Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Upon This Rock (New York, 1949), and Bob Gore, We've Come This Far: The Abyssinian Baptist Church, a Photographic Journal (New York, 2001). Even better, for four months the New York Public Library is mounting a retrospective exhibition of the church's history at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in central Harlem on Malcolm X Boulevard.

Abyssinian began in 1808 when a dozen blacks left First Baptist Church on Gold Street (a few blocks from Wall Street) in order to form their own congregation. A free-born Boston-based Baptist preacher, Thomas Paul, the son of a white mother and a black father, apparently persuaded the Gold Street whites to issue "letters of dimission" so that the group would be recognized by the New York Baptist association. (One year later, the separation of the Free African Church of St. Philip's from Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, would be less amicable.) This first black Baptist congregation in New York called itself Abyssinian Baptist Church. According to a congregational story, the name was chosen to commemorate some Abyssinian (that is, Ethiopian) merchants trading into the port of New York who had walked out of Gold Street Church one Sunday morning rather than sit in the slave gallery. But the New York Public Library exhibition proposes that the name was chosen in recognition of Ethiopia as the African American holy land, called by the Lord into a special relationship: "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God" (Psalm 68:31 ). As the current pastor explains, Ethiopia has been invaded from time to time, but it has never been colonized, and it remains independent and proud.

After its formation, Abyssinian purchased a frame building on Anthony Street (now Worth Street) in lower Manhattan. Although it fell behind on mortgage payments, and had to worship in a succession of halls and houses, its membership grew; by 1835 it was larger than any of the city's white Baptist congregations, and it was taking a lead in organizing black Baptist associations across the United States. …

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