Abyssinian Baptist Church

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Abyssinian Baptist Church


The Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, one of the oldest African-American Baptist churches in the northern states, was founded in 1808 when a white-led church, the First Baptist Church, restricted black worshippers to a segregated area of the sanctuary. In response, The Reverend Thomas Paul, a black minister from Boston, and eighteen black Baptists left and founded their own congregation on Anthony Street (now Worth Street). The name of the church allegedly derives from a group of seamen and merchants from Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) who helped found the new church. Abyssinia was a historically Christian African country. The church soon moved to larger quarters on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. By 1840 the church's membership numbered more than four hundred, and it was the largest African-American Baptist congregation outside the South.

After the Civil War, the church's membership grew slowly, reaching about one thousand by the turn of the century. Since New York's black population had moved uptown, the Reverend Robert D. Wynn repeatedly urged that the church be relocated in the rising African-American center of Harlem. But in 1902, under the leadership of the Reverend Charles S. Morris, the church moved into a new building on West 40th Street.

In 1908, the hundredth anniversary of the church, a dynamic leader, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. (18651953), was installed as pastor. Powell campaigned successfully to raise money for a church building in Harlem, and in 1923 the new building opened at 132 West 138th Street. The new church cost $350,000 to build and had lush carpets, a recreational center, and an imported marble pulpit.

Despite the cost, the Abyssinian Baptist Church was considered the "church of the people." Its membership, which grew to fourteen thousand by 1937 (the year the Reverend Powell Sr. retired), reflected the social and economic composition of the surrounding black community. Most of the church's members were poor or lower middle class, and there were few professionals among them.

Once settled in Harlem, the church immediately became active in social programs. Powell continued the antiprostitution efforts he had begun on 40th Street, and in 1926 he founded a senior citizens' home at 732 St. Nicholas Avenue, which was named in his honor. Under the leadership of his son, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (19081972), the church opened a federal credit union and the Friendly Society, a benevolent organization.

Church activities increased with the coming of the Great Depression. In 1930 a soup kitchen opened, followed by a day nursery, an employment bureau, and, most significantly, an adult education school, which had some two thousand students by 1935. After succeeding his father as pastor in 1937, the younger Powell led boycotts and picket lines aimed at obtaining jobs for blacks in Harlem. Even after he became a New York City councilman in 1941, and then a U.S. congressman in 1945, Powell retained his pulpit at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he was renowned for his oratory.

After the death of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1972, the church selected the Reverend Samuel Dewitt Proctor (19211997), a former president of both North Carolina A&T College and Virginia Union University in Richmond, to become its next pastor. Proctor continued the social activism for which the church was known. Under his leadership, the church created the Abyssinian Housing Development Fund Company, which provides housing to needy families in Harlem. Proctor also invited the New York Philharmonic to give annual concerts in the church.

In 1990 the Reverend Calvin Butts, who had been the executive minister under Proctor, assumed the pastorate of the church. Butts expanded the church's role in housing development, child care, and adult education through the Abyssinian Development Corporation. A powerful but often controversial leader, Butts has carried out highly publicized campaigns against alcoholism and against alcohol and tobacco companies that target black and Latino consumers for their products. In 1993 Butts began a heated campaign to boycott rap songs with lyrics that denigrate black men and women. Though the membership of the church has dropped over the years to about five thousand, the Abyssinian Baptist Church is still one of the largest and most powerful black churches in America.

See also Baptists; Butts, Calvin; Protestantism in the Americas; Religion

Bibliography

Gore, Bob. We've Come This Far: The Abyssinian Baptist Church, A Photographic Journal. New York: Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, 2001.

Powell, Adam Clayton, Sr. Upon This Rock. New York: Abyssinian Baptist Church, 1949.

timothy e. fulop (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005