One of the seven largest black denominations, the AME Zion Church traces its beginnings to 1796, when William Miller, Francis Jacobs, and other African Americans began meeting separately from the white controlled John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. By 1801 these black Methodists had built their own church and incorporated the local congregation. Soon there were two congregations, Zion and Asbury, who as early as 1820 unsuccessfully sought status as a separate conference within the Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1821 Zion, Asbury, and four other northern congregations held the first annual conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (though the nomenclature “Zion” was not officially added until 1848) and became an independent denomination between 1821 and 1824. Zionites played major roles in the antislavery movement, African missions, and movements for political and civil rights for African Americans. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass began public speaking as a Zion preacher, and Harriet Tubman remained with the church until her death.
The Zion Church expanded in decades during and after the Civil War, with the inclusion of many southern blacks, mainly freed people. Membership increased from less than 5,000 in 1860 to approximately 700,000 by 1916. Believing that seeking racial progress was a crucial component of Christian practice, Zionites participated in Reconstruction era government, resisted disfranchisement and segregation, and promoted foreign missions, education, temperance, women’s religious and civil equality, and the twentieth century civil rights movement.
The AME Zion Church supports four colleges and publishes the Star of Zion newspaper and the journal the AME Zion Quarterly Review. Like other major Methodist churches, it has an episcopal government and abides by theology, doctrines, and practices adapted by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, from the Church of England. Organizationally, conferences composed of clergy and laity govern churches locally (quarterly conference), regionally (annual conferences), and nationally and internationally (general conference). The General Conference, meeting quadrennially, is the highest authoritative body, though the Board of Bishops administers the business of the church between general conferences, and it individually and collectively exercises great power. In South Carolina the AME Zion Church was organizationally established in 1867, had three conferences by 1919, and around 1920 became a separate episcopal district. Though South Carolina has many churches in the Zion denomination, North Carolina and Alabama are areas of greater Zion strength.
For God and Race: The Religious and Political Leadership of AMEZ Bishop James Walker Hood. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Walls, William J. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: Reality of the Black Church. Charlotte, N.C.: AME Zion Publishing House, 1974.