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Williams, Peter, Sr.(c. 1755–1823) - Religious leader, Buys Freedom, Founds African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Chronology

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Under Dutch rule, black slaves in New Amsterdam, the present site of New York City, had the right to own property and other legal protections. Similarly, there were no restrictions on free blacks based on race. However, after the British captured the colony, the atmosphere deteriorated for all African Americans. New York began to subject slaves to the cruel and repressive conditions present in the South. After the Revolutionary War, American groups organized religious denominations that were completely separate from their European counterparts. In the South many churches did not allow slaves to assemble for religious services, but many of those in the North created segregated worship facilities. Given this situation, Peter Williams Sr. founded the first African American church in New York.

Williams was one of ten children born to George and Diana Williams. His parents were slaves of James Aymar, a prominent tobacconist who lived on Beekman Street in New York City. Since he took his first breath in his slave owner’s barn, Williams often remarked that he was born in a place as lowly as that of Jesus. Aymar encouraged the youth to attend religious services at Wesley Chapel on John Street in New York City, the first Methodist Episcopal Church in the city. From his place in the slave gallery, Williams listened to white clergy preach and developed into a devout and pious Methodist. While still a slave, the young man worked as sexton of the church. Church records from 1778 note that Williams received payment for his labor. It was in that same chapel that he met and married Mary Durham, an indentured servant from St. Kitts in the West Indies.

Buys Freedom

Taking the young couple with him, Aymar, a British loyalist, left New York to avoid the American revolutionaries. Their only child Peter Jr. was born around 1780 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Three years later Aymar decided to move to England. Unlike his master, Williams was a devoted nationalist. The young father contacted the officials at John Street Church, and in 1783, at Williams’ request, Aymar sold the Williams family to the John Street Methodist Church, the successor to Wesley Chapel, for £40. The arrangement required him to repay the money to the church. The Williams family moved in the basement of the parsonage. While the young man worked as the church sexton and undertaker, his wife Mary, affectionately known as Molly, worked as cook and maid for the single ministers in the area. Williams’ hard work and gentility earned the respect of the white Methodists. From his experiences working in his former master’s shop, he had learned the tobacco business. When not occupied with church duties, the young man made and sold cigars. Using the money he earned, Williams paid installments on his debt to the church. His first payment was a gold watch, probably earned through a special service he rendered. Church records affirm that on November 4, 1785, Williams completed that last of his promised payments and as a result, he became a free man. Although the arrangement seems curious, black men and women in New York had a tradition of purchasing their freedom and then buying the liberty of relatives. For reasons unknown, despite the fact that Williams paid for his freedom in 1785, it was not until October 20, 1796 that he received his formal certificate of freedom. The paper symbolized his enduring stance as an abolitionist and as a patriot. Until his death, Williams considered that event as one of the most joyful days of his life.

With entrepreneurial spirit, Williams opened a tobacco business. The success of his venture enabled him to buy a house in 1808. There the tobacconist traded tobacco and made cigars in a shed behind his home. Although he could not read or write, Williams was a stanch supporter of education. He provided his son, Peter Williams Jr., the opportunity to attend the New York African Free School run by the Manumission Society. Later, his son became the first rector of St. Philip’s Church, the earliest African American Episcopal parish in New York City.

In the early days, John Street Methodist Episcopal Church seemed devoted to saving the souls of its black worshipers. However, as black members of the church became more numerous, better educated and more sophisticated, they became more dissatisfied with their treatment. Blacks had to wait until whites received communion before they were served. There were pews set aside in the back for black members. The church did not permit blacks to be ordained as ministers. Frustration grew as the contradiction between post-revolution discussions of civil liberties and the demeaning, inequitable practices inflicted on black worshipers became more evident. Led by Peter Williams, a number of African American members decided in 1795 to break away from John Street Church.

Founds African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

In August 1796, the dissidents petitioned Bishop Francis Asbury for authorization to hold separate services. After Asbury granted permission in August 1796, the group rented a house on Cross Street between Mulberry and Orange Streets. Under the leadership of Williams, James Varick, Francis Jacobs and others, the dissidents established the African Methodist Episcopal Church in October 1796. The first church, called Zion, was built in 1800 on the corner of Church and Leonard Streets. To avoid confusion with a similar African Methodist Episcopal (AME) group, the name of the church was added to the denominational name, resulting in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) designation. In 1800 or 1801, the congregation gave Williams the honor of laying the cornerstone. The church charter, which bore Williams’ signature, noted that he was a duly elected trustee.


c. 1755

Born in New York, New York


Works as sexton at John Street Church


Sold by master to John Street Church


Purchases his freedom from John Street Church


Leads split from John Street Church


Establishes African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; receives certificate of freedom


Registers church charter


Dies, probably in New York City, in February

The schism developed into a movement. Eventually, virtually every white denomination had a corresponding black sect. More than merely freeing blacks from the indignities they encountered in white churches, the establishment of black churches played a critical and comprehensive role in the lives of its members. Black churches furnished a center for anti-slavery efforts, social interaction, and charitable support. They provided a safe haven for slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad. Most importantly perhaps, black churches provided opportunity to develop black leaders with necessary organizational skills.

Williams died in February 1823, presumably in New York City. The original African Methodist Episcopal Zion was later known as Mother AME Zion Church. The present structure, built in 1923–25, is located at 146 W 137th Street in New York City. George W. Foster Jr., one of the first registered black architects, designed the Neo-Gothic structure. Continuing Peter Williams’ legacy, the parishioners are politically active and committed to caring for less fortunate members of the community. Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination claims about 1,200,000 national and international members.

Williams, Spencer, Jr. (1893–1969) [next] [back] Williams, Peter, Jr.(c. 1780–1840) - Minister, orator, writer, abolitionist, Organizes African American Episcopalians, Chronology

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over 6 years ago

Peter Williams,Sr

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over 3 years ago

Why is there no mention of AME Zion as the Freedom Church in this narrative. No mention of those early pioneers (members of Zion) who were freedom fighters.