Intracellular membrane fusion is mediated by the concerted action of N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive factor attachment protein receptors (SNAREs) and Sec1/Munc18 (SM) proteins. During fusion, SM proteins bind the N-terminal peptide (N-peptide) motif of the SNARE subunit syntaxin, but the function of this interaction is unknown. Here, using FRET-based biochemical reconstitution and Caenorhabditis elegans genetics, we show that the N-peptide of syntaxin-1 recruits the SM protein Munc18-1/nSec1 to the SNARE bundle, facilitating their assembly into a fusion-competent complex. The recruitment is achieved through physical tethering rather than allosteric activation of Munc18-1. Consistent with the recruitment role, the N-peptide is not spatially constrained along syntaxin-1, and it is functional when translocated to another SNARE subunit SNAP-25 or even when simply anchored in the target membrane. The N-peptide function is restricted to an early initiation stage of the fusion reaction. After association, Munc18-1 and the SNARE bundle together drive membrane merging without further involving the N-peptide. Thus, the syntaxin N-peptide is an initiation factor for the assembly of the SNARE-SM membrane fusion complex.