Religion in Black America

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This article is about religious practices of African-Americans in the United States. For religious practices elsewhere in the Americas, see Afro-American religion.

Religion in Black America refers to the religious and spiritual practices of blacks and people of African descent in the United States. Historians generally agree that the religious life of Black Americans "forms the foundation of their community life."[1] Before 1775 there was scattered evidence of organized religion among blacks in the American colonies. The Methodist and Baptist churches became much more active in the 1780s, and growth was quite rapid for the next 150 years until they covered a majority of the people. After Emancipation, Freedmen organized their own churches, chiefly Baptist, followed by Methodists. Other Protestant denominations, and Catholics, played smaller roles. By 1900 the Pentecostal and Holiness movements were important, and later the Jehovah Witnesses. The Nation of Islam added a Muslim factor in the 20th century. Powerful pastors often played prominent roles in politics, as typified by Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and numerous others.

Women in a Pentecostal worship service.

Colonial era[edit]

By the 1770s, no more than 1% of the blacks in the United States were connected to organized churches. The numbers grew rapidly after 1789. The Anglican Church had made a systematic effort to proselytize, especially in Virginia. and they spread information about Christianity, and the ability to read the Bible, without making many converts.[2]

Some Africans brought traditional practices, especially regarding magic. No organized African religious practices are known to have taken place in the Thirteen Colonies, but there was a surreptitious or underground practice of magic. In the mid 20th century scholars debated whether there were distinctive African elements embedded in black American religious practices, as in music and dancing. Scholars no longer look for such cultural transfers regarding religion.[3]

Black religious music is distinct from traditional European religious music; it uses dances, ring shouts and emphasizes emotion and repetition more intensely.[4]

Many white clergy within evangelical Protestantism actively promoted the idea that all Christians were equal in the sight of God, a message that provided hope and sustenance to oppressed slaves.

Helped by the First Great Awakening and numerous itinerant self-proclaimed missionaries, by the 1760s Baptists were drawing Virginians, especially poor white farmers, into a new, much more democratic religion. Slaves were welcome at the services and a few Baptist congregations contained as many as 25% slaves.

Formation of churches[edit]

Scholars disagree about the extent of the native African content of Black Christianity as it emerged in 18th-century America, but there is no dispute that the Christianity of the Black population was grounded in evangelicalism.[5]

Central to the growth of community among blacks was the Black church, usually the first community institution to be established. Starting around 1800 with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and other churches, the Black church grew to be the focal point of the Black community. The Black church- was both an expression of community and unique African-American spirituality, and a reaction to discrimination. The church also served as neighborhood centers where free black people could celebrate their African heritage without intrusion by white detractors. The church also the center of education. Since the church was part of the community and wanted to provide education; they educated the freed and enslaved Blacks. Seeking autonomy, some blacks like Richard Allen (bishop) founded separate Black denominations.[6]

The Second Great Awakening (1800–20s) has been called the "central and defining event in the development of Afro-Christianity."[7]

Free blacks also established Black churches in the South before 1860. After the Great Awakening, many blacks joined the Baptist Church, which allowed for their participation, including roles as elders and preachers. For instance, First Baptist Church and Gillfield Baptist Church of Petersburg, Virginia, both had organized congregations by 1800 and were the first Baptist churches in the city.[8]

Preaching[edit]

Raboteau describes a common style of black preaching first developed in the early nineteenth century, and common throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries:

The preacher begins calmly, speaking in conversational, if oratorical and occasionally grandiloquent, prose; he then gradually begins to speak more rapidly, excitedly, and to chant his words and time to a regular beat; finally, he reaches an emotional peak in which the chanted speech becomes tonal and merges with the singing, clapping, and shouting of the congregation.[9]

Many Americans interpreted great events in religious terms. Historian Wilson Fallin contrasts the interpretation of Civil War and Reconstruction in white versus black Baptist sermons in Alabama. White Baptists expressed the view that:

God had chastised them and given them a special mission – to maintain orthodoxy, strict biblicism, personal piety, and traditional race relations. Slavery, they insisted, had not been sinful. Rather, emancipation was a historical tragedy and the end of Reconstruction was a clear sign of God's favor.

In sharp contrast, Black Baptists interpreted the Civil War, emancipation and Reconstruction as:

God's gift of freedom. They appreciated opportunities to exercise their independence, to worship in their own way, to affirm their worth and dignity, and to proclaim the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Most of all, they could form their own churches, associations, and conventions. These institutions offered self-help and racial uplift, and provided places where the gospel of liberation could be proclaimed. As a result, black preachers continued to insist that God would protect and help him; God would be their rock in a stormy land.[10]

Black sociologist Benjamin Mays analyzed the content of sermons in the 1930s and concluded:

They are conducive to developing in the Negro a complacent, laissez-faire attitude toward life. They support the view that God in His good time and in His own way will bring about the conditions that will lead to the fulfillment of social needs. They encourage Negroes to feel that God will see to it that things work out all right; if not in this world, certainly in the world to come. They make God influential chiefly in the beyond, and preparing a home for the faithful--a home where His suffering servants will be free of the trials and tribulations which beset them on earth.[11]

After 1865[edit]

Black Americans, once freed from slavery, were very active in forming their own churches, most of them Baptist or Methodist, and giving their ministers both moral and political leadership roles. In a process of self-segregation, practically all blacks left white churches so that few racially integrated congregations remained (apart from some Catholic churches in Louisiana). Four main organizations competed with each other across the South to form new Methodist churches composed of freedmen. They were the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (which was sponsored by the white Methodist Episcopal Church, South) and the well-funded Methodist Episcopal Church (Northern white Methodists).[12][13] By 1871 the Northern Methodists had 88,000 black members in the South, and had opened numerous schools for them.[14]

The blacks during Reconstruction Era were politically the core element of the Republican Party and the minister played a powerful political role. their ministers had powerful political roles that were distinctive since they did not primarily depend on white support, in contrast to teachers, politicians, businessmen, and tenant farmers.[15] Acting on the principle expounded by Charles H. Pearce, an AME minister in Florida: "A man in this State cannot do his whole duty as a minister except he looks out for the political interests of his people," over 100 black ministers were elected to state legislatures during Reconstruction.Several served in Congress and one, Hiram Revels, in the U.S. Senate.[16]

Urban churches[edit]

The great majority of blacks lived in rural areas where services were held in small makeshift buildings. In the cities black churches were more visible. Besides their regular religious services, the urban churches had numerous other activities, such as scheduled prayer meetings, missionary societies, women's clubs, youth groups, public lectures, and musical concerts. Regularly scheduled revivals operated over a period of weeks reaching large, appreciative and noisy crowds. Charitable activities abounded concerning the care of the sick and needy. The larger churches had a systematic education program, besides the Sunday schools, and Bible study groups. They held literacy classes to enable older members to read the Bible. Private black colleges, such as Fisk in Nashville, often began in the basement of the churches. Church supported the struggling small business community. Most important was the political role. Churches hosted protest meetings, rallies, and Republican party conventions. Prominent laymen and ministers negotiated political deals, and often ran for office until disfranchisement took effect in the 1890s. In the 1880s, the prohibition of liquor was a major political concern that allowed for collaboration with like-minded white Protestants. In every case, the pastor was the dominant decision-maker. His salary ranged from $400 dollars a year to upwards of $1500, plus housing – at a time when 50 cents a day was good pay for unskilled physical labor. Increasingly the Methodists reached out to college or seminary graduates for their ministers, but most of Baptists felt that education was a negative factor that undercut the intense religiosity and oratorical skills they demanded of their ministers.[17]

After 1910, as blacks migrated to major cities in both the North and the South, there emerged the pattern of a few very large churches with thousands of members and a paid staff, headed by an influential preacher. At the same time there were many "storefront" churches with a few dozen members.[18]

African Methodist Episcopal Church[edit]

In 1787, Richard Allen and his colleagues in Philadelphia broke away from the Methodist Church and in 1816 founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). It began with 8 clergy and 5 churches, and by 1846 had grown to 176 clergy, 296 churches, and 17,375 members The 20,000 members in 1856 were located primarily in the North.[19][20] AME national membership (including probationers and preachers) jumped from 70,000 in 1866 to 207,000 in 1876 [21]

1918 A.M.E. Church, Cairo, Illinois

AME put a high premium on education. In the 19th century, the AME Church of Ohio collaborated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly white denomination, in sponsoring the second independent historically black college (HBCU), Wilberforce University in Ohio. By 1880, AME operated over 2,000 schools, chiefly in the South, with 155,000 students. For school houses they used church buildings; the ministers and their wives were the teachers; the congregations raised the money to keep schools operating at a time the segregated public schools were starved of funds.[22]

Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, AME leader in Georgia

After the Civil War Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1934-1915) was a major leader of the AME and played a role in Republican Party politics. In 1863 during the Civil War, Turner was appointed as the first black chaplain in the United States Colored Troops. Afterward, he was appointed to the Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia. He settled in Macon and was elected to the state legislature in 1868 during Reconstruction. He planted many AME churches in Georgia after the war. In 1880 he was elected as the first southern bishop of the AME Church after a fierce battle within the denomination. Angered by the Democrats' regaining power and instituting Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth century South, Turner was the leader of black nationalism and proposed emigration of blacks to Africa.[23]

In terms of social status, the Methodist churches have typically attracted the black leadership and the middle class. Like all American denominations, there were numerous schisms and new groups were formed every year.

African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church[edit]

The AMEZ denomination was officially formed in 1821 in New York City, but operated for a number of years before then. The total membership in 1866 was about 42,000.[24] The church-sponsored Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina was founded to train missionaries for Africa. Today the AME Zion Church is especially active in mission work in Africa and the Caribbean, especially in Nigeria, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Angola, Ivory Coast, Ghana, England, India, Jamaica, Virgin Islands, Trinidad, and Tobago.[25]

Baptists[edit]

After the Civil War, Black Baptists desiring to practice Christianity away from racial discrimination, rapidly set up separate churches and separate state Baptist conventions. In 1866, black Baptists of the South and West combined to form the Consolidated American Baptist Convention. This Convention eventually collapsed but three national conventions formed in response. In 1895 the three conventions merged to create the National Baptist Convention. It is now the largest African-American religious organization in the United States.[26]

Since the late 19th century to the present, a large majority of Black Christians belong to Baptist churches. Although there are some elite churches, generally the Baptists appeal to poorer women.

Baptist churches are locally controlled by the congregation, and selected their own ministers. They choose local men—often quite young—with a reputation for religiosity, preaching skill, and ability to touch the deepest emotions of the congregations. Few were well-educated until the mid-twentieth century, when Bible Colleges became common. Until the late twentieth century, few of them were paid; most were farmers or had other employment. They became spokesman for their communities, and were among the few Blacks in the South allowed to vote in Jim Crow days before 1965.[27]

National Baptist Convention[edit]

The National Baptist Convention was first organized in 1880 as the Foreign Mission Baptist Convention in Montgomery, Alabama. Its founders, including Elias Camp Morris, stressed the preaching of the gospel as an answer to the shortcomings of a segregated church. In 1895, Morris moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and founded the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., as a merger of the Foreign Mission Convention, the American National Baptist Convention, and the Baptist National Education Convention.[28] The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., is the largest African-American religious organization.[29]

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was highly controversial in many black churches, where the minister preached spiritual salvation rather than political activism. The National Baptist Convention became deeply split. Its autocratic leader, Rev. Joseph H. Jackson had supported the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, but by 1960 he told his denomination they should not become involved in civil rights activism. Jackson was based in Chicago and was a close ally of Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago Democratic machine against the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his aide the young Jesse Jackson, Jr. (no relation to Joseph Jackson). In the end, King led his activists out of the National Baptist Convention into their own rival group, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which supported the extensive activism of the King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.[30]

Pentecostal and Holiness movements[edit]

Giggie finds that Black Methodists and Baptists sought middle class respectability. In sharp contrast the new Pentecostal and Holiness movements pursued sanctification, based on a sudden religious experience that could empower people to avoid sin, and recover good health. These groups stressed the role of the direct witness of the Holy Spirit, and emphasized the traditional emotionalism of black worship.[31]

William J. Seymour, a black preacher, traveled to Los Angeles where his preaching sparked the three-year-long Azusa Street Revival in 1906. Worship at the racially integrated Azusa Mission featured an absence of any order of service. People preached and testified as moved by the Spirit, spoke and sung in tongues, and fell in the Spirit. The revival attracted both religious and secular media attention, and thousands of visitors flocked to the mission, carrying the "fire" back to their home churches.[32]

William Seymour, leader of the Azusa Street Revival.

The crowds of blacks and whites worshiping together at Seymour's Azusa Street Mission set the tone for much of the early Pentecostal movement. Pentecostals defied social, cultural and political norms of the time that called for racial segregation and Jim Crow. The Church of God in Christ, the Church of God (Cleveland), the Pentecostal Holiness Church, and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World were all interracial denominations before the 1920s. These groups, especially in the Jim Crow South were under great pressure to conform to segregation. Ultimately, North American Pentecostalism would divide into white and African-American branches. Though it never entirely disappeared, interracial worship within Pentecostalism would not reemerge as a widespread practice until after the Civil Rights Movement.[33] The Church of God in Christ (COGIC), an African American Pentecostal denomination founded in 1896, has become the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States today.[34]

The Holiness Movement emerged out of the Methodist Church in the late 19th century. It emphasized "Christian perfection" —the belief that it is possible to live free of voluntary sin, and particularly by the belief that this may be accomplished instantaneously through a second work of grace.[35]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Mark Nickens, "Review" Church History (2008) 77#3 p 784
  2. ^ Antonio T. Bly, "In Pursuit of Letters: A History of the Bray Schools for Enslaved Children in Colonial Virginia," History of Education Quarterly (2011) 51#4 pp 429-459.
  3. ^ Sylvia R. Frey, "The Visible Church: Historiography of African American Religion since Raboteau," Slavery & Abolition (2008) 29#1 pp 83-110
  4. ^ Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion (1978) pp 68-87
  5. ^ Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (1998).
  6. ^ Albert J. Raboteau, Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans (2001)
  7. ^ James H. Hutson, Religion and the founding of the American Republic (1998) p 106
  8. ^ Albert J. Raboteau,Slave religion: the "invisible institution" in the antebellum South (1978) online
  9. ^ Albert Raboteau, A Fire in the Bones, Reflections on African-American Religious History (1995), pp 143-44
  10. ^ Wilson Fallin Jr., Uplifting the People: Three Centuries of Black Baptists in Alabama (2007) pp 52-53
  11. ^ B.E. Mays, The Negro's God (1938) p 245 cited in Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944) p 873
  12. ^ Daniel W. Stowell (1998). Rebuilding Zion : The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877. Oxford UP. pp. 83–84. 
  13. ^ Clarence Earl Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church During the Civil War and Reconstruction (1982)
  14. ^ William W. Sweet, "The Methodist Episcopal Church and Reconstruction," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1914) 7#3 pp. 147-165 in JSTOR at p.
  15. ^ Donald Lee Grant (1993). The Way it was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia. U. of Georgia Press. p. 264. 
  16. ^ Foner, Reconstruction, (1988) p 93
  17. ^ Howard N. Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South: 1865-1890 (1978), pp 208-213
  18. ^ Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944) pp 858-78
  19. ^ James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa (1995)
  20. ^ A. Nevell Owens, Formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Nineteenth Century: Rhetoric of Identification (2014)
  21. ^ The Annual Cyclopedia: 1866," (1867) p 492; The Annual Cyclopedia: 1876 (1877) p 532
  22. ^ William E. Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865-1900 (1993) pp. 148-152.
  23. ^ Stephen Ward Angell, Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South, (1992)
  24. ^ The Annual Cyclopedia: 1866," (1867) p 492
  25. ^ Canter Brown, and Larry E. Rivers, For a Great and Grand Purpose: The Beginnings of the AMEZ Church in Florida, 1864-1905 (2004)
  26. ^ Leroy Fitts, A history of black Baptists (1985)
  27. ^ Leroy Fitts, A History of Black Baptists (Broadman Press, 1985)
  28. ^ "History of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.". Archived from the original on 2007-01-06. Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  29. ^ "African American Religion, Pt. II: From the Civil War to the Great Migration, 1865-1920". Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  30. ^ Peter J. Paris, Black Leaders in Conflict: Joseph H. Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1978); Nick Salvatore, Singing in a strange land: C.L. Franklin, the black church, and the transformation of America (2007)
  31. ^ John M. Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915 (2008) pp 165-93
  32. ^ Vinson Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century (1997) pp 98-100
  33. ^ Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century (1997) pp 167-186.
  34. ^ Anthea D. Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: making a sanctified world (2007).
  35. ^ Cheryl J. Sanders, Saints in exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal experience in African American religion and culture (1999)

Further reading[edit]

  • Brooks, Walter H. "The Evolution of the Negro Baptist Church." Journal of Negro History (1922) 7#1 pp: 11-22. in JSTOR
  • Brunner, Edmund D. Church Life in the Rural South (1923) pp 80-92, based on the survey in the early 1920s of 30 communities across the rural South
  • Calhoun-Brown, Allison. "The image of God: Black theology and racial empowerment in the African American community." Review of Religious Research (1999): 197-212. in JSTOR
  • Chapman, Mark L. Christianity on trial: African-American religious thought before and after Black power (2006)
  • Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Jesus, jobs, and justice: African American women and religion (2010)
  • Curtis, Edward E. "African-American Islamization Reconsidered: Black history Narratives and Muslim identity." Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2005) 73#3 pp: 659-684.
  • Davis, Cyprian. The History of Black Catholics in the United States (1990).
  • Fallin, Jr., Wilson. Uplifting the People: Three Centuries of Black Baptists in Alabama (2007)
  • Fitts, Leroy. A history of black Baptists (Broadman Press, 1985)
  • Frey, Sylvia R. and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (1998).
  • Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).
  • Giggie, John Michael. After redemption: Jim Crow and the transformation of African American religion in the Delta, 1875-1915 (2007)
  • Harris, Fredrick C. Something within: Religion in African-American political activism (1999)
  • Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Woman’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (1993), highly influential study
  • Jackson, Joseph H. A Story of Christian Activism: The History of the National Baptist Convention, USA. Inc (Nashville: Townsend Press, 1980); official history
  • Johnson, Paul E., ed. African-American Christianity: Essays in History (1994).
  • Mays, Benjamin E., and Joseph W. Nicholson. The Negro Church New York: Institute of Social and Religious Research (1933), sociological survey of rural and urban black churches in 1930
  • Mays, Benjamin E. The Negro's God as reflected in his literature (1938), based on sermons
  • Montgomery, William E. Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865-1900 (1993)
  • Moody, Joycelyn. Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-century African American Women (2001)
  • Owens, A. Nevell. Formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Nineteenth Century: Rhetoric of Identification (2014)
  • Paris, Peter J. The Social Teaching of the Black Churches (Fortress Press, 1985)
  • Raboteau, Albert. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (1978)
  • Raboteau, Albert. African American-Religion (1999) 145pp online basic introduction
  • Raboteau, Albert J. Canaan land: A religious history of African Americans (2001).
  • Salvatore, Nick. Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America (2005) on the politics of the National Baptist Convention
  • Sensbach, Jon F. Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (2005)
  • Smith, R. Drew, ed. Long March ahead: African American churches and public policy in post-civil rights America (2004).
  • Sobel, M. Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (1979)
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History (1997)
  • Spencer, Jon Michael. Black hymnody: a hymnological history of the African-American church (1992)
  • Wills, David W. and Richard Newman, eds. Black Apostles at Home and Abroad: Afro-Americans and the Christian Mission from the Revolution to Reconstruction (1982)
  • Woodson, Carter. The History of the Negro Church (1921) online free, comprehensive history by leading black scholar
  • Yong, Amos, and Estrelda Y. Alexander. Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture (2012)

Historiography[edit]

  • Evans, Curtis J. The Burden of Black Religion (2008); traces ideas about Black religion from the antebellum period to 1950
  • Frey, Sylvia R. "The Visible Church: Historiography of African American Religion since Raboteau," Slavery & Abolition (2008) 29#1 pp 83–110
  • Fulop, Timothy Earl, and Albert J. Raboteau, eds. African-American religion: interpretive essays in history and culture (1997)
  • Vaughn, Steve. "Making Jesus black: the historiographical debate on the roots of African-American Christianity." Journal of Negro History (1997): 25-41. in JSTOR

Primary sources[edit]

  • DuBois, W. E. B. The Negro Church: Report of a Social Study Made under the Direction of Atlanta University (1903) online
  • Sernett, Milton C., ed. Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (Duke University Press, 1985; 2nd ed. 1999)
  • West, Cornel, and Eddie S. Glaude, eds. African American religious thought: An anthology (2003).