The Abyssinian Baptist Church
132 West 138th Street
Established in 1808
Moved to Harlem in 1920
“I think it is time for the masses in the church to insist… that their leadership of the pew and the pulpit should be vitally a part of the Black Revolution.”
– The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church was the first black Baptist church organized in the state of New York. It was founded in 1808 by a group of African Americans and Ethiopian merchants who were unwilling to accept racially segregated seating at the First Baptist Church of New York City where they worshiped. The Abyssinian Baptist Church was named after the nation Abyssinia from which the Ethiopian merchants came.
The church originally resided in a small wooden building located on Worth Street in Lower Manhattan. Following the African American migration northward, it moved to the Broadway Tabernacle and buildings on Thompson and Spring Streets, then to Waverly Place, and later up to 40th Street before finally settling in Harlem.
Under the dynamic leadership of Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., who was Abyssinian’s minister from 1908 to 1937, the church became the largest and richest Negro Baptist congregation in the world. A man of vision, well known for his social gospel that combined concern for the spirit with social activism, Rev. Powell, Sr. preached about and promoted the idea of a model church in Harlem. In the spring of 1920, the church purchased lots on 138th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. Fourteen months later, a church and community house was built and furnished on the site, financed solely through the tithes and offerings from the church members.
Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., succeeded his father as the pastor of the church and served from 1937 to 1971. He was the first African-American congressman elected to office in 1944. Under his leadership, Abyssinian became the most politically outspoken church in America. In addition to providing consistent spiritual nourishment and full-time weekday activities for its members and the Harlem community, the church engaged in boycotts and picketing for the elimination of racial discrimination and for the establishment of better health care and broader opportunities for African American people.
Today, led by Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, the church continues to nurture the spiritual growth of its membership and carry on its long tradition of community advocacy and empowerment. In 1989 Rev. Dr. Butts and the church created the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a non-profit entity that develops and oversees housing for the homeless, senior citizens and low-income families. The church also partnered with New York City Department of Education in establishing the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, a public charter school for students in grades 7 to 12. These important projects are significantly revitalizing the economic and social fabric of Harlem.