Abyssinian Baptist Church, ca. 1930
Image Courtesy of CORBIS
Baptist church, currently located in Harlem, New York
, was founded in 1808 when
a group of black parishioners left First Baptist Church of New York due to the imposition
of racially-segregated seating. Reverend
, an African American minister from Boston, Massachusetts
, assisted the group
consisting of African Americans and Ethiopian immigrants in establishing a
church. The group named the new church
after Abyssinia, the ancient name of Ethiopia
Abyssinian Baptist Church became the first African American Baptist church in
the state of New York; the Reverend John VanVessler served as the
congregation’s first pastor. The church—with
its already dynamic, politically astute pastoral leadership—became a stalwart
pillar in the New York black community. Increasing
membership forced the church to relocate several times until 1923 when their
present day Neo-Gothic architectural edifice was built at 132 W. 138th Street
in Harlem between Adam Clayton Powell
and Malcolm X
Boulevards. The church,
constructed of limestone, features European
-imported stained glass windows and
Abyssinian Baptist experienced rapid growth with its gospel of social justice
and its mission of community empowerment.
Over the course of its 206-year history, Abyssinian prospered under the
leadership of its 20 pastors. Notable
pastors include Reverends William Spellman (1856-1885); Adam Clayton Powell,
(1908-1936); Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1937-1971); and Dr. Calvin O. Butts,
III (1989- ). During Rev. Spellman’s
tenure, church membership increased to 1,600; under the leadership of Rev.
Powell, Sr., Abyssinian promoted religious and social outreach within the
Following the retirement of Rev. Powell, Sr., his son Rev. Adam Clayton Powell,
Jr. assumed leadership of the church and their community service activities in
Harlem. During Rev. Powell, Jr.’s years
as pastor, church membership burgeoned to nearly 14,000. The church continued to provide for the needy
during the Great Depression
era and extended its religious and social programs
to include international outreach.
Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. brought national celebrity to Abyssinian
after his election to Congress (1944-1970) where he was the first to represent
Harlem, the 22nd District of New York. Rev.
Powell, Jr. continued his duties as pastor while serving as an outspoken
proponent of laws promoting equal rights during his 14-year tenure in
Congress. Under Powell, Abyssinian also
organized/ participated in civil rights
activism to highlight discrimination in
jobs and housing. In 1965 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
was the invited
guest speaker for Abyssinian’s 157th church anniversary.
Currently, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III is the pastor of the church. Like his predecessors, Rev. Butts, III
continues to promote Abyssinian’s dedication to religious, educational, and
community development. In 1989 the
church established the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), a nonprofit
community property development venture designed to stimulate economic
development and provide affordable housing in Harlem.
Abyssinian founded and operates the Thurgood Marshall
Academy for Learning and
Social Change (1993) and the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School
(2004). In 2007 Rev. Butts led a church
delegation to Addis Ababa
, Ethiopia, capitol of ancient Abyssinia, to honor the
memory of the church’s founders. In 2009
the church established The Abyssinian (Aby) fund to partner with Ethiopian
coffee growers in reducing poverty within Ethiopian farming communities.
In 1993 Abyssinian Baptist Church was designated as an official city landmark
by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission. Today the church
continues to draw community residents and inquisitive tourists.