July 22, 1827
The church founder, bishop, and abolitionist James Varick was born near Newburgh, New York, to a slave mother (manumitted when Varick was a small boy) and a free father. When he was sixteen, he joined the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, where he was eventually licensed to preach. He learned shoemaking and had opened his own business by 1783. In 1790 he married Aurelia Jones and they had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood.
As black membership in the John Street Church grew, segregation was introduced and black members had to sit in the back pews. In 1796, in response, a small group of black men, led by Varick, obtained church approval to hold separate services for the black congregation. By 1800 they had purchased a lot and built their own church and they secured an independent charter in 1801. This church, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, became the mother church of the AME Zion Church movement.
In 1806 Varick and two others were ordained as the first black deacons in New York. Varick's intelligence, oratorical skills, and piety were well known and he became a spokesperson for African Americans and a pioneer in the independent black church movement. He assisted in and encouraged the formation of the Zion Church in New Haven in 1818, and in Philadelphia in 1820. He also fought for twenty years to free his church from white Methodist Episcopal control. In 1820 Varick led his congregation to adopt resolutions (which he had written) that would formally separate the Zion church from the white denomination. Not only was he able to formally charter this new denomination based on Wesleyan Methodist doctrines (and not to be confused with the African Methodist Episcopal Church founded in 1816 by Richard Allen), but he made sure that the church maintained undisputed rights to its finances and properties. In 1821 he was elected district elder during a conference with other black Methodist leaders. And after a two-year struggle with the white church hierarchy, he was finally ordained as the first black bishop of the independent African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1822.
Varick was a gifted preacher, but black preachers were paid little or nothing. During the twenty-year struggle to break away from white control, the white pastor of his church made a full-time salary while Varick was forced to continue in the shoemaking trade and also taught classes out of his home. Yet this did not slow his efforts for equality. He was named the first chaplain of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief in 1810. In 1817 he became one of the vice presidents of the New York African Bible Society. Having been deeply influenced by the spirit of the revolution, in 1821 he joined a group of black businessmen and clergy and petitioned the New York State Constitutional Convention for black suffrage. He was strongly opposed to the colonization movement and worked to enlighten white supporters as to its unfairness.
Shortly before his death in his home in 1827, Varick became one of the founders of the first black newspaper in the United States, Freedom's Journal. His commitment to freedom for all and to universal dignity were in evidence in all the articles he contributed.
In 1996, the AME Zion Church held its bicentennial. More than 15,000 members converged on Washington, D.C., in July, and a celebration was held in New York in October. In addition to the festivities, an exhibit of AME archives was on display at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture.
Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.
Washington, Joseph R., Jr. Black Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism. New York: Doubleday, 1972.
sasha thomas (1996)
debi broome (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005