The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church began in New York City in 1796. Just as, several decades earlier, John Wesley founded the Methodist Church in England in an attempt to remake the Church of England from within, the A.M.E. Zion Church grew out of a spirit of reform. Despite Wesley’s deep opposition to slavery and his championing of poor and mistreated people, both white and black, not all of his followers remained true to his ideals. Although black people had been accepted as worshippers in the Methodist tradition since it was first brought to America by Wesley and his brother Charles in the 1730s, black Methodists were often poorly treated by their white brethren.

The church, by then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, granted preaching licenses to a few black men, but they were rarely allowed to preach, even to other black members of the church.

Preaching to white Methodists was out of the question. These black preachers were not allowed to join the Methodist Conference, the church’s decision-making body. In many Methodist churches, black worshippers were segregated from white members and were forced to sit in the church gallery rather than in the main area of worship. Burial rights for black Methodists were also at issue.

In the late 18th century, two distinct groups of black Methodists, one in Philadelphia, and one in New York City, formed their own churches. Both groups initially took the name African Methodist Episcopal Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church had its origin in New York, under the leadership of James Varick, Abraham Thompson, June Scott, William Miller, and several other black men who worshipped at the John Street Church. Most of the leaders of this first A.M.E. Zion church were free men, but slavery was still legal in New York, and many church members were slaves.

By 1801, the group was incorporated as the African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York. For the next two decades, they remained affiliated with the white-dominated Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1820, however, the A.M.E. Zion leaders voted to leave the Methodist Episcopal Church, and they published their first discipline, or rules and regulations for church practice. In 1848, “Zion” was added to the name of the New York A.M.E. church to honor the name of their first church, as well as to distinguish this group from the Philadelphians, whose first church was known as “Bethel.”

From its earliest beginnings, the A.M.E. Zion Church has been known for its spirit of reform and activism. In the 19th century, the church was in the forefront of the antislavery movement. Several of the best-known black abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, joined the A.M.E. Zion Church.

John Wesley

Anglican clergyman, evangelist, and cofounder of Methodism. The 15th child of a former nonconformist minister, he graduated from Oxford University and became a priest in the Church of England in 1728. From 1729 he participated in a religious study group in Oxford organized by his brother Charles (1707-1788), its members being dubbed the “Methodists” for their emphasis on methodical study and devotion.

James Varick

His mother was a slave of the Varicks or Van Varicks and was later freed. His father, Richard, was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, where he was baptized in the Dutch Church. The family lived in New York City while James Varick was young. He acquired an elementary education in New York schools. By trade Varick was a shoemaker. Later he also worked as a tobacco cutter. Since the church with which he was associated did not pay its preachers for many years, he worked at his trades to support himself and his family. About 1790 he married Aurelia Jones. The couple had four sons and three daughters.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. 1820 or 1821 – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. After escaping from slavery, into which she was born, she made thirteen missions to rescue over seventy slaves[1] using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era struggled for women’s suffrage.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth (c. 1797 – November 26, 1883) was the self-given name, from 1843, of Isabella Baumfree, an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York. Her best-known speech, Ain’t I a Woman?, was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, circa 1818 – February 20, 1895) an American abolitionist, women’s suffragist, editor, orator, author, statesman, minister and reformer. Escaping from slavery, he made strong contributions to the abolitionist movement, and achieved a public career that led to his being called “The Sage of Anacostia” and “The Lion of Anacostia”. Douglass is one of the most prominent figures in African American and United States history. He was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant. He was fond of saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”