The story of the church in the years following slavery is one of a mass exodus from white churches into black denominations. Blacks sought to exercise their newly won independence and power, while whites sought to retain their privilege. This struggle played itself out in the church, the center of community life for both blacks and whites in the South. Among the many choices freed people made, choosing a denominational affiliation became the most important - and, potentially, the most dangerous, as choosing the wrong denomination risked provoking the ire of former slavemasters and their confederates.
The AME church in particular had a reputation because of its well-known role in the Denmark Vesey rebellion. Catholics and Methodists advocated integrated congregations, while the new Colored Methodist Episcopalian Church worked closely with what was left of the Confederate power structure.
By far the most independent-minded and democratic denomination was the Baptists, and in the spirit of independence that siezed black America following the war, it soon became the most popular church among the freed people. When the Southern Baptist Convention first organized in 1845, black Baptists outnumbered whites, even though blacks weren't given the same rights and privileges. In 1862, one quarter of the four million freed people called themselves Baptist. Over the next thirty years, that number would swell to 1.35 million. The non-hierarchical church structure - as well as what some have called the "enduring relationships" that would lead freed people to adopt the faiths of their former masters - led to explosive growth for the denomination. The spread of independent black Baptist congregations led leaders like Richard Henry Boyd and Elias Morris to form the National Baptist Convention in 1895.
Churches empowered the newly employed to protest unfair conditions, to renegotiate their contracts, to decide what and how much to plant, and to take time off to be with their families. They supported freed people as they acted on their will to marry, to remain with one spouse, and to raise their own children. Churches deepened the freed people's idea of the meaning of community. They provided a place where freemen and women with shared beliefs and goals could come together and fight against the constant threat of white militia attack.