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Fri, 05.05.1865

Spiritual charisma, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.

Adam C.Powell Sr.

Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was born on this date in 1865. He was an African American clergyman and author.

Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. was born in Franklin County, Virginia, of slave parents, Anthony and Sally Dunning Powell.  He was one of the most famous African American churchmen of his time.  Converted in 1885, he decided to study law and politics. He attended Virginia Union University from 1888 to 1892, and graduated from its theological and academic schools.  He served several churches in various cities such as St. Paul, Philadelphia, and New Haven, where he was a special student at Yale Divinity School before being named pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, in December of 1908.

He was a captivating preacher and managed to increase the congregation of the Abyssinian Baptist Church substantially.  Services at Abyssinian Church were joyful events. Spontaneous cries and shouts of "Amen!" "Hallelujah!" and "Praise the Lord!" perpetually punctuated the services and resounded throughout the church as worshipers gave voice to their faith. "Emotionalism," Powell explained, was the heart of religious experience. "It is the electric current in the organized Christian Church.  Confine it to batteries, and this wild and frightful something could run our trains, drive our automobiles, and bring New York and South Africa within whispering distance of each other."

In 1920, Powell bought land in Harlem for the church at West 138th St. in 1923; a new church building had been constructed. Powell also built one of the first community recreation centers in Harlem.  He established a social/religious education program, and by the mid-1930s, Abyssinian Baptist Church, declaring 14,000 members, had one of the largest Protestant congregations in America. During the Depression, he campaigned to feed the poor and for better jobs and city services.  Powell, Sr., was actively involved in the struggle against racism, and he lectured on race relations at Colgate University, City College of New York and Union Theological Seminary.

He was a co-founder of the National Urban League, an early leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and one of the organizers of the Silent Protest Parade of 1917. Powell was an advocate of racial pride and believed in education and hard work.  For 29 years, Powell so electrified his congregation and much of Harlem that it was only in 1937, on his third attempt, that the church agreed to let him retire. Powell turned over the pulpit to his son, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who in 1945 became New York's first Black congressman.

Powell Sr. died in 1953, leaving behind a church that endures as one of Harlem's most important institutions.

An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage
by Marvin Andrew McMickle
Judson Press, Copyright 2002
ISBN 0-817014-02-0

Abyssinian Baptist Church

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