History of the Black ChurchBlack Churches During the colonial period, the Christianization of slaves
was erratic and generally ineffective until the 1740s.
Then evangelical revivals began to attract significant numbers of black converts,
largely because they enabled the lower classes,
including slaves, to pray and preach in public.
In the emotional fervor of the revival meetings
whites and blacks preached to and converted one another.
Baptists and Methodists licensed black men to preach, and by the 1770s some black ministers,
slave as well as free, were pastoring their own congregations.
Black churches in the South were subject to restrictions
intended to prevent unsupervised slave assemblies.
But despite occasional white harassment, southern black churches survived
and provided a limited religious independence.
In the antebellum years, Christianity spread gradually among the slaves.
Some attended church with whites or under white supervision,
but the majority had little if any access to formal church services.
Nevertheless slaves often conducted their own religious meetings,
with or without their owners' consent.
They developed a distinctive Christianity in which blacks figured as
God's chosen people awaiting their exodus from American bondage.
The spirituals, which expressed the slaves' religious traditions,
were also a way of transmitting these traditions to future generations.
In the North, the abolition of slavery gave blacks more leeway to exercise their religious preferences.
Roused by discriminatory treatment in white-dominated churches,
blacks in Philadelphia founded two influential churches,
Bethel African Methodist and St. Thomas African Episcopal in 1794.
Bethel's pastor, Richard Allen, and St. Thomas's pastor,
Absalom Jones, both former slaves, exercised civic leadership
in the black community in Philadelphia.
Over the next decade, separate black congregations sprang
up in free black communities across the North.
In 1816, the first major black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church,
was formed under the leadership of Richard Allen.
Because the church was the only institution that African-Americans controlled,
it served as the primary forum for addressing their
social and political, as well as religious, needs.
Many of the leading black activists in the abolition movement
And when the first National Negro Convention was organized in 1830,
it met at Bethel A.M.E. church in Philadelphia with Richard Allen presiding.
Black churches were overwhelmingly Protestant
because blacks had little contact with Roman Catholicism
outside of Maryland and Louisiana.
Some blacks did become Catholics, however,
and because other religious orders refused black candidates,
two communities of black nuns were founded-
-the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829 and the
Holy Family Sisters in 1842.
The first black American priest, James Augustine Healy,
was ordained in 1854.
Black church membership was predominantly female,
but its clergy was exclusively male since black women
were barred from ordination until the twentieth century.
Exceptional laywomen preachers like Jarena Lee and Amanda Berry Smith
were approved as traveling evangelists by the A.M.E. church,
but women were not allowed to head congregations.
Women led home prayer meetings and served on auxiliary,
missionary, and Sunday school boards.
The first Americans to embark on foreign missions were
two Virginia-born black Baptists.
In the 1780s, George Liele established churches in Jamaica,
and David George founded congregations in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.
With support from the American Colonization Society, the A.M.E. missionary Daniel Coker
sailed to Sierra Leone in 1820 and the black Baptist Lott Carey
began work in Liberia in 1821.
The A.M.E. church also established missions in Haiti and Canada.
During the Civil War, northern missionaries headed South
in the wake of the Union armies to organize schools and churches among the former slaves.
The increase in southern members enlarged the size of northern black
denominations and made them national in scope.
When Reconstruction opened electoral politics
to black participation, ministers took active roles,
Subsequently, violence and disfranchisement drove blacks
out of politics and relegated black leaders primarily to the church.
In the late nineteenth century, worsening race relations
prompted some black Americans to encourage large-scale emigration to Africa.
One of the most forceful proponents of emigration was A.M.E. bishop Henry McNeal Turner,
whose ordination of South African ministers contributed to
the development of an independent African church movement.
Few black Americans emigrated, but the belief in pan-African unity
inspired prominent black clergy like the Episcopalian Alexander Crummell,
a former missionary to Liberia,
to preach that it was the divinely appointed
destiny of African-Americans to convert Africa to Christianity.
Black church membership at the end of the century
stood at 2.7 million out of a population of 8.3 million.
Baptists constituted the largest denomination.
In 1895, they formed the National Baptist Convention, Inc.,
which split into two branches twelve years later.
As time passed, new Holiness and Pentecostal churches disrupted older
black denominations by emphasizing doctrines of
sanctification and speaking in tongues.
A black preacher, William J. Seymour, led the 1906 Azusa Street Revival in
Los Angeles that gave rise to Pentecostal churches across the nation.
Beginning in the 1890s and mounting steadily during and after World War I,
rural southern blacks migrated to cities
in the North as well as the South. Larger city churches,
like Abyssinian Baptist in New York and Olivet Baptist in Chicago,
developed extensive social services to assist the newcomers.
Migrants strained the resources of existing urban churches
and transported rural congregations into the small home
and storefront churches that proliferated in the growing ghettos.
Urbanization also presented new religious alternatives.
Catholicism attracted significant numbers of blacks,
primarily because of parochial schools.
Esoteric versions of Judaism and Islam flourished,
asserting that Christianity was a religion exclusively for whites.
Charismatic religious leaders like Father Divine gained followers
with promises of health and happiness in this world as well as the next.
Twentieth-century urbanization and modernization challenged
the black church as a conservative and apolitical institution.
At the same time, black intellectuals celebrated
Despite secular competition, the church retained
a strong influence in black social, cultural, and political life.
Secular organizations, such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association
and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
depended heavily upon the support of local ministers and churches,
as did the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The career of Martin Luther King, Jr., epitomized for many the
religious basis of the political struggle for racial equality,
and two decades later, Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaigns
for the presidency demonstrated the organizational
strength of the black churches.
In the 1960s and 1970s black militants claimed that Christianity
was incompatible with black identity and power.
Some were attracted by the separatist ideals of the
Nation of Islam as articulated by Malcolm X.
In response, some black clergy formulated a black theology
that emphasized liberation from oppression as the central gospel message.
Recently, black women theologians have condemned sexism in the church.
The black church is no longer the only institution
in which black Americans exercise control.
The authority of the church, according to some social analysts,
has weakened, especially among the urban poor,
but statistically black church membership has remained high.
C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya,
The Black Church in the American Experience (1990);
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (1978).
Albert J. Raboteau
African American Figurines
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