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Religion in African American History
As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially afterthey gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention.
These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues.
The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Earlyth-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life.
Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.
African AmericanAfrican American religionsblack churchesnew religious movementsCivil Rights movementwomen and religionreligion and politics Enslavement and Religious Transformation African American religious cultures were born in the crucible of American slavery, a system that not only ruptured direct connections to African history, culture, and religious community, but also set the context for the emergence of transformed and new religious systems.
Africans brought forcibly to the Americas came from a variety of cultural, linguistic, and religious environments in West and West Central Africa. Most practiced ancient religious traditions focused on maintaining harmonious relationships with nature and supernatural beings, including gods, spirits, and ancestors.
Some enslaved Africans in America, especially those from the Senegambia region, were Muslim while others, such as those from the West African kingdom of Kongo who had come into contact with the Portuguese, were Catholic. African traditional religions dominated among those pressed into New World slavery, however, and these worldviews would serve as the ground for the development of varied African diaspora religious cultures.
The horrors of the Middle Passage in which more than 10 million Africans were transported to the Americas and consigned to chattel slavery made it impossible to perpetuate language, culture, and religion as they had existed in African contexts.
The cultural and religious resources they brought with them proved resilient and adaptable, however, and would contribute to the worldviews and practices that emerged under American slavery. Change over time, regional differences, and religious context are important considerations for understanding how African American religious cultures took shape in antebellum America and why they differ in significant ways from other parts of the African diaspora.
The large number of Africans transported to the Caribbean and Latin America and the longer duration of the trade in some regions meant that cultural and religious ties here were more vibrant than in the North American colonies, where only 5 percent of those transported from Africa arrived, primarily in the period from to In addition, the predominance of Catholicism in the French and Spanish colonies created a context in which enslaved Africans were able to combine their ritual work to maintain connections to gods and spirits with veneration of the Catholic saints.
Africans in the North American colonies were most likely to be enslaved by Protestant Europeans, who were more resistant to such blended religious practices. Although enslaved Africans in North America did not reproduce the varied religious systems of West and West Central Africa, these worldviews were among the many resources on which they drew to produce distinctive African American cultures, identity, and forms of resistance. Invested economically in the institution of slavery and committed to the notion of the inferiority of Africans, many slaveholders worried that conversion would require manumission and disrupt racial hierarchy.
Even with assurance from church and political leaders that conversion to Christianity did not mandate freedom for the enslaved, resistance among slaveholders remained strong, as white Anglican cleric Francis Le Jau found in his mission work in earlyth-century South Carolina, where the brutality of the slave system shocked him.
Le Jau also faced discomfort in a range of forms by slaveholders to shared religious commitment with blacks, including the refusal of one man to take Communion when enslaved Africans were at the Holy Table and queries from a woman about whether she would be forced to see her slaves in heaven. Many European Americans could not imagine African Americans having the capacity to understand Christianity and also feared that extending baptism and Christian fellowship would convince the enslaved of their equality to whites.
Consequently, the substance of Christian teaching that most missionaries and slaveholders conveyed focused not on liberation and equality but on divinely ordained racial hierarchy. It is not surprising that this sort of theological framework did not appeal to the majority of enslaved African Americans in colonial America. The ranks of the evangelical Baptists and Methodists grew through the spread of the revivals and, motivated by a commitment to spiritual equality, some white Baptists and Methodists questioned the moral grounds of slavery.
Ultimately, the opposition to abolition of most southern white Christian slaveholders motivated these denominations to step back from their antislavery positions. Despite the turn away from an explicitly antislavery Christian posture, Baptists and Methodists supported the development of black Christian leadership, licensing African American men to preach and helping to foster the beginnings of institutional life among black Christians.
The revivals of the Second Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th centuries extended the geographic reach of evangelicalism as the nation expanded into new territory and also drew increasing numbers of African Americans to Christianity.
In enthusiastic and embodied communal worship they also sang spirituals that spoke of sorrow, joy, justice, salvation, and liberation, and they danced the ring shout in a counterclockwise circular movement meant to make the Holy Spirit present. Slave religion, then, served as a source of individual and communal comfort and the means to endure the brutality of slavery. Black abolitionists, such as lecturer and journalist Maria W.
Stewart —who grounded her claims for social justice in biblical exegesis, and David Walker —whose Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World warned of divine punishment on America for the sins of oppression, exemplified this approach.
In other instances, religion fostered open rebellion against slavery, as with the planned revolt in in Richmond, Virginia, that participants organized in religious meetings led by Gabriel Prosser —the appeal to scripture and use of religious meetings to plan the aborted revolt of Denmark Vesey — in South Carolina inand the rebellion in Northampton, Virginia, organized by religious visionary and preacher Nat Turner — Even as the influence of religion on the men who led these rebellions against slavery is clear, evidence also exists that Christianity served to accommodate some enslaved African Americans to their status, as demonstrated in the address of enslaved poet and preacher Jupiter Hammon — in which he enjoined enslaved blacks to be the obedient servants he felt Christ called them to be and await their reward in heaven.
Conjure, derived from West Central African ritual work to harness the power of the natural and spiritual world to protect, heal, and sometimes harm, was a feature of African American culture, as were other folk healing practices using roots and herbs. Islam was also part of the religious world of enslaved Africans in the antebellum American South, with the relatively small number of Muslims struggling to maintain their religious practices, create community, and preserve the Arabic language across generations.
Muslims such as Omar ibn Said c. Taken together, this range of religious expressions provided resources for the development of culture in common, a sense of collective identity as African Americans, and affirmation of black humanity. Early independent black Baptist churches include the Silver Bluff, Georgia, church led in the s by David George c. The Baptist framework appealed to those in bondage because its structure of congregational autonomy supported local leadership and independence.
Although these formerly enslaved men and their largely enslaved congregants faced monitoring and restrictions on religious practice, the institutions they founded became important sites promoting African American interpretations of Christianity that affirmed the humanity of black people.
Free black Baptists in northern states, where slavery was abolished gradually following the American Revolution, also established important congregations. In many cases, black Methodists founded independent congregations in response to the racism they experienced in the predominantly white congregations to which they belonged.
In Philadelphia, Richard Allen —a former slave and licensed Methodist preacher, belonged to the predominantly white St. Allen, along with Absalom Jones —another former slave and lay preacher, and other black congregants objected to the increasing discrimination they suffered in their home church, marked most clearly by the new policy relegating black members to the church balcony.
Two congregations emerged from this movement, reflecting the varied theological and institutional interests among the former members of St. One contingent founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in with Absalom Jones, the first African American to be ordained an Episcopal priest, as its first rector, and the other formed Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in with Allen as its pastor.
In Allen called together the leaders of a number of other black Methodist congregations in the region and they formed the African Methodist Episcopal AME Church, the first black denomination in America, with Allen as the first bishop. Conflicts between leaders of various contingents of African Methodists led Varick and Zion Church to organize a small group of independent black Methodist congregations in under the denominational umbrella of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Clergy and members of the AME and AME Zion Churches often became public voices on pressing issues, a role that highlights the significance of churches in fostering black leadership throughout African American history.
African American denominations also contributed to black public life and culture throughout the 19th century by creating and supporting a range of economic enterprises, including publishing houses that produced journals and newspapers, including the AME Church Review, the Christian Recorder, and the Star of Zion, that covered religious and secular issues.
Religion in Black America - Wikipedia
By the end of the 19th century, black denominations also established a range of educational institutions. From their founding moments, then, independent African American denominations served as more than spiritual homes for black Christians; they also offered education, opportunity for economic development, a platform for political advocacy, and an environment that supported a collective sense of peoplehood.
Black women preachers such as Jarena Lee b. Grounding their insistence on a right to leadership in both biblical interpretation and the claim to have experienced a direct call from God, Lee and other 19th-century preaching women in the AME and AME Zion Churches called their denominations to live up to their stated missions of proclaiming the equality of all under God.
Facing resistance from the male leadership of their churches and from many male and female members, these women persisted in their work as itinerant evangelists and some published spiritual narratives to recount their experiences and promote their claims.
Zion became the first black denomination to ordain women when Julia Foote — was ordained a deacon ina status women in the AME Church gained in Despite the limited access to formal leadership roles, women within these independent black church denominations, who constituted the majority of members, were active contributors to the life of the church, serving as fundraisers, evangelists, and missionaries, for example. Culture and class differences sometimes led to conflict, however, as AME Church leaders sought to restrain the enthusiasm of southern black worship and impose their own standards of respectability.
The Reconstruction period also saw the founding of the Colored now Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in in Jackson, Tennessee, by former enslaved members of the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Drawing together independent black Baptist congregations and mission and educational societies, the NBC emerged at its founding moment in Atlanta under the leadership of former slave Elias C. In addition, black Baptist women in the 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to the life of the church as individual evangelists or as licensed preachers.
Although the women of the WC and the NBC at large did not organize to press for ordination, black Baptist women nevertheless initiated significant public discussions within their denomination about religion, gender, and equality.
Some African Americans found spiritual homes in predominantly white churches, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Episcopal denominations, drawn by family ties, theological appeal, or style of worship. For many who had been enslaved in regions with large Roman Catholic populations, Catholicism was the dominant culture that shaped their religious lives. As with other predominantly white denominations, access to leadership in Roman Catholicism was often restricted and African American men found it difficult to gain admission to the priesthood.
A few prominent black priests made their mark on 19th-century black Catholic life, however, including former Missouri slave August Tolton —who was ordained in Rome inand Charles Randolph Uncles — of Baltimore, who became the first African American ordained in the United States.
In a number of important instances, black women were successful in founding religious orders through which they could pursue their religious vocations.
Although the orders remained small, black Catholic sisters were visible figures in 19th-century African American Catholic life.
- Religion in Black America
African American lay Catholics organized at the end of the 19th century to represent their interests as a group to the church at large and, despite experiences of racism and exclusion, to promote Catholicism among black Protestants as a universal and inclusive tradition. Former slave and Ohio journalist Daniel A. Rudd — founded The American Catholic Tribune in to promote black Catholic interests, and he stood at the forefront of the Colored Catholic Congress movement that called black Catholics together from to to discuss their status within the church and to strategize to oppose racism in church and society.
Christian Mission at Home and Abroad In the late 19th century, African American denominations turned their attention to Africa as a mission site and, in some instances, as a place to settle and pursue black self-governance. While black missionaries had worked through white mission societies earlier in the century, the support of black-led denominational structures made additional connections to Africa possible and allowed African Americans to frame their work in ways that spoke directly to their concerns.
Where the biblical story of the Exodus had provided a map of meaning and a ground for hope for many enslaved and free African Americans in the antebellum period, after the end of slavery African American Christians looked to the Bible for other sources of inspiration and knowledge about their future. After the Great Awakeningmany blacks joined the Baptist Churchwhich allowed for their participation, including roles as elders and preachers.
For instance, First Baptist Church and Gillfield Baptist Church of Petersburg, Virginiaboth had organized congregations by and were the first Baptist churches in the city. Black sermonic tradition Historian Bruce Arnold argues that successful black pastors historically undertook multiple roles.
The black pastor is the paterfamilias of his church, responsible for shepherding and holding the community together, passing on its history and traditions, and acting as spiritual leader, wise counselor, and prophetic guide. The black pastor is a counselor and comforter stressing transforming, sustaining, and nurturing abilities of God to help the flock through times of discord, doubts, and counsels them to protect themselves against emotional deterioration. The black pastor is a community organizer and intermediary.
Raboteau describes a common style of black preaching first developed in the early nineteenth century, and common throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries: The preacher begins calmly, speaking in conversational, if oratorical and occasionally grandiloquent, prose; he then gradually begins to speak more rapidly, excitedly, and to chant his words and time to a regular beat; finally, he reaches an emotional peak in which the chanted speech becomes tonal and merges with the singing, clapping, and shouting of the congregation.
White Baptists expressed the view that: God had chastised them and given them a special mission — to maintain orthodoxy, strict biblicism, personal piety, and traditional race relations. Slavery, they insisted, had not been sinful. Rather, emancipation was a historical tragedy and the end of Reconstruction was a clear sign of God's favor. God's gift of freedom.
They appreciated opportunities to exercise their independence, to worship in their own way, to affirm their worth and dignity, and to proclaim the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.
Most of all, they could form their own churches, associations, and conventions. These institutions offered self-help and racial uplift, and provided places where the gospel of liberation could be proclaimed. As a result, black preachers continued to insist that God would protect and help him; God would be their rock in a stormy land. They are conducive to developing in the Negro a complacent, laissez-faire attitude toward life. They support the view that God in His good time and in His own way will bring about the conditions that will lead to the fulfillment of social needs.
They encourage Negroes to feel that God will see to it that things work out all right; if not in this world, certainly in the world to come. They make God influential chiefly in the beyond, and preparing a home for the faithful — a home where His suffering servants will be free of the trials and tribulations which beset them on earth. In a process of self-segregation, practically all blacks left white churches so that few racially integrated congregations remained apart from some Catholic churches in Louisiana.
Four main organizations competed with each other across the South to form new Methodist churches composed of freedmen. Pearcean AME minister in Florida: