The church in the Southern Black community
An introduction to the church in the southern Black community.
By Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp Associate Professor of Religious Studies University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – May 2001
The collection of documents brought together in this project begins to tell the story of the growth of Protestant religion among African Americans during the 19th century, and of the birth of what came to be known as the “Black church” in the United States. This development continues to have enormous political, spiritual, and economic consequences. But perhaps what is most apparent in these texts is the diversity of ways in which that religious tradition was envisioned, experienced, and implemented. From the white Baptist and Methodist missionaries sent to convert enslaved Africans, to the earliest pioneers of the independent Black denominations, to Black missionaries in Africa, to the eloquent rhetoric of W.E.B. DuBois, the story of the Black church is a tale of variety and struggle in the midst of constant racism and oppression. It is also a story of constant change, and of the coincidence of cultural cohesion among enslaved Africans and the introduction of Protestant evangelicalism to their communities.
The church during slavery
For our purposes, the ac-count begins in the decades after the American Revolution, as Northern states gradually began to abolish slavery. As a result, sharper differences emerged between the experiences of enslaved peoples in the South and those Northerners who were now relatively free. By 1810 the slave trade to the United States had come to an end and the slave population began to increase naturally, giving rise to an increasingly large native-born population of African Americans. With fewer migrants who had experienced Africa personally, these transformations allowed the myriad cultures and language groups of enslaved Africans to blend together, making way for the preservation and trans-mission of religious practices that were increasingly “African-American.”
This transition coincided with the period of intense religious revivalism known as “awakenings.” In the Southern states beginning in the 1770s, increasing numbers of slaves converted to evangelical religions such as the Methodist and Baptist faiths.
Many clergy within these denominations actively promoted the idea that all Christians were equal in the sight of God, a message that provided hope and sustenance to the slaves. They also encouraged worship in ways that many Africans found to be similar, or at least adaptable, to African worship patterns, with enthusiastic singing, clapping, dancing, and even spirit-possession. Still, many white owners and clergy preached a message of strict obedience, and insisted on slave attendance at white-controlled churches, since they were fearful that if slaves were allowed to worship independently they would ultimately plot rebellion against their owners. It is clear that many Blacks saw these white churches, in which ministers promoted obedience to one’s master as the highest religious ideal, as a mockery of the “true” Christian message of equality and liberation as they knew it.
In the slave quarters, however, African Americans organized their own “invisible institution.” Through signals, passwords, and messages not discernible to whites, they called believers to “hush harbors” where they freely mixed African rhythms, singing, and beliefs with evangelical Christianity. We have little remaining written record of these religious gatherings. But it was here that the spirituals, with their double meanings of religious salvation and freedom from slavery, developed and flourished; and here, too, that Black preachers, those who believed that God had called them to speak his Word, polished their “chanted sermons,” or rhythmic, intoned style of extemporaneous preaching.
Part church, part psychological refuge, and part organizing point for occasional acts of outright rebellion (Nat Turner, whose armed insurrection in Virginia in 1831 resulted in the deaths of scores of white men, women, and children, was a self-styled Baptist preacher), these meetings provided one of the few ways for enslaved African Americans to express and enact their hopes for a better future.
Emancipation from slavery in 1863 posed distinctive religious challenges for African Americans in the South. When the Civil War finally brought freedom to previously enslaved peoples, the task of organizing religious communities was only one element of the larger need to create new lives—to reunite families, to find jobs, and to figure out what it would mean to live in the United States as citizens rather than property. Northern Blacks, having already gained freedom, wanted to bring their nascent Black churches to their freed Southern brethren. Yet they saw Emancipation as an enormous logistical challenge: how could Black Protestants meet the many needs of newly freed slaves and truly welcome them into a Christian community? For both Southern and Northern Blacks, Emancipation promised a meeting between two African-American religious traditions that had moved far apart, in terms of both theology and ritual, in the previous seventy years. In significant respects, the story of African-American religion between Emancipation and the Northern migration that began just prior to World War I is a tale of regionally distinctive communities that found several areas of common cause, not the least of which were the advent of Jim Crow and lynching as ominous new forms of racism.
A long history of antislavery and political activity among Northern Black Protestants had convinced them that they could play a major role in the adjustment of the four million freed slaves to American life. In a massive missionary effort, Northern Black leaders such as Daniel A. Payne and Theophilus Gould Steward established missions to their Southern counterparts, resulting in the dynamic growth of independent Black churches in the Southern states between 1865 and 1900. Predominantly white denominations, such as the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopal churches, also sponsored missions, opened schools for freed slaves, and aided the general welfare of Southern Blacks, but the majority of African-Americans chose to join the independent Black denominations founded in the Northern states during the antebellum era. Within a decade the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) churches claimed Southern membership in the hundreds of thousands, far outstripping that of any other organizations. They were quickly joined in 1870 by a new Southern-based denomination, the Colored (now “Christian”) Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by indigenous Southern Black leaders. Finally, in 1894 Black Baptists formed the National Baptist Convention, an organization that is currently the largest Black religious organization in the United States.
Growth and development of the church
In many ways this missionary effort was enormously successful. It helped finance and build new churches and schools, it facilitated a remarkable increase in Southern Black literacy (from 5% in 1870 to approximately 70% by 1900), and, as had been the case in the North, it promoted the rise of many African American leaders who worked well outside the sphere of the church in politics, education, and other professions. But it also created tensions between Northerners, who saw themselves in many respects as the superiors and mentors of their less fortunate Southern brethren, and Southerners, who had their own ideas about how to worship, work, and live. Not all ex-slaves welcomed the “help” of the Northerners, Black or white, particularly because most Northern Blacks (like whites) saw Southern Black worship as hopelessly “heathen.” Missionaries like Daniel Payne, an AME bishop, took t as their task to educate Southern Blacks about what “true” Christianity looked like; they wanted to convince ex-slaves to give up any remnants of African practices (such as drumming, dancing, or moaning) and embrace a more sedate, intellectual style of religion. Educational differences played a role in this tension as well: Southern Blacks, most of whom had been forbidden from learning to read, saw religion as a matter of oral tradition and immediate experience and emotion; Northerners, however, stressed that one could not truly be Christian unless one was able to read the Bible and understand the creeds and written literature that accompanied a more textually-oriented religious system.
Freedom also brought with it opportunities for self-improvement and “getting ahead,” and differences of class and location also fostered different kinds of religious practices and beliefs. Gradually, Southern religious life became as variegated as that in the North, with Protestant churches to suit a variety of styles. Generally, poorer and more rural churches tended to cling more tenaciously to older customs, and to more experiential forms of worship, and since the vast majority of Southern Blacks remained in rural areas, many of the traditions inherited from the “hush harbors” of slavery—including root work, chanted preaching, and particularly musical styles—remained a part of church life. In Southern cities, as the numbers of educated and middle-class African Americans grew, so too did the interest in a more codified and uniform religious experience like that of the North.
Meanwhile, African American religion in urban areas of the South also changed dramatically, particularly after the 1880s. Here, issues of class predominated, as middle-class Blacks began to build a religious life much like that of their white counterparts: the AME Church, in particular, was noted for its large, formal churches, its educational network of schools and colleges, and its vast publishing arm that included several publications by the end of the century. Black religious leaders became involved in some of the interdenominational institutions, such as the YMCA and the Sunday School movement, that were the bulwarks of evangelical life at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet unlike white evangelical leaders of the day, who were also engaged in theological battles about biblical history and interpretation, middle-class Blacks kept their eyes trained toward the basic social injustices wrought by American racism. This battle, which had steadily worsened after the 1870s, promoted a degree of political unity among Black Protestant groups that, at times, outweighed their many differences.
Women in the church
Yet there were some internal tensions. With the emergence of middle-class membership came issues about women’s participation in the church, as some Black women now had the relative leisure to look beyond the immediacies of life. Several female leaders in this era raised the issue of women’s ordination, only to be rebuffed by the male hierarchy. Instead, women formed missionary societies to address all manner of local and international needs, from the support of job training in their communities to funding for African American missionaries to Africa. They worked on urban ills, established reading groups, and advocated for better living conditions. They also wrote for religious periodicals, promoting quite traditional ideals of Victorian womanhood, respectability, and racial uplift. Women also continued work among their less fortunate counterparts in the rural South, in what continued to be an uneasy alliance. Like male religious leaders, too, they protested the creeping effects of Jim Crow laws and the systematic violence of lynching.
Most significant for us today, these African American church leaders recognized the importance of what they were doing for future generations of Americans. They wrote histories, biographies, memoirs, and other accounts of religious life in the South during this era. It is through these written texts that we still have access to the many voices that comprise the first century of the Black church in the United States.