A Brief History of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

In the late 1700s, the Methodist Church in America was facing great discontent. Black
members contributed generous annual assessments but were refused the right to vote
within the Church. They were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the mistreatment they
received. Three groups soon separated from the Methodist Church and continue their work
to this day.


Richard Allen, a freeman and former slave, was consecrated bishop in the White Methodist
Church in Philadelphia. With his members, he left the Church in 1793 and chartered the
African Methodist Episcopal Church.


James Varick was a sexton in the white Methodist Church. Three years later, he was
consecrated bishop in England and successfully chartered the African Methodist Episcopal
Zion Church in October of 1796. Along with Peter Williams and Charles Rush, Varick is
considered a forefather of the AME Zion Church.



James Varick

Founder, AME Zion Church


Thirteen years after that, a group calling themselves the Colored Methodist Episcopalians
(now the Christian Methodist Episcopalians) split from the Methodist Church for the same
reasons that the AME and AME Zion Churches had been chartered.


The 1820s saw a schism within the Church between the northern and southern conferences.
The Southern Conference had developed a pro-slavery doctrine and catechism to
accommodate slavery. The Northern Conference remained against slavery. These
differences were not mediated until the two conferences officially split.


The session laws for North Carolina of 1836-1837 prohibited slaves from preaching in public
and holding gatherings. In 1715, these laws had forbidden preaching to slaves. Oversight
responsibility was appropriated to county and state governments by the session laws of
1788. Ordinances were also enacted to restrict the means by which slaves could purchase
their freedom.


James Varick was elected the first bishop of the AME Zion Church in 1822. The house that
he and other AME Zion leaders rented in New York was often referred to as “The Liberator
and the Freedom Church” and was a frequent stop on the Underground Railroad. The AME
Zion Church remained steadfast in its stand against slavery and works against oppression to
this day.


In 1864, the leadership of the AME Zion Church began a serious effort to organize the
efforts of local communities into viable churches with both national and international foci.   
Bishop J. J. Clinton sent five men to the South to accomplish these goals.


One of the men, James W. Hood, is remembered for his aggressive leadership and great
work in North Carolina, particularly in Washington and in New Bern. He upheld the rights of
the Black congregation in selecting their own pastors and representing their own interests.
Up to this point, affiliated White churches had retained authority over the business of Black
churches in the South.



Bishop James W. Hood


After a particularly spiritual service in North Carolina, Hood presented a letter to the
congregation. The letter was from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “The congregation of
colored Methodist worshippers in Andrews Chapel in New Bern, North Carolina shall have
the right to decide their own church relations and select their own pastor.” This decree
affected all AME Zion Churches in the area and accelerated their autonomy.


In the same year, the North Carolina conference was organized by Bishop Clinton and
consisted of 12 ministers and 400 members. His work in Alabama was also fruitful as he
organized the State Conference there. In 1877, there were 8,954 members and a year later
there were 12,590 members with a reported four hundred preachers, local preachers, and
exhorters.


This remarkable growth did not come without its tribulations. The Church and its preachers
became the new targets of Klan terrorist activities, including the burning of churches and
church schools and the imprisonment of pastors. These pastors were sustained by their
faith in God and refused to be subordinates of men. Black preachers enlightened and
strengthened their member churches in the face of persecution by the Klan by drawing
heavily from the New Testament.


Terrorist groups were nothing compared to the growth of the AME Zion Church. In 1856, the
Zion General Conference set up the British North American annual Conference embracing
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, and Cape Breton. An Annual Conference was
established in Africa in 1883. The London-Birmingham Conference was organized in 1971,
establishing the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in England.


The AME Zion Church continues to work toward improved education, missionary
opportunities, and religious scholarship around the world. With over one million members
and 3,000 congregations in the United States alone and 141 annual conferences in twelve
Episcopal Districts worldwide, the AME Zion Church is certainly making a difference.