African American voices have always been lifted to Heaven. The infamous plantation fields may yield a valuable clue about why: the old “call and response” that was recited and rejoined to help sustain weary souls during centuries of back-breaking drudgery.
The Old Testament tales from Exodus recounting the deliverance of the Jews from captivity resembled the plight of the African slaves forever longing for a leader—a “Messiah”—to guide them through a societal wilderness of uncertainty.
“Go Down Moses” was also 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 eventual triumph against Goliath (representing the Jews and their fight against the Philistines, and for Black slaves, the defeat of the slavemaster), and so many other tales from the Old Testament, have served for centuries as a guide for African Americans in a never-ending quest for social stability.
Despite all the valued Black leaders—from today and yesterday—the greatest and most influential body of thought and purpose for African Americans in their near 400-year odyssey in Western civilization has been the church. From the little “storefronts” dotting the typical American inner city, to the Sampson-esque “mega structures,” history reveals that the church has been the singular foundation of freedom, prosperity and perpetual hope for African Americans.
In Los Angeles, a leisurely drive along Broadway from Downtown to the Athens District near Watts may find as many as 100 sanctuaries—big and small—all vowing to save souls. Each is a sparkling example of Black America’s quest for spiritual growth and, ultimately, salvation. The old churches of “Black Los Angeles” such as Mt. Zion Baptist, New Hope Baptist, Roger Williams Baptist, Second Baptist and First AME Church et. al. provided a foundation of faith during the formative years of Black residency after the third Great Migration (movement of Black families to West Coast following World War II). The congregations are still there—elders gone long ago—but the spirit and profession of faith espoused in these mid-century sanctuaries reveals a history of courage and purpose at a time when the City of Angeles was segregated.
Storming the ‘gates of hate’
Taking as example the fate of the Walls of Jericho, the persistence of faith within the Black church eventually knocked down and breached the centuries-old “gates of hate” that once shielded the rationale of chattel slavery—and later Jim Crow—from divine providence. The Black church followed the directives of Jesus (“… for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”—Matthew 26:52-54) in proclaiming that the prosperity of Black America is not linked to violence but, rather, is a result of love of your enemy.
The Book of Job has been a pointed example to African Americans of the virtues of patience and unyielding faith in acknowledging God’s promise to deliver the faithful from adversity. The website “About Religion” explains the relevance of the Book of Job as it applied to the oppressed: “When bad things happen to us, we cannot presume to know why … no matter what our circumstances may be, God rewards great faith, sometimes in this life, but always in the next.”
Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” for example has its hallmarks rooted directly in St. Paul’s letters 2,000 years ago to a weary Christian Church (Romans, Galatians, Corinthians) then under siege from Rome. King, like St. Paul, wrote from behind bars to give encouragement to believers, to express solidarity with the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement and to refute his critics. He wrote in 1963: “… just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town.”
The term “Black church” evolved from the phrase “the Negro church” which was the title of a pioneering sociological study of African American Protestant churches at the turn of the 20th century penned by W.E.B. Du Bois. In its origins, the term was largely an academic category; many African Americans then did not think of themselves as belonging to “the Negro church,” but rather described themselves according to their denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and even “Saint” of the Sanctified tradition. Du Bois’ work revealed that African American Christians have never been monolithic but have been diverse and their churches highly decentralized.
During slavery, Anglican ministers sponsored by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel made earnest attempts to teach Christianity to slaves. According to researchers, some White slaveowners allowed their captives to worship in White churches, where they were segregated in the back of the building or in balconies. Most of the sermons tended to stress obedience and duty in adherence to one of many spiritual admonitions from St. Paul: “Slaves, obey your masters” (Ephesians 6:5).
Methodists and Baptists made active efforts to convert slaves to Christianity; the Methodists also licensed Black men to preach. Therefore, during the 1770s and 1780s, Black ministers began to preach to their own people, drawing on the stories, individuals and events depicted in the Bible.
Cornerstone of progress
The Black church may be considered a “cornerstone of progress” in reference to African American upward mobility. A 2009 Pew Research Center report revealed that 53 percent of African Americans attend church regularly, compared with 39 percent of all Americans. For much of the 20th century, the Black church was considered a hub for teaching, training and job opportunities as well as a center for community and social justice.
The rate of Black church attendance, while in slight decline, is structured today in a variety of settings that include the seven major Black Protestant denominations all connected to either the National Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention of America, Progressive National Convention, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Each of these denominations grew largely out of the ante-bellum South, dating back to the days when Methodists and Baptists held great sway in converting slaves to Christianity.
In 2011, the Barna Group, a Ventura-based organization that provides research and training for churches, non-profits and businesses, released a study that found that African Americans had the highest score among nine categories regarding faith, among them: “Is the Bible totally accurate?,” “Is your religious faith important to your life?,” “Is the most important purpose in your life to love God?,” and “Is God the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe?” The survey also found that African Americans were the group most likely to be “born-again” Christians (59 percent compared to 46 percent nationally) and were the ethnic group most likely to consider themselves Christian (92 percent versus 85 percent nationally). Compared to Whites, Hispanics and Asians, Black respondents emerged as the prevalent group to engage in weekly church-related activities (ex: going to services regularly, holding Bible studies/devotionals, enrolling children in Sunday school), and were more than one-fourth as likely than the other groups to have a personal commitment to Christ.
Despite the declining church attendance, African Americans have the lowest proportion of “un-churched” adults. Also, the Barna Group study revealed that spirituality is generally a more central element in the lives of African Americans than it is within the three other ethnic groups surveyed. “That spiritual emphasis accounts for some of the higher levels of religious activity and the more bibically-oriented beliefs registered within the Black community,” the report stated. In all, the Barna Group conducted 9,232 interviews with 1,272 African American adults responding.
“Our faith returns us to church each Sunday,” said Albert Matthews, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge and a longtime deacon at Second Baptist Church. In celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, Second Baptist Church has played a pivotal role in the spiritual growth of Black Los Angeles. “From the days of slavery we’ve maintained our faith,” Matthews continued. “The Black church became ‘our church’ where faith was paramount.” Matthews explained that 50 years ago about “90 percent” of African Americans attended church regularly, “but now that figure is less than 50 percent,” he said. “We’re still very enthusiastic, but the membership here and at many churches across the country is declining. We have more deaths today of long-time members than we have in new membership.”
‘Mega church’ attendance dwindles
While the “mega church” may attract the most media attention, its actual membership has stalled in recent years in favor of smaller, more intimate gatherings. Fry Brown, director of Black church studies at Emory University in Atlanta, offered an explanation for the “disconnect” of what a mega-church member or TV viewer may see on a typical Sunday morning, and the reality of church attendance today.
“There is an increase now in ‘house’ churches,” said Brown, an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church. “More people are having these small gatherings…they may not call it a ‘church’ but, rather, Bible studies in the home. There’s still that yearning to be with brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s something about walking into the doors of a Black church where people believe ‘I am respected as myself’ that still rings true for believers.”
A survey conducted in 2013 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that America’s religious marketplace is experiencing simultaneous gains and losses. Church attendance is not down, but it isn’t exactly increasing. Those congregations that are growing, the report found, are simply not gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing members. Conversely, those churches that are declining in number because of religious change are “simply not attracting,” the report revealed, enough new members to offset the number of adherents who are leaving those particular faiths.
Black churches seem to buck these trends. Another survey, this one conducted in 2012 by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, found congregations with 50 percent or more minority members actually grew from about one-fourth of all U.S. congregations in 2000 to about one-third in 2010. The study revealed that, overall, there was a steep decline in the financial health of American congregations–as well as an aging membership–but not a lack of faith among the majority of Black respondents surveyed. And, Black churches are apparently in better shape spiritually than those of other ethnic groups, but lag far behind in financial health, the Hartford report illustrated.
Baylor University’s 2011 study “Values and Belief of the American Public” found similar results with the Hartford poll in determining that “Black Protestants (98 percent) were more likely than any other group in the nation to agree that “anything is possible for those who work hard” thereby echoing the centuries-old Black adaptation of the Protestant Work Ethic.
“The idea of work as a religious calling is most prominent in the Black church tradition of American Protestantism,” said Kevin D. Dougherty, associate professor of sociology and a research fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. “It’s in these churches where adherents are making stronger connections between work and faith.” Black Protestants who were part of the Baylor study were, reportedly, more than two-and-a-half times more likely than the religiously unaffiliated or adherents of other denominations to say that their faith community encourages them to, for instance, start a business, invest in the future, start a family, get married, etc. Likewise, they were more likely to feel encouragement from their church to make a profit in business.
“There are both pragmatic and theological reasons why this might be so,” Dougherty explained. “The Black church has played in instrumental role in the African American community for centuries on a whole range of issues, including economic issues. A second reason though is purely theological–the belief that God rewards faithful believers with financial prosperity and good health. The ‘health and wealth’ gospel is a popular message within African American congregations.
Why so many Baptists?
Why are African Americans so closely embedded in the Baptist Church? The answer may lie with the Baptists’ insistence that each congregation have its own autonomy. During slavery, that meant Blacks could exercise more control over their religious affairs which resulted in an “… increase of independent thought and worship,” said Marilyn Mellows who produced the PBS Frontline series “Good In America.” Also, in mid-20th-century America, the Black Baptist church became the most socially engaged of any American denomination. This change from conservative Southern origins to a politically-conscious body of believers was most prominent during the Civil Rights Movement. The Baptist church, among southern Blacks, provided a unique message of empowerment as well as a call to social activism that resonates today.
In the North, Black churches organized missions to the South to help newly freed slaves learn to live on their own. And, education was paramount. African American missionaries such as AME Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne helped to establish schools and educational institutions for Blacks. White denominations such as Quaker, Presbyterian, Congregational and Episcopal also sent missionaries to teach reading and math skills to newly-free slaves.
The historic connection between the church and African Americans is believed by many historians to have provided comfort and solace not just to the masses but to the individual during the fight for civil rights beginning in the early 20th century. An example of this would be Du Bois’ 1903 landmark work “The Souls of Black Folk” in which the “sorrow songs” or “Negro spirituals,” he contended, were not the result of the joyous Black slave but of “… an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment.”
That post-slavery narrative demonstrated at the time that the “soul” of Black America—past and present—could be found in the early Bible-based stories that illuminated divine purpose and spiritual direction and served as forces gathered to collectively fight against the latest federal edict condoning White racism—“separate but equal.”
One hundred-fifty years ago this week African Americans found themselves among the scattered remains of the Civil War. Black Christians learned to balance the utter uncertainty of this political proposition with the certitude of their faith in scripture. Many Christians at that time—and some today—believed profoundly that the war between the states was God’s punishment for the sin of slavery, as well as serving as an urgent call for believers to remain firm in their faith and to profess to the ensuing generations the will of providence. James Howell Moorhead of Princeton theological Seminary in 1999 researched this subject and found, he reported, many instances of past and contemporary theologians believing that “…the pouring out of blood was cleansing the nation of its sin and preparing for its moral rebirth.”