Racial segregation of churches in the United States
Racial segregation of churches in the United States is a pattern of Christian churches having segregated congregations based on race. As many as 87% of Christian churches in the United States are completely made up of only White or African-American parishioners.
There are many reasons for the history and continued prevalence of racial segregation in U.S. churches, including racism, denominational differences, and isolation. This segregation also has effects on individuals and the larger society, including increased racism and segregation even outside of the church. However, segregated Black churches have also been a positive place for community organizing for civil rights and other issues, as well as offering a respite for Black individuals from the racism which they face in integrated society.
- 1 History
- 2 Causes and Influences
- 3 Effects and implications
- 4 References
Before the American Civil War, churches in the Northern United States and the Southern United States were segregated, both socially and legally. The first Black church was founded in 1773 in South Carolina. In the 19th century, both the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church were founded, and had African American leaders and control of their own property.
Many White Christians in the 18th century did not consider African Americans fully human and did not believe that they had souls. When this view changed, White Christians began to try to convert slaves to Christianity, although slave owners resisted this conversion because they were afraid of slaves revolting. In trying to convert slaves to Christianity, Christian leaders reinforced and approved slavery as well as any means of punishment for slaves who revolted. Some Christian leaders even claimed that slavery was a good thing in that it allowed, or oftentimes forced, slaves to become Christians.
By the 1830s, many Northern white Christians had changed their views about slavery and turned to being abolitionists. Many felt that slavery went against many of the ideals that they had fought for in the American Revolutionary War. However, while many Northern Christians began to speak out against slavery, they did not speak out against racism and many held fears of "miscegenation" and felt that interracial relationships were unchristian. Church leaders also still often called for having segregated congregations and resisted instilling Black people into the church leadership or elders.
In the South, church leaders and Christians began to use the Bible and church doctrine to defend slavery. They had biblical, charitable, evangelistic, social, and political reasonings behind their defense of slavery, including arguments like Biblical figures having owned slaves and that slavery allows African Americans to become Christian. Another prominent reason used to justify slavery was the idea that Christians should focus on evangelism, stay out of politics, and follow the law. By 1860, one year before the start of the American Civil War, 11% of African Americans belonged to a Christian church.
After the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in the United States, many Northern African American religious groups created missionary church plants in the South, to connect newly freed African Americans with the African-American denominations of the North. By 1870, attendance at the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church had grown significantly.
In urban areas after the 1870s there was a large push towards multi-denominational evangelism with both White and African American congregations. However, while White evangelicals focused on textual interpretation and history, African American groups focused on social injustices and racism.
It was especially during this time that African Americans began forming their own churches, in part because of the unequal treatment they were facing in integrated churches in both the North and the South. Christian theology was often used to justify this split, with the implication that it was God's plan to have people separated by race.
Jim Crow Era
A survey was conducted of African American churchgoers in 1948 found that 94% of African Americans were a part of predominantly African American congregations. Of the other 6% who were part of integrated denominations, 99% went to segregated churches. During this time African American churches did not focus on critiquing or challenging segregation and racism, but rather focused on the promise of a better life after death.
Civil Rights Era
During the Civil Rights Movement, African American churchgoers used their presence in church to unite people on civil rights issues. This was significantly more successful in the South than in the North, as Southern problems of legal segregation were easier to identify and fix in comparison to their Northern counterparts of problems like emerging ghettos.
While at the beginning of the Civil Rights Era there was some push from White Christians to integrate churches, after there was "a white backlash against black progress," the push ended as White Americans were less inclined to push for social segregation. However, many historians have noted that religion was an important motivator for people to be in favor of civil rights, as they saw racism as sinful or unchristian. This may have varied widely by region, as Southern pastors were much more racist than their Northern counterparts. Additionally, many evangelical Christians believed that integration and equality may be impossible, as they believed that the world was descending into chaos as a precursor to "the second coming," when Jesus would return to the Earth as described in the Book of Revelation.
During this era, primarily Black churches were an important place for social organizing. African-American church members and leaders played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement, which also gave the movement distinct religious undertones. Appealing to the public using religious reasoning and doctrine was incredibly common.
Post-Civil Rights Era
As recently as 2003, 43% of Christian churches of various denominations were made up of only one race of parishioners. In many of the remaining churches, there were still very few churches that could be considered heterogeneous and only one church that was split fifty-fifty between Black and White members. African Americans are also the most likely of any racial group in the United States to report being a part of a church congregation, as of a 2008 Pew study.
Causes and Influences
Denominations and practical differences
There is a racial divide not just among individual congregations, but at a denominational level as well. Among the ten largest denominations in the United States, eight are either predominantly African American or White. These divisions by denomination are caused in part by theological differences and in part by differences in practice. Religious scholar Terriel Byrd explains these practical differences by saying that the church allows African American Christians to show their "disillusionment" with society and their mistreatment within it, whereas White people remain more reserved, as they hold societal power and do not need to express the same kind of anguish. Various denominations have made it a formal goal to increase diversity within their congregations.
Pentecostalism in the United States grew out of the Holiness movement. Pentecostalism and Holiness were especially attractive to African Americans from the South because the focus on personal religious experience rather than reading text or religious doctrine was more similar to the way Christianity was practiced during slavery. Pentecostalism is marked by a charismatic approach to Christianity, and while modern Pentecostalism has become more segregated, it has a history of being very integrated even while segregation was the unquestioned rule in certain other denominations.. The early 20th century Evangelist Maria Woodworth Etter warned Southern Congregations that she would not preach in segregated services when she visited. Another important charismatic figure was Charles Finney, who ran popular church revivals and preached abolitionist views as he toured the South.
Pentecostalism also had a resurgence within the United States in the 1970s, and was very integrated at that time as well. Some attribute this diversity within the charismatic movement to be in part because of the Civil Rights Movement of the prior decade.
Baptists came to the Southern United States during the Revolutionary War to preach the gospel to White people and African Americans. The Baptist message focused largely on individual experience and salvation. At the beginning of the Baptist movement, many congregations were integrated. However, Baptist churches had a long tradition of allowing separate African American churches to be led by African American leaders without much supervision or scrutiny.
Today, Baptists make up the largest African American denominational group in the United States.
In the antebellum North, many Methodists were very supportive of converting African Americans. The prominent English Methodist leader John Wesley was invested in abolition of slavery, and visited Georgia to proselytize to slaves who appreciated his "plain doctrine and good discipline." At the same time however Methodist religious leaders in Philadelphia's St. George church forced African Americans from their congregation.
In the antebellum South, Methodism was largely connected to slave owning. All of the bishops within the Methodist Episcopal Church were slave owners from 1846 until slavery was abolished, and many members of the church were slave owners as well.
Methodists comprised two of the largest postbellum Southern churches the African Methodist Episcopal church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. African American Methodists from the North saw it as their duty both to evangelize to and educate African Americans in the South.
Catholicism has generally been less segregated than other denominations. In 1940 only 63% of African Americans went to segregated Catholic churches, as compared to 94% of Protestants. The smaller rates of segregation may be due in part to the fact that Catholic churches are more religiously than socially focused as compared to Protestant churches. Theologically, Catholic churches also emphasize unity among races. In 1984 American bishops disseminated a letter calling for even further inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities into Catholic churches.
One reason why churches were so segregated within the United States was that there was little push from African American church leaders to have integrated churches. It was often that White religious leaders pushed for integrated churches, while African American leaders preferred separate congregations. This may be in part due to several factors, including the lack of opportunity to pursue leadership roles in predominantly White or segregated churches, the fact that African American churches allowed a place to build community, and for interests in practicing Christianity differently.
Sociologists who study religion also explain that people generally choose to be religious groups with those similar to them in many aspects, not just race. "Congregational sameness" has been proven to make religious organizations more cohesive and better fulfill the social and psychological needs that people look for from religious groups.
One reason for the racial segregation of churches is racism enacted against African Americans by White churches and their parishioners. There are many examples of mistreatment of African American churchgoers by White church leaders, including segregated worship spaces and being the last ones to receive the eucharist or communion. Entire churches or denominations would also declare themselves to be only for white members. Regional differences exacerbate problems of racism, with religious leaders from the South being much more likely to hold racist views than those from the North.
It is also possible that one reason why churches remain segregated is that society and communities at large are very segregated, and churches are merely a reflection of this. This view is reified by the fact that racial differences are highly correlated with differences in income and socioeconomic class.
Effects and implications
One effect of segregation in churches may be continued segregation in other parts of U.S. society. As religious segregation furthers in-group homogeneity, it makes the racial divisions throughout all of society even more pronounced.
Another example of religious segregation causing greater society wide segregation can be seen in private schools. When parents choose to send their children to private schools, they are often religious institutions, and because religious institutions are often racially segregated, this means that students are in turn in racially segregated classrooms. There is some concern that an increase in the use of school vouchers in the United States will also then increase the number of students in segregated schools, as school vouchers are generally used to send children to private religious institutions.
A 1999 study showed that among churchgoers, those who go to segregated or primarily white churches are more likely to exhibit racist behaviors or to have prejudiced ideas about African Americans. Those who attend integrated churches are about equal in racial attitudes to those who do not attend church at all, but those who attend racially segregated churches are more likely to be both covertly and overtly racist than either group. It is difficult to posit whether this intolerance is caused by attending a segregated church, or if those who hold prejudiced views are more likely to seek out a segregated church.
In a study of White Protestant Christians from the 1990s, it was found that those who had more contact with African Americans, especially a personal or more intimate relationship, were more likely to believe in structural inequality and racial discrimination than their counterparts with few or no African American contacts, who more so blamed African Americans for "not working hard enough," as being the cause of racial inequality.
Many have noted that primarily black churches were an integral part of the civil rights movement and a popular way to dispense information about boycotts and other activist ideas. Black churches continue to be important for bonding and community building in African American communities, as well as a place where African Americans are safe and free to grieve about the racism they face. Liturgical rituals are important for activist and community organizing in African American communities, whether or not the causes are expressly religious.
Women in Black churches also organized for rights and representation for women and African Americans. Women's African American church groups fought for women's suffrage, prohibition, and participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Despite all their work both within and outside of the church, African American women are still very rarely church leaders, even in segregated churches.
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