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Black Churches, Black Theology and American History
Stained Glass from Trinity Church in Chicago
April 25, 2008

"Black churches are very powerful forces in the African American community and always have been. Because religion has been that one place where you have an imagination that no one can control. And so, as long as you know that you are a human being and nobody can take that away from you, then God is that reality in your life that enables you to know that." --James H. Cone

Reverend Jeremiah Wright, interviewed on the April 25, 2008 edition of BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, echoes James Cone's sentiment and traces the social strength of the black church in America far beyond the image of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders. Indeed, some commentators, and Wright himself, attribute some of the reaction to snippets of Wright's sermons to a lack of understanding of the history of African American Christianity. "[They] know nothing about the prophetic theology of the African-American experience, ... know nothing about the black church, who don't even know how we got a black church."

In early America, Christianity was used to justify both slavery and abolition. In his talk with Bill Moyers, Reverend Wright remarked on the early use of Christian doctrines by African Americans to argue against enslavement. As in freed man David Walker's appeal of 1829 which stated in part:

They tell us of the Israelites in Egypt, the Helots in Sparta, and of the Roman Slaves, which last were made up from almost every nation under heaven, whose sufferings under those ancient and heathen nations, were, in comparison with ours, under this enlightened and Christian nation, no more than a cypher — or, in other words, those heathen nations of antiquity, had but little more among them than the name and form of slavery; while wretchedness and endless miseries were reserved, apparently in a phial, to be poured out upon, our fathers ourselves and our children, by Christian Americans!
  • Read all of David Walker's appeal

    In the antebellum South many states had laws on their books prohibiting anyone from teaching a slave to read. After Emancipation education was a primary goal of the newly freed. Ex-slaves built schools all over the South, with and without the help of Northern Christian Abolitionists like those who founded the United Church of Christ.

    "In 1874 my daddy moved up on his own place at Hurricane Creek. There he built a church and built a school and I went to the school on our own place...Later I went to school at Shaw University. I went to state school in my last year because they would give you a lifetime certificate when you finished there. I mean a lifetime teaching certificate for Mississippi."--Samuel S. Taylor, Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936-1938

    Rev. Wright notes that the church expanded as the graduates of these schools and universities moved North. And many moved away from a Christianity which seemed to them to be rooted in a white experience of history and faith.

    James H. Cone and Black Theology

    Divinity schools and universities around the world include James Cone on their reading lists. Cone is known as the founder of black theology — a philosophy Cone first laid out in BLACK POWER AND BLACK THEOLOGY in 1969:
    As we examine what contemporary theologians are saying, we find that they are silent about the enslaved condition of black people. Evidently they see no relationship between black slavery and the Christian gospel. Consequently there has been no sharp confrontation of the gospel with white racism. There is, then, a desperate need for a black theology, a theology whose sole purpose is to apply the freeing power of the gospel to black people under white oppression.
    Cone furthered the idea with A BLACK THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION, which stated: "Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ's message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology." Liberation theology became and remains, a powerful philosophy and movement throughout the world.

    The Church and the Music

    Reverend Wright notes that in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois said "there are three ingredients to the black church: preaching, music, and the holy spirit. Now, I wish I had coined that phrase." Wright, and James Cone have studied the music of African and African-American traditions. As Wright notes both spirituals and the blues send a message "I'm not giving up life over this. 'Cause life goes on beyond this pain is just for a moment. This whole notion about what we're going through is only a season. And this came to pass, didn't come to stay. That's what the blues do. And that's what the music tradition does. That's what the spirituals have done and that's what the gospel music has done, historically, in our church."

  • View a performance by Bernice Johnson Reagon

    Published on April 25, 2008.

  • Related Media:
    James Cone, photo by Robin Holland James Cone
    With the noose and the lynching tree entering the national discussion in the wake of recent news events, Bill Moyers interviews theologian James Cone about how these powerful images relate to the symbol of the cross and how they signify both tragedy and triumph.

    Bernice Johnson Reagon Bernice Johnson Reagon
    Performer, activist, songwriter and scholar, Bernice Johnson Reagon has for over 40 years been singing, preaching and teaching traditional African American music and its cultural history.

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu The Kerner Commission — 40 Years Later
    THE JOURNAL looks at an update of the Kerner Commission Report, which blamed the violence on the devastating poverty and hopelessness endemic in the inner cities of the 1960s and includes an interview with former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, one of the last living members of the Kerner Commission.

    Emmett Till and his mother The Legacy of Lynching
    "...blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching."

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu Archbishop Desmond Tutu
    Bill Moyers sat down with Archbishop Tutu in 1999 discussing his chairmanship of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

    References and Reading:
    Explore the Web site for THIS FAR BY FAITH, a six-hour PBS series that examines the African American religious experience through the past three centuries.

    The Religious Cancer of Racism
    James H. Cone, BeliefNet, "White theologians should study racism as seriously as they investigate the historical Jesus."

    Black Theology Revisited
    Reviewed by F. Burton Nelson, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, March 2004
    "Following the first generation of black theologians, especially Cone, Hopkins says that for the movement to evolve, black theology must always be linked with the liberation of the poor and oppressed. It should have a continuing link with the prophetic black churches and church-related institutions."

    Black Liberation Theology in Media Spotlight
    Scholars from the Union Theological Seminary offer a variety of perspectives on Black Liberation Theology in the light of recent media attention.

    James Melvin Washington
    Find out more about historian and minister James Washington, author of CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD: TWO CENTURIES OF PRAYERS BY AFRICAN AMERICANS.

    "Africentric Church," RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, May 20, 2005
    "In the eyes of some African Americans, the role of Christianity has not always been a positive one, especially in the context of slavery and the civil rights movement."

    "The Cross and the Lynching Tree,"
    TRINITY NEWS, October 12, 2007
    Read Dr. Cone's essay explaining what the cross means in America - by way of the noose and the lynching tree. Also watch Dr. Cone's interview from the National Theological Conference here.

    The Web site for the PBS film presents an interactive history of the horrors and trials of segregation from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the modern Civil Rights Movement. The site includes interactive maps, oral histories and many interactive tools.

    Bernice Johnson Reagon's Web site
    Visit Ms. Reagon's official Web site, featuring detailed biographical information, streaming audio, Ms. Reagon's upcoming appearances calendar, and further information about what Ms. Reagon is currently working on.

    Sweet Honey on the Rock
    Learn more about Sweet Honey on the Rock, the internationally-acclaimed women's a capella ensemble created by Ms. Reagon in 1973.

    Sweet Chariot: the Story of the Spirituals
    The Center for Teaching & Learning at the University of Denver presents this multimedia Web site exploring the history and legacy of spirituals in America.

    The Spirituals Project
    "The Spirituals Project is a broad-based initiative to explore the many, varied dimensions of African American spirituals as art form, tradition and tool; and to invite all people to experience the joy and power of this dynamic music and gift from African Americans to the world."

    Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
    Explore an immense online audio library of folk music from around the world. "Through the dissemination of audio recordings and educational materials we seek to strengthen people's engagement with their own cultural heritage and to enhance their awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of others."

    PBS: Africans in America
    Ms. Reagon scored this four-part PBS series, produced by WGBH.

    See these additional sites from PBS:


  • Also This Week:

    Bill Moyers interviews the Reverend Jeremiah Wright in his first broadcast interview with a journalist since he became embroiled in a controversy for his remarks and his relationship with Barack Obama. Wright, who retired in early 2008 as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Senator Obama is a member, has been at the center of controversy for comments he made during sermons, which surfaced in the press in March.

    From David Walker's "Appeal" through Freedman's School and Black Theology — learn more.

    Celebrate National Poetry Month with exclusive online videos.

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