The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, or the AME Zion Church or AMEZ, is a historically African-American Christian denomination based in the United States. It was officially formed in 1821 in New York City, but operated for a number of years before then.
The origins of this church can be traced to the John Street Methodist Church of New York City. Following acts of overt discrimination in New York (such as black parishioners being forced to leave worship), many black Christians left to form their own churches. The first church founded by the AME Zion Church was built in 1800 and was named Zion; one of the founders was William Hamilton, a prominent orator and abolitionist. These early black churches still belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church denomination, although the congregations were independent. During the Great Awakening, the Methodists and Baptists had welcomed free blacks and slaves to their congregations and as preachers.
The fledgling Zion church grew, and soon multiple churches developed from the original congregation. These churches were attended by black congregants, but ministered to by white ordained Methodist ministers. In 1820, six of the churches met to ordain James Varick as an elder, and in 1821 he was made the first General Superintendent of the AME Zion Church. A debate raged in the white-dominated Methodist church over accepting black ministers. This debate ended on July 30, 1822, when James Varick was ordained as the first bishop of the AME Zion church, a newly independent denomination. The total membership in 1866 was about 42,000. Two years later, it claimed 164,000 members, as it sent missionaries to the South after the American Civil War to plant new churches with the newly emancipated freedmen. The A.M.E. Zion Church had been part of the Abolitionist movement and became known as the Freedom Church because it was associated with the period after the emancipation of the slaves.
Black churches were integral in helping build communities and develop leadership among the freedmen in the South. Later they played an increasingly powerful role in the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. AMEZ remained smaller than the AME (African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination started in Philadelphia in the early 19th century) because some of its ministers lacked the authority to perform marriages, and many of its ministers avoided political roles. Its finances were weak, and in general, its leadership was not as strong as that of the AME. However, it was the leader among all Protestant denominations in ordaining women and giving them powerful roles in the church.
An influential leader bishop was James Walker Hood (1831–1918) of North Carolina. He not only created and fostered his network of AMEZ churches in North Carolina, but he also was the grandmaster for the entire South of the Prince Hall Freemasonry, a secular black fraternal organization that strengthened the political and economic forces inside the black community. Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, North Carolina is named in this bishop’s honor.
In 1924 Cameron Chesterfield Alleyne became the church’s first resident bishop in Africa.