Gender and Religion: Gender and African American Religions

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Religion, spirituality, the church, faith, holiness, the spiritall of these have been invoked to explain the roles of African American women in the survival of their communities in the United States, their emergence as prominent leaders in every organized response to racial oppression, and their aγegate ability to thrive in spite of the appalling evidence of deprivations experienced by a substantial proportion of the population in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Furthermore, African American women, especially Christians, have invented traditions of leadership and engendered practices that empower women in contexts that presume and prescribe male leadership.

African American women's religious experience is as old and as varied as their existence in the Americas. We do not know the name of the first African woman to come to the Americas, but we do know that a woman named Isabella arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, with a group of Africans in 1619. Between 1619 and 1865, Africans and their descendants developed a religious life in the context of an imposed English Protestantism and remembered African traditional religions. Although it is estimated that 10 to 18 percent of Africans coming to North America were Muslims, it has been difficult to assess fully their impact and role in the development of African American Christianity. Margaret Creel has found that the daughters of at least one Muslim slave were responsible for organizing a Baptist church in the South Carolina sea islands, the area that served as the Ellis Island for North American slavery.

The majority of African Americans in the United States are ChristiansProtestant Christians, Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal. The seven largest denominations are the National Baptist Convention, USA; the National Baptist Convention of America; the Progressive National Baptist Convention; the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Church of God in Christ. These seven top the list of over one hundred distinct Christian bodiesdenominations and congregational networksthat serve African American spiritual needs in some way. Alongside and in interaction with Christianity, one of the fastest growing traditions is Islam. Historically associated with the Nation of Islam in the twentieth century, African American Muslims are also part of the Sunnī, ūfī, and other traditions.

Religion is a gendered experience filled with distinctive experiences for women alongside tensions and conflicts over options and limits surrounding women's leadership. African American women are predominantly but not exclusively Christian. W. E. B. Du Bois, Kelly Miller, and Mary Church Terrell in 1903 pointed out: "Upon the women of no race have the truths of the gospel taken a firmer and deeper hold than upon the colored women of the United States." Women are central to the life of their churches and mosques. Women are not only the majority of African Americans, but they make up the overwhelming majorities of churchgoers, between 75 and 90 percent in attendance on Sundays. Although Islam was often presented during the period of the Civil Rights movement as "the religion of the black man," Minister Louis Farrakhan, addressing the Million Man March in 1995, admitted that women were also the backbone of the mosque. By placing gender in the foreground of our perspective, it is possible to examine the importance of religious women and the variety of their roles in the United States and to see "the black church" and other expressions of faith and spirituality in a more nuanced and multifaceted light.

Enslaved African American women played multiple roles in slave communities, through the family, the "invisible church," and the slave women's network. All three roles had spiritual implications. As the primary caretakers of enslaved children, these women are cited throughout slave narratives as the principal sources of children's religious socialization. Children heard and observed women's prayers for freedom, learning that the spirit world was important and that there was a difference between what Thomas Webber called "slaveholding priestcraft" and the true religion of the folk. Webber also observed that women served as prayer leaders, preachers, and worship leaders for the entire community. During the slavery era a few black women evangelists were given safe conduct into the South to conduct revivals and to speak at camp meetingsmeetings that slaves also attended. As members of a somewhat self-contained network within slave communities, women supported one another in their child-rearing responsibilities, and they also served the entire slave community as healers and midwives. Within this women's network, according to Deborah Gray White, women convened their own prayer meetings and developed autonomous women leaders, some of whom were able to influence the entire community through their preaching and prayers. In this there was a certain degree of continuity with women's spiritual leadership in West and Central African societies as priestesses, healers, and diviners. The roles of religious leaders in enslaved Christian communities also paralleled those of women in African-derived religions in other parts of the New World, such as vodun in Haiti, Candomblé in Brazil, and Santería in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Women became a central motor force in the spiritual history of slave communities, a role that was at odds with the presumptions of subservience and silence that governed women's roles in white churches.

Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, two of the most famous women of the slavery period, were both embodiments of African American women's faith and spirituality. Truth grounded her antislavery narrative in her understanding of the Bible, using a banner on which she quoted Leviticus 25"Proclaim liberty across the land"to advertise her lectures. In addition to Truth's antislavery preaching, Nell Painter describes her as a well-respected Adventist preacher who traveled throughout the northeastern United States. After slavery was abolished Truth conducted a campaign to obtain land for freed people in the western United States. Tubman, popularly known as a conductor but more correctly understood as an abductor of slaves on the Underground Railroad, was deeply spiritual and a member of the A.M.E. Zion Church, where she exhibited the ecstatic spirituality associated with African American Christianity that W. E. B. Du Bois called "the frenzy."

Not only did black women form their own antislavery, mutual-aid, and burial societies, they were among the groups of African Americans north and south who founded and established churches before the Civil War. Women like Jarena Lee and Julia Foote sought preaching licenses in Methodist churches. Other women emerged as leaders in such movements as Shakerism. Black women were present and active in every single expression of religion in which black people could be found during the slavery era. Toward the end of slavery, during the Civil War, they were also among the missionaries who carried the gospel to freed people gathered in and near Union Army camps. In doing so, women linked their leadership roles within black churches to education.

Black women were among the missionaries, white and black, who went to the South to establish schools for freedmen and women. Sponsored by church groups, these women became part of the emerging leadership class of "educators." Men in that class were often preachers as well as teachers in the local schools. Women ran schools that were funded by church groups, in some cases seeing their vocation as educators as their Christian mission. Mary McLeod Bethune, for instance, was educated at Moody Bible Institute, and she prepared for life in the mission fields of Africa. When told by the Presbyterian Church that there were no posts for Negroes in Africa, she taught in the South, founding her own school in Daytona, Florida. Newly established black colleges routinely sent their students as "missionaries" to teach in the rural South during the summers.

Freedom from slavery brought dilemmas in religious life. African Americans sought education for their children, but not at the expense of community, traditions, and religious folkways. Some northern missionaries, for instance Daniel Payne of the A.M.E. Church, encouraged slaves to abandon their ecstatic worship practices in favor of the more restrained styles of Anglo Americans. African American Christians were distinctly committed to the person of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit and insisted upon worship that celebrated this. Women as well as men articulated the folk theologies defending these practices. Furthermore, African American women are far more numerous and prominent in religious traditions emphasizing the Holy Spirit.

During and after Reconstruction, the A.M.E. and A.M.E. Zion churches grew, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was formed, and the National Baptist Convention became the largest religious body among African Americans. Black churches, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham points out with specific reference to the Baptists, became the primary public square for African Americans. Beyond the local congregations, national meetings provided the spaces where a national community became a reality. In addition to worship, the most pressing social issues were discussed and women participated in almost all of these deliberations.

The resistance to women in ministry prompted women to oppose their marginalization through the formation of missionary societies and auxiliary conventions. Within these organizations they discussed the business of their churches and theological issues surrounding their roles. Although Baptist men rejected women as preachers, women created platforms for their own voices. Women in all traditions utilized their economic power to advance their points of view. As Tera Hunter reveals, black women were at least ½ the urban working class, so their cash money was responsible for building the churches that men insisted upon pastoring. Although in conflict over the role of women clergy, black churches enthusiastically welcomed women as "educators" within their congregations and denominations and as leaders in church-related and church-sponsored schools. Women used their importance as educators as a wedge to expand their opportunities for religious leadership as evangelists, missionaries, and, sometimes successfully, as clergy.

The conflicts over women's leadership in churches led to two parallel developments by the turn of the twentieth century. Women joined the newly organized Holiness churches, where they were welcome to preach (or "teach"), and churchwomen formed a secular organized movement to address social change and to offer leadership. As was to become typical of black women's organizing around gender, the leaders of this new movement stressed that they were not becoming separatists or withdrawing from the community but that they were simply coming forward as leaders and inviting men to join with them. By 1896, these women had formed the Nation Association of Colored Women as a federation of at least four hundred clubs, and they proceeded to send "organizers" into states that were unrepresented in the Association.

By 1895, the Church of God in Christ, the first of a series of new churches that carried forward worship emphasizing the Holy Spirit, was organized as a Holiness church. Women joined this church in large numbers. In spite of this church's restriction on their ordination, women in this denomination carved out what was to become typical of Holiness and later Pentecostal churches, the semiautonomous "women's department." Holiness and Pentecostal churches came to be called collectively the "Sanctified Church," a term indigenous to the African American experience. Where women are 75 percent of the black church overall, they are often more than 90 percent of some Holiness and Pentecostal congregations. These churches, in addition to offering a doctrine that affirmed the traditional worship emphasis on the Holy Spirit, addressed a range of problems confronting black people in the early twentieth century: education, standards of beauty, economic security, race relations, physical safety, urban migration, and, most importantly, women's religious roles.

The case of the Church of God in Christ is instructive. Although it began as a Holiness church, the Church of God in Christ became the first legally organized Pentecostal church in the United States. The founder, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, was unmarried at the time, so he chose Mother Lizzie Woods Roberson to set up and lead the women's department. This established a tradition that separated women's leadership from the role of bishop's wife, a departure from the practices of the A.M.E. and other denominations. This separation reinforced a degree of autonomy for women in the denomination. Mother Roberson, a Baptist educator, also served to educate the clergy of the church. While the Church of God in Christ did not ordain women to be elders, pastors, or bishops or to "preach," the church allowed the women to "teach" the gospel and to lead churches when the pastors were "absent." The women's teaching expanded to a form of religious discourse that is not only indistinguishable from preaching, but has become one of the strongest preaching traditions in African American Christianity.

Among most African American Christian churches, the leadership of pastors' and bishops' wives is assumed. These women are expected to be leaders of the women, excellent public speakers, and, often but not always, consummate musicians. They serve prominently in the church-as-public-square and occasionally lead within the traditions of worship (prayer, preaching, testimony, and song). In many congregations, these wives are experienced fundraisers, Sunday school superintendents, choir directors, and deaconesses, and they fill other vital roles. The tendency to look only at the pulpit in order to interpret and understand the church not only places too large an emphasis on male leaders but also masks and obscures the centrality of these clearly subordinate women's roles to the survival and advancement of churches. Interestingly, in all of the churches, women without restriction perform religious tasks that are sometimes associated with priestly ministry: praying, anointing with oil, and the laying on of hands for healing.

Women in the twentieth century also became prominent church founders. One in particular, Bishop Ida Robinson of the Mount Sinai Holy Church, founded a new denomination when the denomination in which she had been ordained made it clear that although she could serve as a pastor and vote for bishops, she could not herself become a bishop. Among other settings in the Sanctified Church it was standard practice for women to travel to new locations, preach on street corners until they had developed a following, and then "dig out" the new church.

Women persisted in finding creative ways to affirm and develop their leadership in the church. One particularly important strategy was to call for a "Women's Day." After observing such practices in a few congregations and regional conventions, Nannie Helen Burroughs introduced the idea of a national Women's Day to the National Baptist Convention in 1901. The idea was to develop women from the local congregations as public speakers, and Women's Day caught on and spread to every African American denomination and to nearly every congregation. Although Burroughs later complained that the day focused too heavily on fundraising, women used the day not only to foster solidarity within their congregations but to promote women's preaching and speaking. While some African American women clergy see Women's Day as tokenism, many churches have expanded the day to a cluster of activities involving revivals, retreats, and programs that empower laywomen and affirm preaching women.

Women's creativity is also apparent in the traditions of sacred music. Not only are women's voices prominent in descriptions of oral traditions, but women are also often the chief musicians of denominations, becoming the arbiters for what is acceptable within large networks of churches. Two such women, Lucie Campbell, who directed music in the National Baptist Convention, and Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, minister of music in the Church of God in Christ, not only guided the musical tastes of the denomination, but shaped their hymnbooks and composed music that contributed to a gospel music tradition that reached beyond the boundaries of churches. Some women, including Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Norwood, and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, combined the role of gospel singer and evangelist in order to circumvent the discrimination against women who preached.

The prominence of black male preachers was underscored during the Civil Rights movement when these men emerged as leaders and spokespersons for massive campaigns of civil disobedience. Subsequent research on the Civil Rights movement has revealed the roles of women throughout the period. These women were members and leaders of churches and on occasion, as in the case of Rosa Parks in the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, their moral authority as leaders derived from the communitywide respect they garnered in religious and political leadership. Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippian and participant in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, attained her prominence and leadership partly through her connections with the church and her role as a prominent song leader. The Civil Rights movement also advanced a concern for black men that was particularly addressed by the rise of the Nation of Islam. C. Eric Lincoln and Larry Mamiya point out that the Nation of Islam represented one of the most serious challenges to the unquestioned dominance of the black church. Often espoused as "the religion of the black man," it offered an alternative to Christianity and its racism that is particularly appealing to men.

In spite of Islam's masculine appeal, women are an integral part of African American Islam. During his speech at the 1995 Million Man March, Minister Louis Farrakhan admitted that women were the backbone of the mosque in ways similar to the role of women in the churches. Research in this area is very new and very limited. However, Carolyn Rouse, in her book Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam, points out that Islam's appeal to African American women is centered in visions of a just community and society and in hopes for family stability. Additionally, like Christian women, African American Muslim women are seeking a spiritual life in relation with the divine. Beverly Aminah McLeod also emphasizes the importance of social justice for African American women along with a sense of membership in a world community. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women who were formerly Christian are less likely to remain Muslim than are men. While Islam's emphases on prayer, fasting, and modesty parallel similar emphases among Pentecostal and Holiness women, the primary motivation for a "return" to Christianity is the women's attachment to elements of the Afro-Christian tradition such as gospel music and other aspects of tradition. Former Muslims in Christian churches are often catalysts for a more Afrocentric and political activist focus. Other anecdotes suggest that the traditional roles of women in African American churches have had an effect on the way that African American Muslim men engage South Asian Muslim immigrants in America. African American Muslims may be more accommodating to women than their immigrant counterparts, although for the most part African American and South Asian Muslims attend separate mosques.

In addition to the rise of Islam, the Civil Rights movement evolved into the Black Power movement. That movement prompted the development of "Black Theology." Theologians such as James Cone advanced a liberation theology that depicted God as on the side of the poor and the oppressed. In response to the masculinism of Black Theology, a number of African American women scholars advanced a set of ideas that have come to be called womanist. Drawing on author Alice Walker's introduction of the term womanist with a dictionary-style definition, black women religious scholars have developed a conversation that explores black women's experiences in church and society with reference to every area of religious and theological studies. Social ethicist Katie Cannon emphasizes that the womanist idea represents "a critique of all human domination in light of Black Women's experience that unmasks whatever threatens the well-being of the poorest women of color."

Toward the end of the twentieth century, women's leadership as ordained clergy faced less resistance. The growth and development of exceptionally large congregations called megachurches coincided with the development of prominent pastoral partnerships between married couples, providing visible role models for women. In 2000, the A.M.E. Church ordained its first woman bishop, Vashti Murphy McKenzie; her husband accepted the role of Episcopal supervisor, a role previously filled by bishops' wives. Bishop McKenzie was not only a prominent and nationally recognized preacher, she also served as chaplain to one of the largest secular organizations of black women, the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The synergistic relationship she established between leadership in an autonomous women's organization and leadership in an organization controlled by men was paralleled in the earlier roles of Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height.

At the end of the twentieth century, many scholars and clergy in African American churches were asking about the absence of men, while taking for granted the presence of women. Although exploring gender in African American religions should not be reduced to examining the roles of women, the gender question forces one to look beyond the prominence of the black male preacher to recognize that the most dominant tradition, African American Christianity, consists largely of women.

See Also

African American Religions, overview article; Feminist Theology, article on Christian Feminist Theology; Women's Studies in Religion.


Andrews, William L., ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington, Ind., 1986. The narratives of three women preachers illustrate the importance of the Holy Spirit in the religious beliefs of African Americans early in their Christian history in the United States.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. New York, 2004. Scholarly biography illuminating the religious experience of Tubman along with her heroic exploits as an "abductor" for the Underground Railroad.

Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and their Sermons, 18501979. San Francisco, 1998. A collection of sermons establishing the importance of women's voices in the most masculine of black religious activities.

Creel, Margaret Washington. A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community Culture among the Gullahs. New York, 1988. Important study of slavery's Ellis Island detailing the African origins of religious practices that reach beyond the South Carolina sea islands.

Dodson, Jualynne E. Engendering Church: Women, Power, and the AME Church. Lanham, Md., 2002. Offers a connected history of twentieth-century churchwomen and clubwomen.

Dodson, Jualynne E., and Cheryl Townsend Gilkes. "Something Within: Social Change and Collective Endurance in the Sacred World of Black Christian Women." In Women and Religion in America, Vol. 3: 19001968, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller, pp. 80128. San Francisco, 1986.

Du Bois, W. E. B., ed. The Negro Church: Report of a Social Study. Atlanta, 1903. Significant study and compilation of conference papers that underscores the centrality of the black church and provides an early comment on the importance of women.

Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. "Roundtable Discussion: Christian Ethics and Theology in Womanist Perspective." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5, no. 2 (1989): 105109. Alice Walker's concept "womanist" is evaluated in terms of its usefulness for African American Christian women.

Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. If It Wasn't for the Women: Black Women's Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community. Maryknoll, N.Y., 2001. Presents a variety of Gilkes's essays on women in the Sanctified Church, on community activists, and on cultural pressures confronting black women.

Hanson, Joyce A. Mary McLeod Bethune and Black Women's Political Activism. Columbia, Mo., 2003. Hanson's pathbreaking biography explores every aspect of Bethune's national leadership and provides the most detailed descriptions of her religious education and seminary training.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 18801920. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. Higginbotham underscores the central importance of the national convocation in shaping women's opportunities for leadership and establishing a national community.

Hunter, Tera. To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War. Cambridge, Mass., 1997. In telling the story of women in the nineteenth-century urban South, Hunter provides an important portrait of black women's roles in building religious and fraternal communities.

Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham, N.C., 1990. Explores the seven largest denominations and includes a chapter on women.

Murphy, Joseph M. Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston, 1994. Murphy places the practices of the Sanctified Church in the context of the practices of other African-derived religions in the New World.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York, 1996. Details not only Truth's antislavery activism but also her prominence as an Adventist preacher.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York, 1978. Raboteau details the religious practices of slaves in the hush harbor of plantations and in towns, and also mediates the debate between Frazier and Herskovitz.

Ross, Rosetta. Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights. Minneapolis, 2003. Provides an important set of case studies that reveal the role of women and their faith in the success of the Civil Rights movement.

Rouse, Carolyn Moxley. Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam. Berkeley, 2004. Anthropological study of African American women in Los Angeles that demonstrates the diversity among African American women Muslims while detailing their strategies for being good Muslims.

Walker, Alice. "Womanist." In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, pp. xixii. San Diego, Calif., 1983. This definition of womanist and the volume of essays it introduces provides biographical insights into Walker's writing and philosophy.

Webber, Thomas L. Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 18311865. New York, 1978. While describing the fundamental cultural themes slaves shared, Webber details the centrality of women as leaders and agents of tradition.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York, 1985; rev. ed., 1999. White's study points to the paramount importance of the African American slave women's network, a probable cultural foundation for the effectiveness of African American women's organizations in later periods.

Wiggins, Daphne C. "'Where Somebody Knows My Name': A Social and Cultural Analysis of Church Attendance among African American Women." Ph.D. diss., Emory University, Atlanta, 1997.

Williams, Dolores S. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanish God-Talk. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1993.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes (2005)

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Gender and Religion: Gender and African American Religions