Thursday, February 16, 2017

Explorations in Baptist history: Adam Clayton Powell Senior

Rev Dr Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
In the history of New York City churches, surely the Abyssinian Baptist Church is among the great congregations to rise up and minister to the urban multitudes.  Among their past ministers, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. is among the most visionary, leading the church to move to Harlem to replant the congregation in the midst of the neighborhoods changing rapidly with the influx of African Americans moving into the City as part of the Great Migration in the early 20th century. 

Among those Powell influenced was a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose worldview was reshaped by hearing Powell's sermons and experiencing the ministry of Abyssinian during his brief sojourn in the United States.  Certainly, many biographers connect Powell as a main motivator of Bonhoeffer's decision to return home to Germany as part of the resistance to Hitler and Nazi Germany.  [A more in-depth study of the Bonhoeffer/Abyssinian connection is found in Reggie L. Williams' Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014).] 

Powell was not without his detractors.  In his award-winning book The New Abolition: WEB DuBois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2015), historian Gary L. Dorrien recalls Powell's challenges within the congregation and among his fellow African American Baptist clergy.  Early on, he dealt with a faction of the church that wanted to bring back his predecessor, even going as far as to ensure the provided clergy housing was in a building across from the church and with a working brothel in the apartment above.  The church was resistant to his vision to relocate the church out of mid-town Manhattan, even as Powell rightly predicted the shifts of the City's African American populace to Harlem. 

As part of the social gospel movement of his time, Powell envisioned the church far more engaged in the community and dealing with social needs and challenges.  Holding a meeting for potential stakeholders, Powell found stiff resistance among the one hundred black Baptist leaders, including "one minister [who] delivered a fifteen-minute tirade against the idea of a community center before asking what it was" (Dorrien, 438).  Powell's vision of "a place where the people of the community could learn things and be together" did not match many clergy's vision of the church as a place for evangelism alone.  All but eight of the visiting African American pastors declined further involvement with this project, leaving Powell primarily dependent on partnership with the then predominately Euro American organization the Baptist New York City Mission (presently known as the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, one of the ABCUSA's most diverse Regions).  

Powell would found a food pantry, create programs and grow Abyssinian's presence in Harlem throughout his ministry.  Nonetheless, the lack of support from his fellow pastors must have been painful.  He did not seek further outreach to his black church colleagues for the next eleven years (Dorrien, 438). 

While the social gospel is often associated readily among Baptists with Walter Rauschenbusch's body of writings, Powell incarnated the precepts of a progressive and evangelizing ministry in his many years at Abyssinian.  Perusing the website of Abyssinian's current day ministries and mission, the legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., is well evident (

Powell credited his ministry and pastoral passion to the experience of growing up in difficult circumstances.  At nineteen years old, Powell was living hard and playing hard as a miner in Rendville, Ohio.  A chance encounter with a powerful preacher on a Sunday morning "sent an arrow of conviction to his heart" (Dorrien, 426). He credited his rediscovery of faith as a key element to his rising up from a troubled youth and becoming a pastor. 

Particularly, Powell credited  the mentorship of G. M. P. King, President of the Wayland Seminary and College (later known as Virginia Union University).   Under King's influence, Powell recalled:

"To me, [King] possessed the magnetism of the polestar.  His life radiated beauty, goodness, courage, honesty, truth and love.  These virtues cannot be taught by words.  They can only be imparted by a life which possesses them in abundance." (quoted by Dorrien, p. 427).

Exploring the life and legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., we discover how a good mentor helped a young person connect with the ways that move many, not just the one, forward.  Influenced by such a "polestar", Powell multiplied the gospel message through the many ministries coming out of Abyssinian and into the neighborhoods around Harlem and well beyond. 

NOTE:    For more on the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson conducted years of interviews and a great deal of research to author her Pultizer Prize winning book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration (Random House, 2010). 

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