Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Black Church - Lecture Notes



Many contended that all African religious traces were lost because of slavery in the USA.

Others, more recently, contend that Africans from diverse cultures and religious traditions, forcibly transported to America as slaves, retained many African customs even as they converted to Christianity.

The information existed all along but was ignored as the myth of “white deliverance of Africans” was accepted blindly.

Slave owners feared drum communication codes and the medical abilities of slave priests. Both were banned, but had to be banned because they were popular.  Immunization against small pox was one example.

Funeral rights were an example of where African traditions were retained.

First stage African worship: not Christian, but identifiable.
“Ring shout,” was an example.
Second stage: Christian and African traditions mixed.
Groups that tried to suppress African elements grew more slowly than those that did not.
Conversion was an experience unknown to African descendants, so reports of Christian conversion were largely fictitious.  To African Americans at this time, they would internalize what they experienced, but were not strictly “converted.”
Slave owners thought that converted slaves were more docile and easier to manage, which was also a myth.
Christian “conversion” did not change African worldviews, where there is a spiritual element to all things and creatures.
Third stage: the Great Awakening. 
The heightened spiritual dimension of the Great Awakening made it more attractive to African Americans.

Surviving traditions:
Shouting, spirit possession.
Spiritual music: many lyrics, beats and tones from Africa.
Church as extended family, brothers and sisters in Christ. Trying to create extended family of the African village.
Keep elders in office until the end, learn from them. No retirement for the experienced.
Flowery speeches of praise for elders, an African tradition.

Many African religious beliefs were right at home with Christianity.
God is: omniscient, omnipotent, just, and providential.
Reap what you sow.
Selective interpretation and acceptance of the Bible, especially about the punishment of the wicked even if they worship. Slave masters beware.
African terms of the high god matched well with Old Testament conceptions.
God is providential a deliverer in times of need and dispenser of ultimate justice.

Three new elements: Jesus, hell, the Bible as the word of God.

African Americans could identify with Jesus because he had been oppressed and had suffered for others. He was also a means to approach the high god, a common concept in African religions.
The high god could not be approached directly, it was ineffable and incomprehensible. Thus, you needed a way to approach. Problems should be solved, but any problem might eventually be solved by the high god.

African Americans had no native idea of Hell. But when evil slave masters died peacefully, and in prosperity, they came to accept that they went to a terrible punishment.  No matter your station in life, you go to the reward you have earned.

Bible: African American religious traditions have been oral and many were lost. But, they were open to learn more and discover more. In the Bible they found many parts that appealed to them, Moses and the opposition to slavery, the nobility of the humble and the generous, etc. Because they had great oral comprehension, once heard Bible tracts were often internalized.

1619-1750 The Silent Years

After a spirit is freed by the intervention of Christ, the bonds on the body still remain. This was often law, as in Virginia.
Slave spiritual gatherings were banned, because they naturally took place.
Reasons for no time for meetings:
1.     More time for work
2.     It might be a conspiracy
3.     They might be hatching rebellion

In New England African Americans were not admitted to white churches because they would hade had to become full citizens, with voting and legal powers, since church and state were still united.  

In the South the “invisible institutions” of African American religion paved the way for all future Black churches.

Christian conversions were very limited and small in number. Christian clergy did not want to be sent into the south, as there was little opportunity.

But, African Americans were interested in Christianity:
1.     They were open to differences in belief, based on integration of different beliefs when in Africa. They were curious.
2.     They found parts of the Bible that interested and attracted them.
3.     The free expression of African culture mixed well with the spiritual expressions of the Great Awakening.

African Americans hid their meetings as best they could from slave masters.
When Christian influences were included, it did not mean a decline in African influences.

1750-1800 First Black Congregations

First Great Awakening brought an acceptable form of Christianity to many African Americans.

Because there was no national organization, many African American congregations were independent. Thus, they could develop on their own, or create partnerships with other nearby churches.

A strong of great black preachers arose, who were powerful members of the community and even appealed to whites.  Some audiences were actually mixed. Visiting preachers were common.

The particularities of black worship became a bit concerning to whites, who wanted more formality and quiet. This caused the churches to remain separate.


Born free, freed, indentured servant, apprentice, etc.
Most Northern churches only elected those who were born free or freed.
White owners of slaves were not welcome at threes churches.
Because there were such barriers to literacy, literacy was often the key to leadership and organization.
But, those with outstanding verbal skills still could be great church leaders.
Congregations tended to organize along economic lines as well, especially in the North.
Major black denominations did not support female pastors.

1801-1840 Churches grow in the North.
Also huge growth in the South, but mostly invisible and underground.

1841-1865 Denominational bodies grow.
Denominations supported existing churches and created more.
They also formed bases for supporting abolition where they could.
Colored Methodist Episcopal
African Methodist Episcopal
AME Zion
Union Church of Africans
African Baptist Church

There was some limited cooperation between black and white churches, especially about abolition.


After the abolition of slavery the African American churches remain separate. All else was separate, so churches would be as well. Legal barriers were down, but it was still not fashionable to worship god together.

African American churches flourished during the early 20th Century:
1.     They were a place for community, replacing the village in that role.
2.     They were a substitute for a government that did not want to include them.
3.     They were a repository of traditional practice that maintained cultural integrity.
4.     Respect for ancestors made people want to attend the same church their parents had attended.
5.     It was a training ground for leadership that would spark the civil rights movement.
6.     It was a tended garden where rhetorical traditions could grow and develop.


Assumptions about African American religion:
1.     Religion helps shape worldview
2.     Indigenous sacred music of African Americans is tightly woven in text and performance with the lived experience of individuals
3.     Linguistic meanings and insights into cultural communities are produced through music
4.     Pervasiveness of “nommo” permeates all aspects of African American life.

Black spirituals are rooted in the slave experience p. 59

African American spirituals:
1.     Give comfort to the self
2.     Coping with life’s difficulties
3.     Conveying important messages to the group
4.     Promise of relief after judgment
5.     Send messages about escapes, rebellions and resistance

1.     Not static, but changing
2.     Often in their own vernacular language
3.     Call and response allows participation with the community
4.     Share personal experience with the community. Someone might pick a song as ask for it to be sung, or the preacher would pick an appropriate song.
5.     Communicate self worth, belonging, and the inevitability of justice.

78% of all African Americans are churched. Most in the black church.

Black spirituals express a view of cosmology:
1.     First name basis with god through Jesus.
2.     They share experiences and suffering with Jesus
3.     Experience builds to more intense level, where personal affirmation, confession and conversion can take place.
4.     They sing of suffering all around
5.     Binding connection with the past p. 6

No comments:

Post a Comment