A brick church building during the day, with several different roof lines including a spire in the center

St. Paul AME Church

Founded in 1873, the St. Paul AME Church has fostered the city's resilient spirit for generations.


An active place of worship with a long history, St. Paul African Methodist Church is located within the Lincolnville neighborhood of St. Augustine’s Historic Downtown. This church hosts regular events — from worship and study meetings to gospel concerts and art showings.

History of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in America

St. Paul AME Church, a church in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, first held services here in 1873. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church) is the oldest denomination founded in America and the first founded on the grounds of racial freedom instead of theological freedom. Today the AME Church is in 39 countries and five continents.

The AME Church grew out of the Free African Society (FAS). Founding Society members Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were two lay preachers and former slaves who staged a walkout of the St. George's United Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 1786. Their evangelistic efforts had resulted in an immense increase of Black members in the congregation. While the Methodist denomination was largely seen as progressive and accepting of free and enslaved Black people, the congregants of St. George's had attempted to segregate their Black brothers and sisters in the church's balcony.

A black and white illustration of a bust of Richard Allen — well dressed older Black man.
Richard Allen (1760-1831) is known as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One November morning in 1786, tensions rose. When the ushers tried to remove Absalom Jones while they were kneeling during a prayer, St. George's Black congregants walked out of Sunday service. The group went on to establish Bethel AME Church, now called Mother Bethel, in Philadelphia in 1794. After another 30 years of lawsuits and calls to action, Richard Allen was ordained as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816.

Over time, the church hierarchy developed based on the Methodist and Episcopal denominations. Nowadays, AME churches are structured much like the American Congress. There are 20 regional districts, each headed up by a bishop. Assisting the bishops are presiding elders, who are appointed to supervise preachers within presiding elder districts.

Bishops and clergy can only serve until they're 75 years old. With the recommendations from the presiding elders, bishops appoint or re-appoint local pastors on an annual basis. Every four years, a worldwide election is held for the bishops themselves. Therefore, AME pastors are always under evaluation and can be replaced or relocated. This prevents the congregation from fixating on a fallible human leader.

History of African Methodism in Florida

Nearly 100 years after the AME Church was founded, the American Civil War ended. The time period that followed (now referred to as Reconstruction, for the literal and figurative reconstruction that happened across the country) was tumultuous, to say the least. However, the Confederate states having been reabsorbed into the Union also presented an opportunity to the AME Church. With the support of Union military forces, members of the AME Church began to travel south to evangelize to people who had recently been freed from enslavement.

During those years, the AME Church population grew exponentially — reaching more than 400,000 congregants by 1880. It was during this Reconstruction Period that the AME denomination took root in St. Augustine.

Because the city was occupied by the Union during the war, St. Augustine's Black citizens who were formerly enslaved had been freed in 1862 with the Emancipation Proclamation. However, missionaries from the AME Church did not establish any churches whilst Florida was still controlled by the Confederacy.

In the following years, however, their evangelization was quick and effective. After the Confederacy surrendered in April of 1865, AME Church officials organized the first South Carolina Conference. During their first meeting in Charleston, the church decided to begin ministry in Georgia and Florida as soon as possible, and the Reverend William G. Stewart (sometimes spelled Steward) was Florida's first ordained AME minister.

a black and white photo of an older black man in a suit and tie, circas 1880s he is bearded with short hair
On June 10th 1865, William G. Steward founded Midway AME Church, which was the first independent Black church in Florida. He later served a term in the Florida Legislature. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

On June 8th of 1867 in Tallahassee, the Florida Annual Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized, and shortly after it was divided into two conferences, Florida and West Florida. Along with spiritual pursuits, the early AME Church in Florida was politically active, always advocating for policies that supported racial equality.

Through much toil, the AME Church founded a few churches and schools across Florida. According to author Larry Eugene Rivers, "the AME Church was the single most effective organizational force for Florida's Black residents" during the Reconstruction Period.

History of St. Augustine's St. Paul AME Church

Founded on June 4th, 1873, St. Paul AME Church has fostered the resilient spirit of St. Augustine for generations. The church's original gathering place was a 10' by 12' space on the southernmost edges of St. Augustine's 'Little Africa' neighborhood (now known as the Lincolnville Historic District) near the banks of the Maria Sanchez Creek.

St. Paul AME Church's founding pastor was Reverend Richard James, who erected the first building at the end of Riberia Street. Rev. James and his growing congregation (almost all of whom were former slaves) worshiped in that wooden building for more than a decade. Growth was slow-going at first. A majority of the Black residents in St. Augustine were staunchly Roman Catholic. St. Paul AME only had 16 members in 1875.

However, as Florida's tourism economy grew throughout the 1870s and 1880s, membership began to swell. Black laborers moved to the state searching for work and accepting communities. In 1880, the AME Church had 40,000 members nationwide.

Despite the successes of the AME Church in Florida, America would take another half-century to understand the meaning of “freedom.” Southern states clung to absurd Jim Crow laws for cheap labor, while brave Black people from all walks of life demanded equality. As a result, Florida became one of the most lynch-prone states.

Flagler Boom and Bust

Ponce de Leon vintage postcard
Henry Flagler's projects in Florida, chiefly the opening of the Ponce de Leon Hotel, changed life for all of St. Augustine's citizens. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

Then came 1888 — a chaotic year in Northeast Florida. First, on January 12th, Henry Flagler opened his Ponce de Leon Hotel (now home to Flagler College). Flagler's business ventures in St. Augustine attracted droves of northern tourists and businessmen to the Ancient City, drastically increasing its population.

In the midst of the boom, the St. Paul AME congregation, under Reverend J. H. Hill, was convinced to join the city-wide facelift. St. Paul agreed to a mortgage with a local building and loan association to build a masonry church on School Street. This building was further north than the first — in the center of the Lincolnville neighborhood.

A black and white drawing of a masonry building. A central bell tower at the entrance.
The masonry church that was St. Paul's second location stood on School Street in the Lincolnville neighborhood from 1888 to around 1910. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

In late 1888, tragedy struck. A yellow fever epidemic wracked the citizens of Jacksonville and St. Augustine, causing many residents to flee the region altogether, while others across the state, including many AME congregants, risked their lives nursing the victims of the fever. Throughout the Gilded Era (a term used to describe the late 1800s in America) St. Paul AME Church continued its mission of worship, community building, and activism while also paying off their $3,000 mortgage on their new church.

However, as the congregants say "God had not promised sunshine without the rain," and in 1903, this phrase became a stark reality. One day, while the Sunday School was still in session, agents of the building and loan association ordered the participants to leave the building. The masonry church on School Street had been repossessed from the St. Paul AME Church.

The masonry church on School Street was later taken down. A house now occupies that land.

St. Paul AME Church's Current Location is Born

The altar and baptismal font in St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine, Florida.
The altar and baptismal font in the beautiful St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine, Florida.

After being evicted from their second location, those who were dedicated to the St. Paul AME Church continued to worship in various locations around town. Despite being a different denomination, the St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church allowed their Protestant neighbors to gather for worship on their land next to the church.

A stained glass window in St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine, Florida.

After a year of transient worship, County Commissioner William Van Dyke — the first Black official elected in St. Johns County — sold a parcel of land on Central Avenue (now M. L. King Avenue) to the St. Paul AME Church. St. Paul’s Reverend E.F. Williams immediately led a drive to construct a new, debt-free St. Paul. The board of trustees for the project included brick masons, carpenters, and stained-glass artisans. Members and supporters donated time, labor and money. In eight months, they erected the attractive brick building that St. Paul AME Church has called home for more than a century.

During this period of construction, the St. Paul congregants rallied around the idea of re-naming the church "New St. Paul AME" to honor the new hope that the project instilled. The words "New St. Paul" were even inscribed in a stained-glass window above the main entrance. However, this name was never approved.

At the ground-breaking ceremony Reverend Williams prayed, “Upon this spot God’s Church is built and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Rev. Williams served the congregation for only four and a half years but has forever blessed St. Paul AME with his contributions.

The ceiling of the St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine. All white with dark wood beams in the shape of wheel spokes.
The ceiling in St. Paul's is designed to look like the spokes of a wheel. The architecture is a reference to a vision that came to the Prophet Ezekiel, which inspired the spiritual "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel." The Chorus of the song says: "And the big wheel run by Faith, good Lord / And the little wheel run by the Grace of God" The dual-layered cosmogram of a wheel represents the ever-moving and interconnections of our universe. In the context of Black History in America, the wheel is a poignant image, as well.

Quick Look: WPA Survey of St. Paul AME Church

During his presidency (between the years of 1933 and 1939), Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented a series of federal programs that worked to boost the economy during the Great Depression. Perhaps the most well-known of these programs was the Work's Progress Administration (WPA), which employed more than 8.5 million men and women, according to PBS. These federally supported workers (tradesmen and artists alike) built public spaces and infrastructure and supported public cultural projects.

In 1937, representatives of the WPA conducted historical record surveys in St. Augustine. This involved collecting data on historically significant places in the city. One of these surveys was recorded for St. Paul AME and is now available on FloridaMemory.com.

The WPA record shows how active the St. Paul AME Church congregation has remained over 150 years. The record documented the church's past and stated that in 1937, St. Paul AME had several active organizations, including a Sunday School, Women's Missionary Society, and the Allen Christian Endeavor League. 

St. Paul AME Church and the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine

A handwritten flyer that advertises MLK speaking at St. Paul AME. At the top is a cosmogram of sorts in which AMERICA is in the center with diagonal lines connecting it to other words like 'Jobs' 'Education' 'Justice' and 'Employment' underneath it says Mass Meeting Monday- May 18, 1964 at 8:00pm St. Paul AME Church St. Augustine, Fla Dr. Martin L. King - Speaker
This flyer, provided to VisitStAugustine by the St. Paul AME Church, includes an advertisement for a speech at St. Paul by Dr. Martin L. King. The diagram at the top of the images highlights the core missions of Dr. King and other Civil Rights Activists. 

During the Civil Rights Era of St. Augustine's history, 1963-1964 was an especially active year — a hot one, some would call it. After tensions had mounted between White and Black citizens, local activist groups called on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their powerhouse leader, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He heeded the call and quickly began organizing in the Ancient City.

St. Paul AME Church became a meeting place for local activists, who welcomed Dr. King, and Dr. Andrew Young and attended the  “Freedom School,” which was hosted by King and Young. Demonstrators began and ended their courageous nightly marches at the AME church. During their demonstrations, activists encountered much vandalism and many physical assaults. Amazingly (or, perhaps, predictably), no local deaths were officially recorded. The demonstrations in St. Augustine were the final catalyst to the Civil Rights Act being passed in 1964.

Dr. King spoke at multiple local churches and he spoke several times at St. Paul. In fact, St. Paul is the only church in Florida where Dr. King actually preached from the pulpit before leading a demonstration. A few living local residents and church members remember that night well.

Many activists and icons spoke at St. Paul during the Civil Rights Movement and after the passing of the Civil Rights Act — including baseball legend Jackie Robinson, local organizer (& church member) Dr. Robert B. Hayling, and even Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress.

Shirley Chisolm posing with congregants from St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine, Florida.
After the Civil Rights Movement, the St. Paul AME Church and St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church collaborated to host Representative Shirley Chisholm. Left to right: James Tucker (former city employee), Richard White (former City Commissioner and North City jazz club owner), Shirley Chisholm, and John Jackson. Image courtesy of St. Paul AME Church.

As in many other cities, St. Augustine has a street named after Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, it is one of the few streets in the country that bear his name that he actually marched down. In 1985, congregants of St. Paul rallied the city commission to have Central Avenue renamed M.L.K. Avenue in honor of Dr. King, who stayed at homes and spoke at churches along that and neighboring streets.

Visiting the St. Paul AME Church 

Monday - Thursday9:00 AM to 1:00 PMWeekly Office Hours
Sunday9:00 AM 
10:45 AM
Church School "Bible Discovery Hour" 
Sunday Worship Service
Wednesday12:00 PM 
6:00 PM
Wednesday Noon Prayer 
Real Talk Bible Study

The church is located at 85 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. All St. Paul AMEC worship, prayer, study, and fellowship events have options for those who want to attend virtually. Visit their website www.saintpaulfamily.com to find these resources or call (904) 829-3918.