Abyssinian Baptist Church

The Abyssinian Baptist Church, located at 132 West 138th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, was built in 1922–23 and was designed by Charles W. Bolton & Son in Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival styles – it has also been described as "Collegiate Gothic".[1] It features stained glass windows and marble furnishings.

During the 20th century, prominent ministers of the church included Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.[2][3] Over the years, the church has served as a place for African American spirituality, politics and community. The Abyssinian Baptist Church congregation traces its history to 1809, when seamen from the Ethiopian Empire (then known as Abyssinia) helped lead a protest against segregated church seating. It worshiped in several places before building the present church structure.

The church and its associated community house were designated a New York City Landmark on July 13, 1993.[4]


The congregation began after an incident in 1808,[5] when visiting free Ethiopian seamen and allied African-American parishioners left the First Baptist Church in protest over being restricted to racially segregated seating.[3] They named their new congregation the Abyssinian Baptist Church after the historic name of Ethiopia.[6] Founded in 1809, it was the third oldest Baptist church in America.[3][7]

The congregation worshiped at a number of places: first on the corner of William and Frankfort Streets,[8] then at 44 Anthony (Worth) Street until the mortgage upon the church was foreclosed upon in 1854,[9] at which time the congregation worshipped temporarily at 356 Broadway. Then in 1856 they established themselves at 166 Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, an area then sometimes called "little Africa."[10] It was during their time here that the church was split into two "warring" factions, one for the Rev. William M. Spelman, who had been with them since 1855, and one desiring his removal.[11] In 1885, Rev. Spelman was ousted from the pulpit, at which time he and his followers went to another church on 37th Street.[12] In 1902 the congregation moved uptown with the movement of the African American population, to 242 West 40th Street, and from there to a tent pitched next to the future site of Marcus Garvey's Liberty Hall in Harlem, where the size of the congregation increased dramatically thanks to the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., who had become the pastor in 1908.[3] The church purchased property on the same street for a new sanctuary,[6] paid for by tithes and offerings.[5]

By 1930, the church had 13,000 members, making it the largest African-American church in New York City, and the largest Baptist congregation in the world.[3] Powell handed the reins of the church to his son Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1937. Powell became the first black Congressman from New York City, and served 14 terms in the United States House of Representatives.[1][2] Powell's "charisma, power, and notoriety", as well as his "spellbinding" preaching[1] were the driving force behind the church's significant influence in the African American community at the time.

The funeral of David Baldwin, preacher and step-father of author James Baldwin, took place in the Abyssinian Baptist Church, during the wake of the 1943 Harlem riot. James Baldwin wrote of attending his father's funeral in his most famous essay, 1955's Notes of a Native Son.[13]

Civil Rights Foot Soldier Fannie Pennington was an active lifelong member.


The church was an important site for religious music during the Harlem Renaissance, and remains a center of the Harlem gospel tradition. Fats Waller played the organ at Abyssinian when his father, Edward Martin Waller, was a minister at the church.[14] Among many important events, the church conducted the wedding of Nat King Cole and his bride Maria,[15] and the funeral of "The Father of Blues", W.C. Handy, in 1958.[16][17]


Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was followed by Samuel DeWitt Proctor, and he by Calvin O. Butts.[3] Under the direction of Butts, the church has continued to be a vital political, social, and religious institution in New York. In 1989 Butts founded the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), creating a non-profit arm of the church to work on community development and social services. It has created $500 million in development, including the first new high school in Harlem in 50 years, the first large supermarket, a retail center, and housing.[18]

In 1989, the church was one of the first to respond to Pernessa C. Seele's call for a Harlem Week of Prayer, started to mobilize the religious community in support of people with AIDS and their families. Seele has since founded Balm in Gilead, Inc., now an international non-profit providing education and prevention for HIV/AIDS, and developing other health initiatives in the United States, Africa and Caribbean.



  1. White, Norval; Willensky, Elliot & Leadon, Fran (2010), AIA Guide to New York City (5th ed.), New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195383867, p.543
  2. New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; Dolkart, Andrew S.; Postal, Matthew A. (2009), Postal, Matthew A. (ed.), Guide to New York City Landmarks (4th ed.), New York: John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 978-0-470-28963-1, p.204
  3. Dunlap, David W. (2004). From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan's Houses of Worship. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-12543-7. p.6
  4. Moore, Christopher and Dolkart, Andrew S. "Abyssinian Baptist Church and Community House Designation Report" New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (July 13, 1993)
  5. Cary D. Wintz; Paul Finkelman (1 January 2004). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Vol. 1: A – J. Taylor & Francis. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-1-57958-457-3. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
  6. The Manhattan African-American History & Culture Guide, Museum of the City of New York
  7. "The Abyssinian Church of New York". The Crisis: 203–205. September 1923.
  8. "The City Architectural Improvements". The New York Tribune. New York. 1851-04-09. Retrieved 2017-06-18.
  9. "The Baptist Churches in New York". The New York Times. New York. 1854-06-23. Retrieved 2017-06-18.
  10. "Black History Month in the Village: Black Churches No Longer Standing – GVSHP - Preservation". gvshp.org. Retrieved 2018-05-14.
  11. "The Baptist Convention". The New York Times. New York. 1889-10-11. Retrieved 2017-06-18.
  12. "Two Three Cent Pieces to Pay". The Sun. New York. 1886-04-16. Retrieved 2017-06-18.
  13. Baldwin, James (2012). Notes of a native son. Jones, Edward P. (Revised ed.). Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0807006238. OCLC 794603960.
  14. Souter, Tessa (June 8, 1997). "The New Heyday of Harlem". The Independent. Retrieved May 15, 2014.
  15. Conner, Angela (June 20, 2013). "Throwback Thursday: Nat King Cole and Maria Cole + Blue Wedding Dresses". Retrieved May 15, 2014.
  16. Pathe, British (March 29, 1958). "Funeral Of W C Handy – Father Of The Blues 1958". Retrieved May 15, 2014.
  17. "W. C. Handy, Composer, Is Dead; Author of 'St. Louis Blues,' 84". The New York Times. March 29, 1958. Retrieved May 15, 2014.
  18. Williams, Timothy. "Powerful Harlem Church Is Also a Powerful Harlem Developer", The New York Times (August 17, 2008), accessed 23 Jan 2009

Further reading

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