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On this date in 1808, we celebrate the founding of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.
19th century Black Americans along with a group of Ethiopian merchants were unwilling to accept racially segregated seating of the First Baptist Church of New York City and withdrew forever their membership. Determined to organize their own church, they established themselves in a building in Harlem on Anthony Street (later Worth Street), calling it the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The name was inspired by the nation from which the merchants of Ethiopia had come, Abyssinia.
The Rev. Thomas Paul, a minister from Boston, aided the new congregation in becoming organized as the First African American Baptist Church in the state of New York. In 1856, the Rev. William Spellman began to serve as its pastor. During his tenure from 1856 to 1885, the membership increased to 1,600, and money was used to purchase of church building on Waverly Place. Following Spellman's retirement, the Rev. Robert. D. Wynn of Norwich, Connecticut came to serve the church. For 16 years he led a congregation that continued to increase in numbers and gaining more financial stability. Shortly after the turn of the century, The Rev. Dr. Charles Satchell Morris, who in later years became a missionary to South Africa, succeeded Robert Wynn as its minister. From 1902 until his health failed in 1908, Morris led in a brilliant manner.
The Waverly Place house of worship was sold and a church and an apartment house on Fortieth Street were brought. In 1908, the Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., from Immanuel Baptist Church of New Haven, Connecticut, came as minister. By the spring of 1920, Abyssinian had purchased lots on 138th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues where the groundbreaking for construction of the present Abyssinian structure took place on April 9, 1922. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., succeeded his father at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, serving as pastor from 1937 until 1971.
Powell was a city councilman; elected in 1941, a congressman of the 22nd District, elected in 1944 and serving for 14 terms in the House of Representatives; and as a pastor, young Powell and the church were a part of the Black Revolution. The church's kitchen and relief operation fed and clothed thousands of Harlem's needy during the Depression.
The Rev. Powell, Jr., retired in 1971 and died in 1972. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Th.D., came to the church in 1972 after a distinguished career as an educational administrator, teacher, and public servant.
Under Proctor, the church became aligned denominationally with the American Baptist Churches, USA, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Through these denominational affiliations, the church is linked to the work of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. These organizations address the problems of oppressed people and social issues at home in tangible ways through regular contributions to such agencies as the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP, and the Legal Defense Fund, Inc.
Samuel DeWitt Proctor was responsible for the formation of the Abyssinian Development Corporation in 1986. Upon Dr. Proctor's retirement in 1989, the church leadership came to Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, and a highly-skilled administrator. Abyssinian continues to move forward in faith.
An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage
by Marvin Andrew McMickle
Judson Press, Copyright 2002