A bum, a drunkard, a gambler, a gun-toting juvenile delinquent with brass knuckles — Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. walked away from it all to lead one of America's largest churches.

It was a frosty Sunday in December 1930. Throngs filled every seat and aisle in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, forcing an overflow of more than a thousand people to wedge themselves into the downstairs meeting room. The choir music was glorious and the organ thunderous, but the people had all come for one thing — to hear the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.'s sermon.

Powell was an imposing man, six foot three, 190 pounds, with dark bushy hair and a mustache to match. His topic that week was "A Hungry God," and with a deep, sonorous voice, he mesmerized his audience for more than 30 minutes. The topic was timely. Already at the start of that bitter winter, people by the thousands were losing their jobs, and money for food was scarce. For Powell, the imperative was clear: "To feed my sheep." He announced that the church would provide an unemployment relief fund and a free food kitchen, and to begin, he would contribute four months of his salary. Before the sermon was finished, people were pulling money from their pockets to match Powell's pledge.

Powell was born in May of 1865, just two weeks after the end of the Civil War. The child of an African Cherokee slave woman and a Southern slave owner later killed on a Civil War battlefield, Powell was raised by his stepfather, also an ex-slave, who instilled in him the religious beliefs that would drive him to the pulpit of the biggest Protestant church in the country.

A Church Grows in Harlem

But Powell's path to the pulpit was not without detours. By his own account, in his late teens he was "a bum, a drunkard, a gambler, and a juvenile delinquent," who carried a gun and brass knuckles. One Saturday night in a small town in Ohio, a gambling binge cost him his money and his overcoat. The following morning, on this way to gamble again, he stumbled upon a Baptist revival meeting. Not long after, he entered the ministry.

The Abyssinian Baptist Church was celebrating its 100th birthday when Powell became its pastor. It was founded in 1808 by a group of educated, prosperous traders from Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) who were outraged when they were ushered into a church one Sunday and forced to sit in the slave loft. The second-oldest Baptist church in New York City, Abyssinian was also the first Baptist church to be nonsegregated.

In 1923, Powell moved the church to Harlem and a newly constructed building. Under his leadership, the new Abyssinian became more than a house of worship, more than a social center for the Harlem community, more than the largest black church in America. Powell's church symbolized what he called "the social gospel," a message that urged his followers not to wait for reward in the afterlife, but to work aggressively to improve their own lives and their community's social conditions.

Tending His Flock 

Abyssinian's educational program reflected both the spiritual and the social side to Powell's mission. "I want to establish the kingdom of social justice," he said, describing his desire to build the world's largest religious, social, and educational institution. Bible classes were central to the curriculum, but there was also a school of education that offered teacher training, literacy classes, and instruction in dressmaking, nursing, and business. The church also opened a home for retired people who were no longer able to support themselves. Powell even instituted sex-education classes, taught by doctors. To critics he replied: "Why dodge the sex question? It is because of ignorance that so many diseases have spread."

Every day was a busy one at Abyssinian, but Sunday was the busiest. At 6 a.m., the Sunday Morning Praying Band met, followed by Sunday School, the church service, Sunday dinner, meetings of the Women Christian Temperance Union and Baptist Young Peoples Union. An evening service concluded the hectic day. "A good many people stay in church all day; there they take their dinner, cooked and served hot by a special committee," noted one church member.

Services at Abyssinian Baptist Church were joyful events. Spontaneous cries and shouts of "Amen!" "Hallelujah!" and "Praise the Lord!" perpetually punctuated the services and resounded throughout the church as worshippers gave voice to their faith. "Emotionalism," Powell explained, was the heart of religious experience. "It is the electric current in the organized Christian Church. Confine it to batteries, and this wild and frightful something could run our trains, drive our automobiles, and bring New York and South Africa within whispering distance of each other."

For 29 years, Powell so electrified his congregation and much of Harlem that it was only in 1937, on his third attempt, that the church agreed to let him retire. Powell turned over the pulpit to his son, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who in 1945 became New York's first black congressman. Powell Sr. died in 1953, leaving behind a church that endures as one of Harlem's most important institutions.