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Theology Thursdays: African-American Religion in the Nineteenth Century by Laurie Maffly-Kipp


The story of African-American religion is a tale of variety and creative fusion. Enslaved Africans transported to the New World beginning in the fifteenth century brought with them a wide range of local religious beliefs and practices. This diversity reflected the many cultures and linguistic groups from which they had come. The majority came from the west coast of Africa, but even within this area religious traditions varied greatly. Islam had also exerted a powerful presence in Africa for several centuries before the start of the slave trade: an estimated twenty percent of enslaved people were practicing Muslims. Catholicism had even established a presence in areas of Africa by the sixteenth century.

Preserving African religions in North America proved to be very difficult. The harsh circumstances under which most slaves lived--high death rates, the separation of families and tribal groups, and the concerted effort of white owners to eradicate "heathen" (or nonChristian) customs--rendered the preservation of religious traditions difficult and often unsuccessful. Isolated songs, rhythms, movements, and beliefs in the curative powers of roots and the efficacy of a world of spirits and ancestors did survive well into the nineteenth century. But these were increasingly combined in creative ways with the various forms of Christianity to which Europeans and Americans introduced African slaves. In Latin America, where Catholicism was most prevalent, slaves mixed African beliefs and practices with Catholic rituals and theology, resulting in the formation of entirely new religions such as vaudou in Haiti (later referred to as "voodoo"), Santeria in Cuba, and Candomblé in Brazil. But in North America, slaves came into contact with the growing number of Protestant evangelical preachers, many of whom actively sought the conversion of African Americans.

By 1810 the slave trade to the United States had officially ended and the slave population began to increase naturally, making way for the preservation and transmission of religious practices that were, by this time, truly "African-American." This transition coincided with the period of intense religious revivalism known as "awakenings." In the southern states, where the institution of slavery still prevailed, 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 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.

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. 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.

Meanwhile, in the northern states, freed blacks enjoyed a greater, if not yet equal, measure of freedom. Like their southern counterparts, they too were drawn to evangelical Protestant churches, and were encouraged by the message of racial equality that they found there. Yet while spiritual equality was preached frequently, it was not always practiced. In the 1790s black leaders, many of whom were educated, literate, and ready to organize, began to form their own independent black churches.

In cities with large numbers of freed blacks such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, leaders broke away from white Methodists and Baptists. By 1816, the first independent black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, came into existence, and was quickly followed by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1821.

It is important to emphasize to students that not all African Americans were slaves during the nineteenth century, and that the realities of life in the North and South for blacks, which were quite disparate, led inevitably to different kinds of religious patterns and organizations. In the North, educated blacks often assimilated very successfully into white culture (exemplified by the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, for example); indeed, that was precisely the goal for many. Thus, their churches most often replicated white evangelical patterns very closely. In the South, where slaves often remained much more isolated from whites, and for whom the "white church" often seemed like a sham, the invisible institution aided in the retention of many more African practices and beliefs that were incorporated into Christian worship.

At this point, students may be tempted both to dismiss northern blacks as mere imitators of white customs and embrace the "authentic" nature of southern black worship, or, if they themselves have deeply held evangelical commitments, they may judge slave worship as hopelessly nonChristian. The challenge is to present the context for both of these styles of worship such that students see why black believers in both the South and the North might have called themselves Christian, and might have practiced Christianity in the ways that they did. How did the social and political circumstances in which they lived shape their religious expression? Why would southern blacks have so closely associated the ideas of spiritual and political freedom, and northern blacks have been more careful to present their views as traditionally Protestant?

Aside from the obvious differences between northern and southern blacks, students may be fascinated, or utterly baffled, by the motivations of both blacks and whites in the South. Why would white owners have wanted to convert slaves to Christianity? What advantages and disadvantages would conversion have held for them? What tensions might revivalism have raised between slaves, white owners, and evangelical ministers? Why would slaves have wanted to adopt the religion of their masters? What did it mean, in practical terms, to be both spiritually free yet still owned as property? Finally, the big question: Was evangelical religion ultimately a positive thing for blacks, both southern and northern, or did it only help to make them obedient in the face of white oppression?

The final act of this drama of the emergence of a truly African-American religious tradition unfolded in the South in the years after the Civil War, when some four million ex-slaves were free to organize and worship as they saw fit. In a massive effort, northern black churches 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 churches founded in the northern states nearly a century earlier.

In 1894 black Baptists formed the National Baptist Convention, an organization which now represents the largest black religious organization in the United States.

Given the differences already outlined between northern and southern black experiences, it may be helpful here to explore some of the problems that arose as northern blacks attempted to convert their southern brothers and sisters. 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." They wanted to convince ex-slaves to give up any remnants of African practices 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 and understand the Bible. Hopefully, students can be coaxed into a discussion of these two very different understandings of what constitutes "real" religion and be made to see the logic of each.


Historians Debate

Only in recent years have scholars begun to investigate the varieties of African-American religious experience in nineteenth-century America. Slave religion has fared best of all so far, and the logical place to begin is with the extremely accessible and helpful work of Albert Raboteau. His Slave Religion (1978) is still an indispensable survey of the major themes surrounding the mixing of African religions and evangelical religion in the United States. His more recent essays in A Fire in the Bones (1996) also contain useful discussion of free black churches, black Catholicism in America, and a variety of other profitable topics.

Two debates have occupied much of the literature on African-American religions over the last several decades. The first surrounds arguments about the extent of African survivals in black Christian traditions: to what extent did over four hundred years of forced exile and enslavement eradicate African customs altogether? Raboteau takes up these questions and describes their background, and scholars since the 1970s have pursued it with increased vigor (the most active advocate of African "survivals" has been the historian Mechal Sobel; her works should be consulted for more specific examples). Since the 1970s, abundant evidence has emerged to document the ways in which remnants of African religious systems indeed survived the horrors of slavery.

Equally prominent has been the question of whether Christianity was, in retrospect, a helpful or harmful ideology for slaves and free blacks. In the early 1970s, scholars bolstered by Marxist philosophy argued that Christianity had prevented blacks from doing more to further their own political causes by encouraging submission to authority and passivity in the face of violence. The most sustained rejoinder to this assertion came in Gayraud Wilmore's Black Religion and Black Radicalism, in which Wilmore outlined a longstanding relationship between African-American religious leaders (mostly evangelical) and a commitment to political protest against slavery and inequality. More recent authors have come to a middle ground on this issue, tending to see the complexities of the role Christianity has played in the experience of American blacks rather than engaging in an "either/or" debate.

The most intriguing recent scholarship on African-American religions has dealt with the relatively neglected stories of northern free blacks and women in black churches. Since the mid-1980s, scholars have highlighted religion as one aspect of the many identities assumed by African Americans; they have helpfully focused attention on issues of class (middle class versus poorer blacks), gender, and region within black churches, as well as shedding new light on issues of race. Recent research accordingly has dealt with the post-Civil War era as a time of tremendous strain and transformation within African-American culture, as well as between whites and blacks, with the church as a primary political and cultural meeting point for many types of people. While much remains to be uncovered in this area, the best starting points are Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's Righteous Discontent and William Montgomery's Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree.




Thursday, May 22, 2003

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