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James Varick was the founder and first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Varick was born to a slave mother near Newburgh, New York. His father was Richard Varick, a free black man who was originally from Hackensack, New Jersey. Varick grew up with his parents in New York City, where it is thought that he may have attended the Free School for Negroes. After this schooling, Varick was trained in the trade of shoemaking.
In 1766, Varick, now free, joined the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which had a predominately white congregation. Eventually Varick became a minister and was licensed to preach at John Street Church. Although he was not the main minister, his appointment to the pulpit as the Church’s first black preacher caused considerable racial tension and calls for racial segregation of the congregation. Eventually black parishioners were forced to sit in the galleries or the back row seating. Incensed at this change in church policy Varick and thirty other black members withdrew from the church in 1796.
In 1790, Varick married Aurelia Jones. The couple had seven children, four of whom survived into adulthood. During this time Varick worked as a shoemaker and a tobacco cutter in order to support his family.
In 1800, Varick and those who had seceded from the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church started their own place of worship, which they dubbed the “Zion” church which was located a few blocks from Wall Street. In 1806, Varick and three other men became the first three ordained black deacons in New York. In 1818 Varick helped found the African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. He was also one of the vice-presidents of the New York African Bible Society
Varick was a strong opponent of slavery and openly supported its abolition. He often preached sermons on this subject and fought for equal rights for African Americans, the most notable being the “Sermon of Thanksgiving on the Occasion of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade,” on January 1, 1808.
In 1821, Varick and other black New York City leaders petitioned the New York State Constitutional Convention to grant blacks the right to vote. Six years later Varick helped establish Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States.
As other independent black Methodist churches emerged in the Northeast, Varick in 1821 led the movement to establish a new denomination which would be know as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (as opposed to the African Methodist Episcopal or AME Church founded in the same period by Rev. Richard Allen). The next year Varick was elected the first bishop of the AME Zion church, and was re-elected for a second term at the second annual conference in 1824. On July 4, 1827, Varick and his congregation celebrated victory when New York finally enacted the final emancipation of Negro slaves. Two weeks after the celebration Varick passed away in his New York City home.
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982); Anne H. Pinn and Anthony B. Fortress, Introduction to Black Church History (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 2002).
University of Washington