African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
The Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church had its beginning on June 13, 1838 when seventeen persons of color withdrew from the communion of the Methodist Episcopal Church, then located on Joy Street in Boston. This group of Black worshippers wanted more religious freedom and desired to become part parcel of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion connection under the leadership of their own race. Preliminary meetings were held in the home of William Riley on South Street, now Phillips Street on Beacon Hill. Shortly thereafter, they selected a place of worship on Cambridge Street and organized a board of trustees with Solomon Alexander as chairman.
The congregation decided to petition the New York Conference of The A.M.E. Zion Church for a pastor. Joseph Butler was chosen as delegate to the conference. The petition was accepted and Reverend Jehiel Beman became the first pastor on October 5, 1838.
The early church moved from its first place of worship to a rented hall at the corner of North Grove and Cambridge Streets in the West End of the city. At this location the church experienced rapid growth. This required a larger facility; therefore, in 1841 a chapel on North Russell Street was purchased. The “new” church was given the name Rush Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in honor of its connection with the second Bishop.
The Right Reverend Christopher Rush was a dynamic bishop in The A.M.E. Zion Church. The congregation continued in worship at this facility for a period of thirty-seven years. Then came the great migration of Blacks to the South End of the city, so the church decided that they should be relocated to where the people were moving en masse.
In 1903, Pastor J.H. McMullen and the trustees sought after and finally purchased the property at 600 Columbus Avenue, the present site of the church. The edifice, built in 1888 by Temple Adath Israel, was purchased from that congregation for $59,500.00 A placard is affixed near the main entrance, memorializing the Temple’s history. With its twin steeples and rose window in the form of the Star of David, it is “the oldest synagogue building still standing” in Massachusetts.
In May of 1903, the trustees of the new Zion Church sold the property on North Russell Street for $47,00.00 and formally dedicated the new building as Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church on June 7, 1903. The next several years were a period of phenomenal growth under the leadership of the Reverend Benjamin W. Swain, a charismatic person whose fame traversed the city. When he left in 1929, the church had a membership of over 1,400 and a Sunday school of over 560.
Several ministers were pastors of the church before the appointment of Reverend A.A. Perry, who paid off the mortgage in 1944. The next decade was one of significant outreach with exceptional programs of worship and religious education. Unfortunately, urban renewal changed the demographics, which precipitated a decline in membership. This crippled financial resources, necessitating the sale of Columbus Avenue’s Camp Nippenicket in Bridgewater, MA.
The Church’s history includes many notable people.
For many years it was the largest and principal Black church in the city of Boston. In 1903, shortly after moving to Columbus Avenue, the church experienced what was called the “Boston Riot.” The church hosted a debate between Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and William Monroe Trotter, editor and publisher of the “Boston Guardian”. Mr. Trotter, a Black Bostonian, opposed the gradual conservative approach to civil and political rights as promulgated by Mr. Washington. The debate took place on July 3, 1903 and the church was packed with over 2,000 spectators. Shortly after the opening prayer by Pastor McMullen, Washington was introduced. A disturbance then erupted with Trotter eventually being arrested for disturbing the peace.
Eliza Ann Gardner was an early member of the church and a staunch anti-slavery leader in Boston during the 1800’s. She was an abolitionist and toured the anti-slavery circuit with Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner. She shared the platform with the governors of Massachusetts and other New England states. She was also a feminist in the Women’s Movement in Boston. In 1918 at the age of 87, Eliza Gardner wrote the history of her church entitled, “A Historical Sketch of the A.M.E. Zion Church in Boston”. She was instrumental in establishing a school in Africa and a church in North Carolina. It is believed that her home was a station on the Underground Railroad. She died at the age of 91 in 1922, and is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, MA.
In 1973, Reverend Warren M. Brown was appointed pastor and served 19 years, the longest tenure of any former pastor. Reverend Dr. Michael E. Ellis, appointed in 1992, was pastor when Columbus Avenue celebrated its 160th anniversary in 1998, with the renowned Tony Brown as the keynote speaker. In 2006 Reverend Sherman G. Dunmore took over for one year, and was succeeded by Reverend Lloyd W. McKenzie, who served until 2010.
Columbus Avenue is home to one of the oldest pipe organs (Hook and Hastings) in the city of Boston. The 125-year old organ is till in use today.
As a denomination, The A.M.E. Zion Church proudly claims among its historic members early freedom fighters such as Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.
Reverend Gina R. Casey made history in 2010 when she was appointed as the first female pastor of Columbus Avenue. Building upon its rich heritage, she led the charge to renew the church spiritually, restore its physical structure, and reestablished Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church as a significant and Godly presence in the Boston community.
Reverend Kevin D. Coakley, newly appointed pastor (June 2014) of Columbus Avenue Church, serves this great charge with expectations! In keeping with the legacy, he continues with the spiritual restoration, physical restoration, and vital restoration of the Great Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church.