Racial segregation of churches in the United States

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View of an African-American church in a thinly populated area of Newberry County, South Carolina.

Racial segregation of churches in the United States is a pattern of Christian churches having segregated congregations based on race. As of 2001, as many as 87% of Christian churches in the United States were completely made up of only White or African-American parishioners.[1]

Racially segregated churches have existed within the United States since before it became a country, and lasted well through the post slavery era into the modern age.[2][3]

There are many reasons for the history and continued prevalence of racial segregation in U.S. churches, including racism, denominational differences, and isolation.[1][3][4][5] This segregation also affects individuals and the larger society, including increased racism and segregation outside of the church.[4][6] 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.[3][6][7][8]


Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (2012) - Cascade County, Montana

Pre-Civil War[edit]

Before the American Civil War, churches in both the Northern and Southern United States were segregated, both socially and legally.[2] 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 by African Americans, and they also had African American leaders as well as control of their own property.[1]

In the 18th century, many White Protestants did not believe that African Americans were fully human and as a result, they did not believe that African Americans had souls.[4] When this view changed, White Christians began to try to convert slaves to Christianity, although slave owners resisted their conversion because they were afraid of slave revolts. In trying to convert slaves to Christianity, Christian leaders encouraged slavery as well as any means of punishment that was used against slaves who revolted.[4] Some Christian leaders even claimed that slavery was a good thing in that it allowed, or oftentimes forced, slaves to become Christians.[9]

By the 1830s, many Northern White Christians had changed their views about slavery and turned to being abolitionists. Many of them 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 of them held fears of "miscegenation" and felt that interracial relationships were unchristian. Based on this fear, church leaders frequently called for the establishment of segregated congregations and they resisted instilling Black people into the church leadership or elders.[4]

In the South, church leaders and Christians began to defend slavery by using the Bible and church doctrine.[4] This involved making use of biblical, charitable, evangelistic, social, and political rationalizations, such as the fact that Biblical figures owned slaves and the argument that slavery allowed African Americans to become Christians.[10] Another prominent reason which was used to justify slavery was the belief that Christians should focus on evangelism, stay out of politics, and follow the law.[4][10] By 1860, one year before the start of the American Civil War, 11% of African Americans were members of Christian churches.[11]


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.[12] 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.[12]

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.[4]

Jim Crow Era[edit]

A survey was conducted of African American churchgoers in 1948 found that 94% of African Americans were part of predominantly African American congregations. Of the other 6% who were part of integrated denominations, 99% went to segregated churches.[1] 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.[4]

Civil Rights Era[edit]

During the Civil Rights Movement, African American churchgoers used their presence in church to unite people on civil rights issues.[2] 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 problems in the North such as emerging ghettos.[4]

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.[1] However, many historians have noted that religion was an important motivator for people to be in favor of civil rights, because they believed that racism was sinful or unchristian.[7] Sermons influenced the views of congregation members on segregation, which, during this time period, shifted largely from supporting segregation to opposing it.[13] This may have varied widely by region, as Southern pastors were much more racist than their Northern counterparts.[3] 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.[4]

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.[14]

Post-Civil Rights Era[edit]

As recently as 2003, 43% of Christian churches of various denominations were made up of only one race of parishioners.[3] In many of the remaining churches, there were still very few churches that could be considered heterogeneous and only one church that was split evenly between Black and White members.[3] African Americans are also more likely than any other racial group in the United States to report being part of a church congregation, as of a 2008 Pew study.[8]

Currently, the National Baptist Convention is the largest African American religious group in the United States.[12] Other groups with memberships in the millions include the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ.

Causes and Influences[edit]

Racist doctrines[edit]

Denominations and practical differences[edit]

There exists 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.[1] 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.[15] Various denominations have made it an official goal to increase diversity within their congregations.[3]

Black Hebrew Israelites[edit]

British Israelism and Christian Identity[edit]



Rev. George. H. Clements giving Holy Communion, Chicago, 1973.

Pentecostalism in the United States grew out of the Holiness movement.[12] Pentecostalism and Holiness were especially attractive to African Americans from the South because the focus on personal religious experiences rather than the focus on reading texts or believing religious doctrines was more similar to the way in which Christianity was practiced during the era of slavery.[12] 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 remained the norm in certain other denominations.[3] The early 20th century Evangelist Maria Woodworth Etter warned [16]Southern Congregations that she would not preach in segregated services when she visited them. Another important charismatic figure was Charles Finney, who ran popular church revivals and preached abolitionist views as he toured the South.[4]

Pentecostalism also underwent a resurgence within the United States in the 1970s, and it was very integrated at this time. Some partly attribute the diversity which existed within the charismatic movement to the Civil Rights Movement of the prior decade.[15]


Baptists came to the Southern United States to preach the gospel to White people and African Americans during the Revolutionary War. The Baptist message was largely focused on individual experience and salvation. At the beginning of the Baptist movement, many congregations were integrated.[14] Despite this, African American members of the church often sat in separate areas and had little say in church affairs. African Americans could be leaders in the church, but in separate quarters consisting only of their own race. After the Civil War, African Americans started their own churches, an idea that was supported by both white and black southerners.[17] Additionally, though Northern Baptists morally objected to slavery more than Southern Baptists, who regarded slavery as a fact of life, both were worried about the divide that these opposite views on slavery could cause.[18]

Today, Baptists make up the largest African American denominational group in the United States.[12]


In the antebellum North, many Methodists were very supportive of converting African Americans. The prominent English Methodist leader John Wesley was invested in the abolition of slavery, and he 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 out of their congregation.[15]

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.[4]

Methodists comprised two of the largest postbellum Southern churches the African Methodist Episcopal church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.[12] African American Methodists from the North saw it as their duty both to evangelize to and educate African Americans in the South.[19]


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 in comparison to Protestant churches.[1] Theologically, Catholic churches also emphasize unity among races.[3] In 1984 American bishops disseminated a letter calling for even further inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities into Catholic churches.[3]


Thousands of non-denominational, Protestant congregations have emerged in recent decades. Many of these in large metropolitan areas have highly integrated, multi-racial congregations and staff, regardless of their location in the North or the South. Some of the largest churches in the country, whose services are regularly broadcast on national television networks, belong to this category.


One reason why churches were so segregated within the United States was because there was little push from African American church leaders to have integrated churches. Often, White religious leaders pushed for integrated churches while African American leaders preferred separate congregations.[5] 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.[1]

Sociologists who study religion also explain that people generally choose to be in 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.[4]


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.[1] Entire churches or denominations would also declare themselves to be only for White members.[1] 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.[3]

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.[3][20] This view is reified by the fact that racial differences are highly correlated with differences in income and socioeconomic class.[4]

Effects and implications[edit]


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.[4]

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.[1]


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.[20] 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.[20]

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.[4]

Community organization[edit]

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.[7] 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.[3][8] Liturgical rituals are important for activist and community organizing in African American communities, whether or not the causes are expressly religious.[6]

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.[8] Despite all their work both within and outside of the church, African American women are still very rarely church leaders, even in segregated churches.[21]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Vischer, Robert K. "Racial Segregation in American Churches and Its Implications for School Vouchers." Fla. L. Rev. 53 (2001): 193.
  2. ^ a b c "Segregation, Freedom's Story, TeacherServe®, National Humanities Center". nationalhumanitiescenter.org. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Dougherty, Kevin D. "How monochromatic is church membership? Racial-ethnic diversity in religious community." Sociology of religion 64, no. 1 (2003): 65-85.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. Divided by faith: Evangelical religion and the problem of race in America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000.
  5. ^ a b "Segregation in Churches". CQ Researcher by CQ Press. ISSN 1942-5635.
  6. ^ a b c Pattillo-McCoy, Mary. "Church culture as a strategy of action in the black community." American Sociological Review (1998): 767-784.
  7. ^ a b c Dailey, Jane. "Sex, segregation, and the sacred after Brown." The Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (2004): 119-144.
  8. ^ a b c d "God In America - The Black Church". God in America. Retrieved 2017-04-07.
  9. ^ Tait, Lewis T. (2002). Three-Fifths Theology. Trenton, NJ.: Africa World Press Inc. ISBN 0865439907.
  10. ^ a b Stafford, Tim (1992). "The Abolitionists". Christianity Today. 11: 18–19 – via OCLC ILLiad.
  11. ^ "BLACK CHURCHES". www.christianchronicler.com. Retrieved 2017-04-07.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g "African American Christianity, Pt. II: From the Civil War to the Great Migration, 1865-1920, The Nineteenth Century, Divining America: Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center". nationalhumanitiescenter.org. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  13. ^ Southard, Samuel (1962). "Segregation and Southern Churches". Journal of Religion and Health. 1 (3): 197–221. ISSN 0022-4197.
  14. ^ a b "African American Baptists". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2017-04-07.
  15. ^ a b c Byrd, Terriel R. (2007-06-13). I Shall Not Be Moved: Racial Separation in Christian Worship. Lanham; Plymouth: UPA. ISBN 9780761837152.
  16. ^ Signs And Wonders 1916 by Maria Woodworth Etter and Lee A Howard
  17. ^ EIGHMY, JOHN LEE (1968). "The Baptists and Slavery: An Examination of the Origins and Benefits of Segregation". Social Science Quarterly. 49 (3): 666–673. ISSN 0038-4941.
  18. ^ Jeansonne, Glen (1971). "Southern Baptist Attitudes Toward Slavery, 1845-1861". The Georgia Historical Quarterly. 55 (4): 510–522. ISSN 0016-8297.
  19. ^ William E. Mathews, Jr., "An Address Delivered in Baltimore on the Occasion of Our Semi-Centenary," 1866, in Rev. Benjamin T. Tanner, An Apology for African Methodism, 1867 nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai2/institutions/text6/mathews.pdf
  20. ^ a b c Yancey, George. "An examination of the effects of residential and church integration on racial attitudes of whites." Sociological Perspectives 42, no. 2 (1999): 279-304.
  21. ^ "Why Women Are So Integral in Black Church Culture". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2017-04-07.