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Our History

The Big Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church traces its history to 1842 and the earliest days of Methodism in Mobile. Records exist validating its direct association with each of the two oldest Methodist churches in the city even before its affiliation with the Zion connection.

The original Methodist Society in Mobile was organized in 1826 and designated as the Franklin Street Mission, now the Government Street United Methodist Church, which is ‘Methodism’s Mother Church” in Mobile. Classes were regularly scheduled for Negroes in 1927 and the roll listed forty-seven (47) members. These persons were permitted to worship on Sunday afternoon, but by the 1840’s a few members persistently voiced objection about slaves in the church even for separate services.

Franklin Street Mission, called the “Bee Hive,” because of its activity, prompted Wayne Olan to write,

I am the Bee Hive, I am a downtown church,

I will continue to be strong for I am in the heart of the city

I live to serve; I exist for others; I leave my future to you.

Also beginning in the 1840’s, “swarms” were sent from the congregation to form new societies throughout the city. The first swarm left to form was St. Francis Street Methodist Church. A second swarm left and formed the west ward with became St. Stephens. They assisted in establishing Dauphin Way United Methodist Church.

The third swarm form today’s Big Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Meetings were held in a house on the corner of Church and Dearborn streets. In 1848, efforts were made to purchase the property. Because of the slave status of its members, difficulties were faced but property was eventually purchased and deeded to white trustees.

Shortly after its purchase, the building to the ground and worship was held in Burden’s Mill at St. Francis and Wilkerson Street. Subsequently, the congregation was permitted to hold services at the Medical College (now Dunbar School of Performing Arts) on St. Anthony and Lawrence Street. It was here that its first quarterly conference was held. During this experience, Bishop Joseph Jackson Clinton of the A.M.E. Zion Church persuaded the worshippers of the merits of affiliation with the Zion connection.

In 1860, a lot was purchased at the northeast corner of Bayou and Church streets from Henry Turner. A shed building was erected which served as the worship center. This property was also deeded to the Methodist charge. Charles Lee, a local preacher, pastored while they worshipped in the shed.

In 1865, Ferdinand Smith was ordained by Bishop Joseph Clinton of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. He was the first colored ordained minister by a colored Bishop in the state of Alabama. On July 29, of the same year, he was authorized to take charge of the church. Bishop William J. Walls wrote in The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Reality of the Black Church, “that the Alabama Conference was organized in a dangerous period for Blacks in the South.” Rev. Ferdinand Smith, the first minister of Little Zion Church in Mobile, was arrested and sent to the penitentiary of that state for refusing to bow to the authority of a rebel preacher. He pastored until 1867 at which time Rev. Edmund Douglas Taylor became pastor.

An 1867 document tells of a July 8 resolution passed by the St. Frances Street Methodist Church in Quarterly Conference authorizing the white trustees for the Bayou Street property to deed to trustees of the Zion Church said deeds. Listed trustees were James B. Gibbs, Stephens Richardson, Jacob Powell, Wilson Solomon, Buck Mitchell, and Richard Matthews.

On January 7, 1868, Rev. Taylor received the transfer of deeds from the former white trustee. This transition officially brought the church into the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church as Little Zion A.M.E. Zion Church. A brick two-story building was erected with central steeple and a one-story parsonage was constructed next door during Rev. Taylor’s tenure. Statements first credit Rev. Taylor for much of the carpentry work on those buildings even to the hand carved molding still in evidence throughout the church.

From 1875-1885 Rev. Samuel Wilson and Rev. William Spencer each served five-year terms followed for six years by Rev. Andrew J. Warner who later elected a bishop in the A.M.E. Zion Church. Next, for two years, was Rev. H. R. Gaines. He was followed by Rev. Charles H. Smith, 1893 – 1899. Between 1896-1899 church up grading and remolding was done including the present façade and the corner steeple. It was during Rev. Smith’s administration that the name was changed to Big Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church which was considered more in keeping with its size and community involvement.

From 1899 – 1904 Rev. Richard A. Morrisey served. A new pipe organ and the stained-glass windows were installed. The edifice by 1904 had been completely and beautifully remodeled, membership had increased by 500 making the total membership 1400.

During the pastorate of Rev. A. J. Rogers, the exterior dual side approaches to the second floor were revamped to give access to the main sanctuary. The impressive arches were renovated, and electric fans were installed.

In December 1908, Rev. Lynwood W. Kyles became pastor. He served until 1914 and was elected secretary of the Ministers and Laymen’s Association. He is credited with having built the beautiful and imposing parsonage adjacent to the church. It was at that time proclaimed to be the finest and most conveniently arranged parsonage owned by Negroes in the United States.

Oher pastors followed and made outstanding contributions to the history of the church and Zion. Rev. G. W. Johnson served from 1914-21. He labored in the interest of the historic charge. The concrete basement floor was laid during his tenure. He was succeeded by Rev. J. R. White in 1921-1925.

Dr. F. W. Riley followed Rev. White in 1915. The additional lot directly behind the church extending to Jefferson Street was purchased during his sojourn here.

Rev. F. W. Gregory was appointed 1931-32; followed by Rev. R. A. Garvin 1933-34; Rev. R. H. Collins 1934-35; Dr. William Bascom 1935-36; Rev. D. G. Garland 1936 -37; Rev. A Ellison 197-41.

Rev. Felix S. Anderson was pastor from 1941-48 and was later elevated to the office of Bishop and was consecrated in May of 1960.

In 1948, Rev. William M. Smith began a pastorate which continued until his 1960 election to the episcopacy. His administration as pastor is credited with the installation of the public address system, complete renovation of the pipe organ, installation of central heating/air system in the parsonage, improving the restroom facilities at the church and the spiritual and civic involvement of the church. Bishop Smith rose to the position of Senior Bishop of the connectional and maintained his membership at Big Zion.

Rev. Smith was followed by Rev. James W. Wactor who was appointed in 1960. He served until 1964. He was elected Bishop in 1972 at the General Conference convening in Mobile and hosted by Big Zion Church.

Rev. Marshall H. Strickland became pastor in 1964 succeeding Rev. Wactor at a special ceremony on July 7, 1968. Big Zion was presented the historic plaque from the Mobile Historic Development Commission designating this landmark a historic site.

On May 3-12, 1972, the Thirty-ninth Quadrennial Session of the General Conference of the A.M.E. Zion Church convened in Mobile hosted by Big Zion. Seven bishops were elected and consecrated during this session.

Rev. Strickland served until June 30, 1972 and was then appointed to the helm of Pennsylvania Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

Rev. Thurman H. Murphy was assigned pastor of Big Zion in July of 1972. A highlight of his tenure was paying in full a previous mortgage in May of 1974. He served through October of 1975.

Rev. Walter Robert Johnson, III became pastor in 1975 and remained at the helm until July of 1981. It was during his pastorate the church purchased a van which provided a service to the bus minister, a lot on the corner of Jefferson and Church was purchased. The parsonage received a complete renovation and refurbishing. The heating and air system was updated. The Peters/Patton donated and provided for the installation of a church elevator. The educational addition was constructed at a cost of $400,00. This facility provided needed space for the various ministries of the church and was also the office of the Episcopal District during Bishop William M. Smith while he served the denomination as Senior Bishop. Rev. Johnson was subsequently elected General Secretary-Auditor of the A.M.E. Zion Church following his tenure at Big Zion.

In October of 1981, Rev. Milton A. Williams was appointed pastor of Big Zion. He launched a spiritual revival as his beginning. An early morning prayer circle was organized in 1982. It met each Sunday morning at 8 O’clock prior to the opening of Sunday School. A Saturday Ethic School geared to youth involvement and community outreach was also begun. Rev. Williams was elected bishop during the 43rd Quadrennial Session of the A.M.E. Zion Church which convened in Charlotte, North Carolina, August 1988.

Rev. Alexander L. Jones, Sr. succeeded Rev. Williams as Big Zion’s pastor in August of 1988. At the time of his appointment, he was pastoring Jackson Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Hempstead, New York, He was also a commissioned mayor in the United States Air Force Reserve. He served until 1992.

Rev. Richard C. Chapple succeeded Rev. Jones in 1992 and pastored until 1997. During his tenure, Big Zion hosted the 115th Annual Session of the West Alabama Conference in 1996. Big Zion was also selected to host the Conference observances associated with the Bicentennial celebration of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Rev. E. Eugene Parker became pastor in November 1997. He served a period of four years. He introduced the “Evening with the Masters,” an annual fund raising event. During this administration, the mortgage was liquidated. The mass choir of Big Zion journeyed to Sacramento, California in April 1999 and was featured in concert at Kyles Temple A.M.E. Zion Church, initiated by Rev. Parker.

Rev. Sherman Lewis followed Rev. Parker as pastor in November of 2001. He ushered in the 21st century and urged the Big Zion congregation to prepared for the challenges which are ahead. The Mortgage Burning Ceremony was held and presided over by Bishop Richard K. Thompson, presiding prelate of the West Alabama Conference. Big Zion again hosted the 121st Annual Session of the West Alabama Conference in November 2002 and on March 15, 2002, the Mobile City Council recognized Big Zion as one of eight African American Churches designated as “Towers of Faith.”

Rev. Ronald V. Butler was assigned to the helm of Big Zion in November of 2007. With a mind to work, the Board of Trustees itemized a list of upgrading projects for the church properties. Spiritual concerns were considered first priorities and Mr. Nathaniel Robinson acknowledged his call and applied for Exhorter’s license on Rev. Butler’s watch. Rev. Butler served until November 2010.

In November 2010, Rev. Winston Prescott succeeded Rev. Butler as Big Zion’s pastor. He proclaimed a “New Vision” for this charge. Church property was upgraded with playground equipment to enhance children’s church activities. The “Fence Me In” project was launched which provided protection and security of the grounds around the church.

The Quarterly Love Feast, conducted by the Deaconess Board, was re-instituted. Rev. Prescott served one year and did not accept a second-year appointment. Bishop James McCoy appointed Rev. James H. Taylor, Sr., interim pastor of Big Zion following Rev. Prescott’s departure. The Church kept its focus under Rev. Taylor’s leadership and the fellowship of Big Zion’s laity.

By March 2012, Bishop McCoy had decided to appoint Rev. C. Vincent Parker, Big Zion’s pastor. Projects previously designated were ongoing. Rev. Milton Williams, Jr., son of the church and son of the former pastor, Bishop Milton A. Williams, Sr., was the evangelist for the scheduled revival.

Rev. James H. Christian began his tenure at Big Zion in 2013 as the 38th pastor. His administration followed the path of those before him. His charismatic leadership coupled with the love of Christ and Christ’s people kept him grounded. Rev. Christian was a visionary leader who lived by the motto, “Look to the hills from whence cometh our help…all our help comes from the Lord. Rev. Christian served 2013-2016.

In November 2016, Bishop Seth O. Lartey appointed Rev. Michael G. Davis to the pastorate of Big Zion. He served one year using as his platform, “making disciples.” Choosing not to accept the appointment at the Annual Conference in 2017, Rev. Ronald Butler was appointed for a second term. He served from 2017-2021 and retired from active pastoral ministry. During his second term, Rev. Butler maintained the position of Presiding Elder of the Mobile District as well as Big Zion’s pastor. He was intentional about maintaining the property of the church. He is credited with the restoration of the parsonage during the latter part of his tenure and bringing it up to code. During Covid – 19, Rev. Butler adapted the innovative methods of conducting Bible Study, worship and the business meetings of Big Zion and the District. ZOOM, Facebook, and other catchwords became the language of the day.

Rev. Titus Thorn, Big Zion’s current spiritual leader, received his appointment from Bishop George D. Crenshaw, Presiding Bishop in November of 2021. He also serves the Mobile district as Presiding Elder. Recognizing Big Zion’s history as a “Tower of Faith” in the heart of Mobile since 1842, Rev. Thorn is stationed to take Big Zion to the next level. Moving forward is the goal! We are BIG Zion. We believe in God!

Rev. Thorn is involved in the community affairs and has become active with the ministerial alliance of the city. Through his efforts and connections, Rev. Thorn has teamed Big Zion with the Molecular Institute Testing Group to become a Covid-19 test site.

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