Every February, African Americans and the nation alike, take the month to reflect upon the history of Black people in these United States. From the beginnings of slavery to the election of the first African American president, Black people have made many strides along the way and have certainly made their mark in the annals of American history.
In recognition, this is Part Two in OurWeekly’s four-part series on the 15 most pivotal aspects of Black History.
12. The Black Church
From the “hush harbors” of the 19th century to the modern “mega churches,” faith in scripture has been a hallmark of the African American experience. It’s a long history, stretching back to the venerable “call and response” of the old plantation fields that was recited and rejoined to help sustain weary souls during centuries of social deprivation.
While slaves were strictly prohibited from gathering in any form of worship, the Old Testament tales from Exodus recounting the deliverance of the Jews from captivity resembled a contemporary cry for a leader—a “Messiah”—to guide them through a wilderness of uncertainty. “Go Down Moses” was a frequent refrain of hope resonating daily within the lush Southern vistas of rice, tobacco and cotton.
“Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” became a familiar tome of hope during a continual search for truth and salvation. Even young David’s triumph against Goliath (representing the Jews and their plight against the Philistines, and for Black slaves, the defeat of the slavemaster), and so many other tales from the Old Testament, have for centuries served as stories of hope for African Americans in a never-ending quest for social stability.
Not purely ‘blind faith’
The urban regions of America’s big cities are replete with Black houses of worship. Locally, a leisurely drive along Broadway from Downtown to the Athens District near Watts may find as many as 100 sancturaries—some sprawling, others quietly serving their defined purpose—all vowing to save souls. Taking as example the fate of the Walls of Jericho, the persistence of faith within the Black church eventually knocked down and breached America’s centuries-old “gates of hate” that once shielded the rationale of chattel slavery, Jim Crow—and a resurgent wave of social exclusion—from divine providence. It is not purely “blind faith” that regularly leads African Americans to church but, rather, a long and resilient history of fellowship and social organizing that has helped to foster community improvement in the face of sparse governmental input and private-sector apathy.
As the Book of Job pointed to the virtues of patience and unyielding faith in acknowledging God’s promise of deliverance from adversity, so has the Black church served as a foundation of courage and perseverance in troubled times. In 1963, African Americans demonstrating for civil rights were heartened and emboldened by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in which the Nobel Laureate took guidance from St. Paul’s letters 2,000 years ago to a weary Christian church (Romans, Galatians, Corinthians) under siege from Rome. King, like St. Paul, wrote while being persecuted in offering encouragement to believers and to refute his critics: “... just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Grecco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town.”