Like other Methodists around the world, The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, owes its theology, structure, and enthusiasm to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley, a priest of the Church of England, was born in the early 18th Century. Throughout his childhood, student years, and early priesthood, he focused his life on rigorously trying to satisfy the demands of religion as he understood them. But, his efforts led ultimately to a sense of despair, failure, and anxiety about his relationship to God. Then, at a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street in London on May 24, 1738, he discovered what the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther before him had learned, that a new relationship with God comes through faith in Christ rather than through our own efforts. In addition, he experienced the absolute assurance that God had taken away his sins and saved him from the law of sin and death. After this event, John Wesley and his brother, Charles, began spreading their new found Gospel of God’s grace. They preached to the poor, to the miners and factory workers of industrial England, and to others who generally found themselves outside of the staid and respectable Church of England. Although John and Charles Wesley remained Anglican priests and encouraged participation in the sacraments of the Church of England, their preaching, teaching, writing, organizational skills, and inspirational leadership founded a movement which was to have worldwide implications.
Although Methodism immediately began to take root throughout England and the surrounding area, it did not spread to the Americas until the early 1760’s. In 1766, three lay Methodists Philip Embury, Robert Strawbridge, and Barbara Heck began missionary work in the American colonies. Three years later, Wesley sent Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore to the Colonies and in 1771, he sent Francis Asbury, who was destined to become the Father of American Methodism. By the close of the War of Independence, there were nearly 15,000 Methodists in American and 80 lay preachers. However, the war had left the Methodists in America without the means of celebrating Holy Communion because virtually all of the Anglican (Episcopal) priests had returned to England. In response to this situation, John Wesley ordained Dr. Thomas Coke as a superintendent and sent him to America, where he was to ordain Francis Asbury as a second superintendent and to establish an American Methodist Church. On Christmas Eve, 1784, at the Lovely Lane Church in Baltimore, Maryland, some sixty lay preachers met with Coke and Asbury. At this historic Christmas Conference, they elected, ordained, and consecrated Bishops Coke and Asbury, edited and adopted the liturgy and doctrinal statement sent by Wesley, and prayerfully established the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was formally organized in 1796 in New York City. Among the leaders who played a prominent role in the founding of the church were James Varick, Abraham Thompson, June Scott, William Miller, Francis Jacobs, William Brown, Peter Williams, William Hamilton, Thomas Miller, and Samuel Pontier. Our roots go back to 1765, when the Methodist influences were first felt in New York. The John Street Church, the first Methodist Church in America, had several black members from the beginning. Between 1768 and 1796, as numbers increased, prejudice and discrimination also increased. The sacraments were served to blacks only after the white families were served. The black ministers were denied opportunities to preach, were restricted from itinerant membership in the Annual Conference and from ordination. Bishop William J. Walls wrote that “The fathers agreed that they had no fault to find with the doctrines, form of government, and evangelistic and soul-saving emphasis of Methodism, but they could not endure the constant humiliation and restriction imposed by the people into whose hands Methodism had fallen.” These practices and the denial of other church privileges, led to the organization of the first African Methodist Episcopal [Zion] Church in October of 1796. Joseph Pilmore writes in his journal about “meeting apart” with the New York Group (Zion) as early as 1771. In 1800, they built a church building and called it “Zion,” because it is the name most frequently used in the Bible to designate the Church of God. James Varick was elected and consecrated the first bishop of the church in 1822. The word “Zion” was added to the name of the church in 1848. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church has come to be known as the Freedom Church because from its inception, it has been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom and justice in America and abroad. Zion Methodism has nurtured such freedom advocates as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and Sojourner Truth, all of whom were either local preachers or exhorters in the A. M. E. Zion Church.
1 William J. Walls, The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: Reality of the Black Church (Charlotte: AME Zion Publishing House, 1974), p. 45.