Miller, A.G. (1986). African American Youth & Church. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.
The church is probably the most powerful and influential institution in the history of the African American community. Some of its former impact and influence has been lost through secularization and new possibilities for black leadership in civil, political, social, and business arenas. Still, the church remains the most independent institution of the African American community.
In order to understand the African American religious experience, recall its history. Slaves in captivity brought with them the West African religious ethos. In this religious ethos, there is no distinction between secular and spiritual. All of life is saturated by the spiritual. Some African cultures did not even have a word to express our concept of “religion” as a separate component of their world view. The African cosmology was electrified by the religious and thus was alive with song, rhythm, and excitement. This helps to explain why some African American churches are high-spirited and sometimes highly ecstatic-contrasting the often more stoic, structured Euro-American liturgical style.
Another source of early African American religious experience was slavery itself. Due to the harshness of slavery and its post-Civil War cousin, “Jim Crow” segregation, the African American church came to a vibrant understanding of Jesus Christ as suffering Lord. The Old and New Testament understanding of social justice also became a predominant source of hope for oppressed African Americans. Spiritual communities of slaves began to band together to worship, pray, and support one another through oppressive times. In the South, many of these churches were forbidden and, therefore, met secretly or under the watchful eye of a white person. Despite such restraints, these black Christians developed subtle ways to communicate the deepest of feelings and faith in Jesus Christ as well as their strong yearnings for freedom.
Out of these experiences grew the early forms of the organized African American church:
- The African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia in 1788.
- Joy Street African Baptist Church of Boston in 1805.
- The African Methodist Episcopal Church (with black congregations initially established within the Methodist Episcopal Church in the late 1700s-in Philadelphia; New York City; Baltimore; Wilmington, Delaware; and Charleston, South Carolina) founded in 1816 by its first bishop, Richard Allen, and others.
- The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1822.
This broad expression of Christian faith also grew radical branches. Some religious leaders and church lay leaders, such as Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, organized slave insurrections and unsuccessful plots. Many black preachers-too numerous to mention-were actively involved in various abolitionist movements. Black preachers such as Henry M. Turner were chaplains and recruiters for the Union Army in the Civil War. Deeply religious women like Harriet Tubman, who led many runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad, were active in abolitionism and the Civil War.
During the twentieth century, some social functions of the African American church became intertwined with secular organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. The church, not abandoning its spiritual emphasis, also sponsored schools and institutions of higher learning, cared for the infirm, and pushed for social justice. The African American church’s concern for social justice was evident in the civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Church lay people, like Fannie Lou Hamer, were significant leaders. Many civil rights leaders were also church leaders, chiefly Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, some would criticize the African American church for being excessively spiritual. Black liberation theologians (Dr. James Cone and others) and black activists have challenged the church to be more relevant and holistic.
The African American church must be recognized as a powerful, diverse, and complex institution fulfilling many vital functions-spiritual, social, political, cultural, and educational. Its impact is profound, through music, community, rhetoric, and the cultivation of a deep sense of the religious among both old and young.
Listed below are other major black denominations. This list is by no means exhaustive. It does not include many medium-sized and smaller independent congregations and denominations, nor does it include the large number of autonomous black congregations in the predominantly white denominations:
- Christian Methodist Church, founded in 1870.
- Church of Christ (Holiness), founded in 1911.
- Church of God in Christ, founded in 1897.
- National Baptist Convention, USA, founded in 1892.
- Progressive National Baptist Convention, founded in 1961.
- Most white Americans can list a dozen white denominations, but only one or two African American churches (if that). Respect demands knowledge.
- There is no adequate understanding of black history without knowledge of and appreciation for the contributions of black religion and black church leaders.
- The significance of the black church continues and non-black Americans can learn from the interaction between church and politics seen through African Americans.
Albert G. Miller
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