Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem has the largest Black congregation in New York City. It is a powerhouse when it comes to houses of worship. It has been since it was founded back in 1808.

“It was to help empower Black people in general to understand that they are fully human," said Rev. S. Rashad Hoggard.  "A group of Ethiopian merchants that were connected to people of faith here in the city of New York, who were denied seating at the first Baptist Church of Manhattan. And they said, ‘Oh no, this could not be the case.’”

Rev. Hoggard is Abyssinian’s executive minister. He explained how free Black Americans and Ethiopian merchants fought back against racism in the church.

“They had the courage not to sit and succumb to those pressures, but rather, through their efforts, go and build their own Abyssinian.”

Abyssinia is the former name of Ethiopia. Before the church moved in 1923 to its current location on West 138th Street in Harlem, it had various locations in Lower Manhattan, including in Greenwich Village, which was also known as “Little Africa” at the time.

One block over on 137th Street in Harlem, there is a very similar story for the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

“Mother Zion began as an anti-slavery institution masquerading as a church," said Pastor Malcolm J. Byrd. "Most churches began for the sake of religious fervor and things of that sort. Not the case for Mother Zion.”

The church was also started in Lower Manhattan. That was in 1796, making it the oldest Black Church in New York state. At the time, slavery was still legal in New York.

Pastor Byrd said Mother AME Zion later became instrumental in helping Blacks escape slavery in the South before the 13th Amendment was ratified. 

“This church was known as the Grand Depot of the Underground Railroad. Scholars have said that nearly 500 to 600 persons of African descent found safe harbor in the cellar of Mother AME Zion Church."

Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass were affiliated with Mother AME Zion.

Fast forward to the fight for civil rights for Blacks in the mid-20th century, Harlem churches were center stage, attracting and supporting many icons in the movement, like Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B Dubois and Paul Robeson.

Abyssinian Baptist Church has had many powerful pastors over the years who combined religion with social activism.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. used the pulpit in that fashion. While he was the pastor, he was also the congressman representing Harlem.

Rev. Calvin Butts fought against crime, drugs, the AIDS epidemic and poverty with the church’s economic arm. He served for more than three decades until his death in 2022.

“You saw as a result of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Social Change. There is a lower school and a high school," said Rev. Hoggard. "You saw thousands of units of affordable housing.”

Harlem is much more racially diverse than it was years ago. 

But many of the issues addressed over the decades by the Black church remain a problem today. At the forefront for these church leaders: Poverty, a lack of affordable housing and education. 

“Our historical significance can never trump our contemporary relevance," said Rev. Hoggard.

“Thirty-nine thousand people in Harlem over the age of 25 don't have GEDs or high school diplomas," explained Pastor Bryd. "We are establishing a GED program right here in this church, partnering with one of our city CUNY community colleges.”

While trying to better the community, some of the Black churches are struggling to fill the pews on Sundays.

“For those persons who have moved into Harlem, how committed are they to ensuring that Mother AME not only stays open, but stays vital and stays healthy?" said Pastor Byrd.

He urged new residents to be supportive and active in helping the Black churches that have been in the Harlem community for a century.