God in America
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The Black Church

by Marilyn Mellowes

 

Marilyn Mellowes was principally responsible for the research and development of the series God in America and has served as its series producer. She produced and wrote From Jesus to Christ, the First Christians, a four-hour FRONTLINE series that premiered in 1998. Additional credits include Vietnam: A Television History, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, Castro’s Challenge, The Kennedys, Nixon and Julia! America’s Favorite Chef.

In the fall of 2008, newspapers, talk shows and blogs exploded with news that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the African American minister from Chicago's Trinity Church, had denounced the United States with inflammatory language: "God damn America!" Wright's most famous parishioner was the leading Democratic contender for the presidential nomination, Barack Obama. Trinity was Obama's spiritual home -- the place where he had found religion, where he was married, and where his daughters had been baptized. Rev. Wright, a former Marine with a Ph.D., had served as his spiritual mentor.

While many white voters seemed surprised, puzzled and shocked by Wright's angry rhetoric, African Americans were less so. Obama seized the moment to deliver a profound meditation on race in America, a speech titled "A More Perfect Union." Tracing the deep historical roots of racial inequality and injustice, Obama put Wright's anger into historical context. In very personal terms, he also described his experience at Trinity:

Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

Eventually Obama broke with Wright and left Trinity, but his speech illuminated the role of the black church in the African American experience. Standing apart from the dominant white society, yet engaged in a continuing dialogue with it, the church evolved with countless acts of faith and resistance, piety and protest. As historian Anthea Butler has observed, the church has been profoundly shaped by regional differences, North and South, East and West, yet in both the private and public spheres, the church was, and remains, sustained and animated by idea of freedom.

The term "the black church" evolved from the phrase "the Negro church," the title of a pioneering sociological study of African American Protestant churches at the turn of the century by W.E.B. Du Bois. In its origins, the phrase was largely an academic category. Many African Americans did not think of themselves as belonging to "the Negro church," but rather described themselves according to denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and even "Saint" of the Sanctified tradition. African American Christians were never monolithic; they have always been diverse and their churches highly decentralized.

Today "the black church" is widely understood to include the following seven major black Protestant denominations: the National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ.

Origins

New historical evidence documents the arrival of slaves in the English settlement in Jamestown, Va., in 1619. They came from the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, in present-day Angola and the coastal Congo. In the 1500s, the Portuguese conquered both kingdoms and carried Catholicism to West Africa. It is likely that the slaves who arrived in Jamestown had been baptized Catholic and had Christian names. For the next 200 years, the slave trade exported slaves from Angola, Ghana, Senegal and other parts of West Africa to America's South. Here they provided the hard manual labor that supported the South's biggest crops: cotton and tobacco.

In the South, Anglican ministers sponsored by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, founded in England, made earnest attempts to teach Christianity by rote memorization; the approach had little appeal. Some white owners allowed the enslaved to worship in white churches, where they were segregated in the back of the building or in the balconies. Occasionally persons of African descent might hear a special sermon from white preachers, but these sermons tended to stress obedience and duty, and the message of the apostle Paul: "Slaves, obey your masters."

Both Methodists and Baptists made active efforts to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity; the Methodists also licensed black men to preach. During the 1770s and 1780s, black ministers began to preach to their own people, drawing on the stories, people and events depicted in the Old and New Testaments. No story spoke more powerfully to slaves than the story of Exodus, with its themes of bondage and liberation brought by a righteous and powerful God who would one day set them free.

Remarkably, a few black preachers in the South succeeded in establishing independent black churches. In the 1780s, a slave named Andrew Bryan preached to a small group of slaves in Savannah, Ga. White citizens had Bryan arrested and whipped. Despite persecution and harassment, the church grew, and by 1790 it became the First African Baptist Church of Savannah. In time, a Second and a Third African Church were formed, also led by black pastors.

In the North, blacks had more authority over their religious affairs. Many worshipped in established, predominantly white congregations, but by the late 18th century, blacks had begun to congregate in self-help and benevolent associations called African Societies. Functioning as quasi-religious organizations, these societies often gave rise to independent black churches. In 1787, for example, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones organized the Free African Society of Philadelphia, which later evolved into two congregations: the Bethel Church, the mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination, and St. Thomas Episcopal Church, which remained affiliated with a white Episcopal denomination. These churches continued to grow. Historian Mary Sawyer notes that by 1810, there were 15 African churches representing four denominations in 10 cities from South Carolina to Massachusetts.

In black churches, women generally were not permitted to preach. One notable exception was Jarena Lee, who became an itinerant preacher, traveling thousands of miles and writing her own spiritual autobiography.

The Second Great Awakening and "Hush Harbors"

In the late 18th and early 19th century, thousands of Americans, black and white, enslaved and free, were swept up in the revival known as the Second Great Awakening. In the South, the religious fervor of evangelical Christianity resonated easily with the emotive religious traditions brought from West Africa. Forging a unique synthesis, slaves gathered in "hush harbors" -- woods, gullies, ravines, thickets and swamps -- for heartfelt worship which stressed deliverance from the toil and troubles of the present world, and salvation in the heavenly life to come.

Yet most of the enslaved lay outside the institutional church. In the 1830s and 1840s, Southern churchmen undertook an active campaign to persuade plantation owners that slaves must be brought into to the Christian fold. Because plantations were located far from churches, this meant that the church had to be carried to the plantation. Aided by denominational missionary societies and associations, plantation missions became popular institutions. But missionaries recognized that Christianity would not appeal to all enslaved blacks. Novice missionaries were warned:

He who carries the Gospel to them … discovers deism, skepticism, universalism … all the strong objections against the truth of God; objections which he may perhaps have considered peculiar only to the cultivated minds … of critics and philosophers!

The Methodists were the most active among missionary societies, but Baptists also had strong appeal. The Baptists' insistence that each congregation should have its own autonomy meant that blacks could exercise more control over their religious affairs. Yet the independence of black churches was curbed by law and by the white Southern response to slave uprisings and abolition.

Abolition

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the black church found its political and prophetic voice in the cause of abolition. Black ministers took to their pulpits to speak out against slavery and warned that any nation that condoned slavery would suffer divine punishment. Former slave and Methodist convert Frederick Douglass challenged Christians to confront an institution that violated the central tenets of the Christian faith, including the principle of equality before God. In 1829, African American abolitionist David Walker issued his famous tract, "Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World," urging slaves to resort to violence, if necessary. He, too, warned of divine punishment: "God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. ... His ears continually open to the tears and groans of His oppressed people. ..."

In the North, black ministers and members of the African American community joined white abolitionists in organizing the Underground Railroad, an informal network that helped persons escaping bondage to make their way to freedom. Prominent among these activists was Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in 1849 and made her way to Philadelphia. Having secured her freedom, Tubman put herself in jeopardy by making repeated return trips to the South to assist others. Her courage and determination earned her the affectionate sobriquet "Moses."

Emancipation and Reconstruction

For those who yearned for freedom, the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, seemed to re-enact the Exodus story of the ancient Israelites: God had intervened in human history to liberate his chosen people. But the stroke of a presidential pen did not eliminate poverty and dislocation, chaos and uncertainty. In the North, black churches organized missions to the South to help newly freed persons find the skills and develop the talents that would allow them to lead independent lives. Education was paramount. African American missionaries, including AME Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, established schools and educational institutions. White denominations, including Presbyterian, Congregational and Episcopal congregations, also sent missionaries to teach reading and math skills to a population previously denied the opportunity for education. Over time, these missionary efforts gave rise to the establishment of independent black institutions of higher education, including Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta.

But there were tensions. Some Northerners, including Payne, did not approve of the emotional worship style of their Southern counterparts; he stressed that "true" Christian worship meant proper decorum and attention to reading the Bible. Many Southerners were disinterested in Payne's admonitions. They liked their emotive form of worship and saw no reason to cast it aside. Nevertheless, most black Southerners ended up joining independent black churches that had been formed in the North before the Civil War. These included the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ). In 1870, Southerners formed the Colored (now "Christian") Methodist Episcopal Church, and in 1894, black Baptists formed the National Baptist Convention.

In all these denominations, the black preacher stood as the central figure. W.E.B. Du Bois immortalized these men in his famous essay, "Of the Faith of the Fathers," that appeared in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois described the preacher as "the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil," a man who "found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people."

Women

Men commanded the pulpits of the black church; they also dominated church power and politics. Denied the chance to preach, growing numbers of women, mostly middle class, found ways to participate in religious life. They organized social services, missionary societies, temperance associations and reading groups. They fought for suffrage and demanded social reform. They wrote for religious periodicals, promoting Victorian ideals of respectability and womanhood. Like the crusading newspaper reporter Ida B. Wells, they protested racial injustice, lynching and violence.

Among the most influential women was Nannie Burroughs, who served as corresponding secretary of the Woman's Convention of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. In a major address to the NBC delivered in 1920, Burroughs chastised black ministers:

We might as well be frank and face the truth. While we have hundreds of superior men in the pulpits, North and South, East and West, the majority of our religious leaders have preached too much Heaven and too little practical Christian living. In many, the spirit of greed, like the horse-leach, is ever crying, "Give me, give me, give me." Does the absorbing task of supplying their personal needs bind leaders to the moral, social and spiritual needs of our people?

Men, she argued, must welcome women into the affairs of government. Women must organize and educate. "There will be protest against politics in the Church," she predicted, but insisted, "It is better to have politics than ignorance."

The Great Migration

Burroughs rose to prominence during the period known as the "Great Migration." Between 1890 and 1930, 2.5 million black people, mostly poor and working class, left their homes in the South and relocated in cities of the North. This influx of Southerners transformed Northern black Protestant churches and created what historian Wallace Best calls a "new sacred order." Best's study of the impact of the Great Migration in Chicago explores the dynamics of this transformation. Accustomed to a more emotional style of worship, Southerners imbued churches with a "folk" religious sensibility. The distinctive Southern musical idiom known as "the blues" evolved into gospel music. The themes of exile and deliverance influenced the theological orientation of the churches. Women filled the pews; in Chicago, 70 percent of churchgoers were women. Responding to the immediate material and psychological needs of new congregants, black churches undertook social service programs.

Few ministers were more aware of the impact of the Great Migration than the Rev. Lacey K. Williams of Olivet Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist church in Chicago. In an essay published in the Chicago Sunday Tribune in 1929, Williams argued that black churches must respond to the practical and spiritual needs of people struggling to adjust to urban life; the churches must be "passionately human, but no less divine." Under Williams' leadership, Olivet developed a program of progressive social reform, reaching out to new migrants, providing them with social services and knitting them into the larger church community. Olivet Church became the largest African American church -- and the largest Protestant church -- in the entire nation.

In the South, rural immigrants poured into major cities such as Atlanta and Birmingham, where they contributed to established congregations and encouraged the growth of new ones. But in rural areas, churches struggled to cope with the weakening social structure that had once sustained them. Ministers were not always educated. But it was the lay members -- deacons, ushers, choirs, song leaders, Sunday school teachers and "mothers" of the congregation -- who gave the churches their vitality and strength. Church socials, Sunday picnics, Bible study and praise meetings encouraged social cohesion, heightened a sense of community and nurtured hope in the face of discrimination and violence. By the 1950s, the infrastructure of black churches and the moral resilience they encouraged had laid the foundation for the crusade that would transform the political and religious landscape of America: the civil rights movement.

The Civil Rights Movement

For more than 100 years, blacks had struggled against racial inequality, racial violence and social injustice. By the mid-1950s, resistance coalesced into concrete plans for action, spurred in part by the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. In September 1955, a photo of Till's mutilated and battered body lying in an open casket aroused anger and deep revulsion among blacks and whites, both in the North and South. Three months after his death, a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was arrested and fined. Soon after, ministers and lay leaders gathered to decide on their course of action: a boycott of the Montgomery buses. They also decided to form an association, the Montgomery Improvement Association, and chose as their spokesman the newly appointed 26-year-old minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. The son and grandson of ministers, King had grown up in his father's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In his first speech he clearly defined the religious and moral dimensions of the movement:

We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong …

King continued as the principal spokesman for the boycott. Behind the scenes, Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon managed the protest and kept it going. The boycott lasted more than a year. In 1956, a federal ruling struck down the Montgomery ordinance; the Supreme Court of the United States later affirmed this decision.

Two years later, King and other black ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with the goal of organizing anti-segregation efforts in other communities in the South. Its members included Montgomery minister Ralph Abernathy; Andrew Young, a Congregationalist minister from New Orleans; James Lawson from the United Methodist Church; and Wyatt T. Walker, a Baptist. Civil rights activist Ella Baker served as the group's executive secretary; King was elected president and declared that the goal of the movement was "to save the soul of the nation." As historian Albert Robateau has observed, "The civil rights movement became a religious crusade."

As with emancipation, the civil rights crusade was sustained by the Exodus story. As congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis observes: "Slavery was our Egypt, segregation was our Egypt, discrimination was our Egypt, and so during the height of the civil rights movement it was not unusual for people to be singing, 'Go down Moses way on down in Egypt land and tell Pharaoh to let my people go.'"

Churches played a pivotal role in protests. In crowded basements and cramped offices, plans were made, strategies formulated, people assembled. Decades of providing social services now paid off in organized political protest. Marches took on the characteristics of religious services, with prayers, short sermons and songs. But not all churches joined the civil rights movement. As historian Barbara Savage has shown, most pastors and congregations were reluctant to defy the status quo. J.H. Jackson, the conservative leader of the venerable National Baptist Convention and pastor of Chicago's Olivet Baptist Church, was staunchly opposed to King's tactics as he affirmed the rule of law. Like Thurgood Marshall and the leadership of the NAACP, he believed that civil disobedience, mass protests and any other efforts that put African Americans in conflict with the powers that be would compromise their efforts toward equality via the courts. Like Booker T. Washington, he was convinced that it was the responsibility of black people to prove their economic value and social worth to the dominant society by modeling morality, entrepreneurialism and citizenship. Tensions finally split the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., the largest historic black denomination, when King and others broke off to form the Progressive Baptist Convention.

But not all those prepared to fight for civil rights subscribed to King's strategy of nonviolence. King himself seemed reluctant to risk arrest. But under pressure, he participated in a march in Birmingham that he knew would land him in jail. A group of white ministers sent a letter criticizing his actions. King replied with "Letter From Birmingham Jail," a profound reflection upon Christianity and the imperative for social justice and social change. King's letter was smuggled out of jail and widely published.

The White House advised King not to proceed with plans for a March on Washington, but on Aug. 28, 1963 -- eight years to the day after the death of Emmett Till -- 200,000 civil rights activists, including preachers, rabbis, nuns, farmers, lawyers, store clerks and students, descended on the Washington Mall to hear King deliver the most famous speech of the 20th century, "I Have a Dream." Drawing upon the language and cadence of Scripture, King linked biblical precepts to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and called upon the nation to honor the commitment of the Founding Fathers to social justice and liberty for all.

The afterglow that enveloped the march was quickly shattered when four little girls attending Sunday school were killed by a bomb that exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963. The following year President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But King himself faced growing criticism. Malcolm X, fiery spokesman for the Nation of Islam, mocked his nonviolent approach. Stokely Carmichael and others issued calls for "Black Power." King denounced the Vietnam War and began to organize the Poor People's Campaign. His assassination on April 4, 1968, signaled the end of the apex of the civil rights movement.

The Next Chapter

The status and role of the black church in the post-civil rights era has been the subject of lively debate among African American scholars. Some argue that "the black church" is "dead," that it has lost its prophetic and progressive voice and its capacity to mobilize for reform on the national stage. Others argue the church is very much alive, and point to the results of the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey that shows that African Americans are more likely than any other ethnic or racial group to report a formal religious affiliation. Even those who count themselves "unaffiliated" describe themselves as "religiously unaffiliated."

Yet it is clear that the church, like all social organizations, is changing. It is also clear that the debate about what the church is, is highly charged by competing ideas about what it ought to be. Should it carry forward the prophetic imperative of the civil rights movement, the collective mandate for social change? Or should it focus on personal prosperity and individual economic advancement? Some influential black ministers and televangelists have promoted the prosperity gospel, sending the message that God wants you to be rich and that wealth is a sign of divine favor. The prosperity gospel is sometimes linked to a social conservatism that opposes homosexuality, gay rights and same-sex marriages. In the 2004 presidential race, Republican strategists courted these preachers with success.

By contrast, at Trinity Church in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright stressed pride in African identity and espoused a brand of black liberation theology. Trinity is "unapologetically Christian, unashamedly black." His message of affirmation and identity remains far more complex than a few sound bites can possibly express. Now under the guidance of a new pastor, Trinity continues to offer a wide range of social services, including meals for the homeless, housing for the elderly, child care programs and ministries for people with AIDS and HIV infection and prison inmates.

According to Professor Jonathan Walton, for more than 300 years, the black church in America has provided a safe haven for black Christians in a nation shadowed by the legacy of slavery and a society that remains defined by race and class. Inspired by the story of Exodus, African Americans can think out, pray out and shout out their anger and aspirations, free from the unstated yet powerful constraints that govern dialogue with the larger white society. In the pulpit and the pews, in choir lofts and Sunday schools, the black church continues to offer affirmation and dignity to people still searching for equality and justice, still willing to reach out for a more inclusive, embracing tomorrow.

Professor Anthea Butler (University of Pennsylvania) and Professor Jonathan Walton (Harvard Divinity School) served as editorial advisers on this essay.

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Major funding for God in America provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John E. Fetzer Institute, Inc.  Additional funding provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. God in America is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.
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Published October 11, 2010

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