Witness: Two Hundred Years of African-American Faith and Practice at the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, New York

By Pimblott, Kerry | The Catholic Historical Review, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Witness: Two Hundred Years of African-American Faith and Practice at the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, New York


Pimblott, Kerry, The Catholic Historical Review


Witness: Two Hundred Years of African-American Faith and Practice at the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, New York. By Genna Rae McNeil, Houston Bryan Roberson, Quinton Hosford Dixie, and Kevin McGruder. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 2014. Pp. xii, 708. $45.00. ISBN 9780-8028-6341-6.)

Harlem, designated by many as a black cultural capital, finds its spiritual center in the Abyssinian Baptist Church. At its height during the Great Migration, Abyssinian's sacred edifice on 138th Street was home to 14,000 members and was pastored by such luminaries as Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and his son, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY). Under such impressive leadership, Abyssinian emerged as a national pulpit that fused the social gospel with a commitment to political protest and community empowerment. In this meticulously researched tome, coauthors Genna Rae McNeil, Houston Bryan Roberson, Quinton Hosford Dixie, and Kevin McGruder chronicle the ebbs and flows of Abyssinian's 200-year history, contributing significantly to congregational histories of the African American religious experience.

Witness traces Abyssinian's birth to the independent church movement among free blacks in the wake of the Revolutionary War. In June 1809, fifteen African American members of First Baptist Church in New York, responding to the discriminatory practices of white parishioners, requested that they be dismissed to form their own congregation. The opening chapters explore these early years as Abyssinians tentatively sought to achieve autonomy and institutional stability as well as address the broader social and religious concerns of their community. By the dawn of the twentieth century, Abyssinian's fortunes had stabilized, and its 1000strong membership began to contemplate moving uptown to follow the growing waves of migrants from the post-Reconstruction South. The congregation relocated first to the Tenderloin district before finally settling in Harlem in 1922 during the pastorate of the elder Powell. …

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