African American Religions and Sects

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AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGIONS AND SECTS. When the first Africans landed in North America during the Spanish explorations of the fifteenth century, their spiritual backgrounds included Christianity, Islam, and a number of ancient African religions. Similar to Christianity and Islam, these traditional African religions explained the world and the reason for human existence. In addition, these religions gave Africans various rituals for celebrating important life events and predicting potential misfortunes.

A rather large group of Africans believed in a plurality of powers, including the forces of nature and a legion of magical spirits. However, most tribes believed in a Supreme Being as the creator and giver, and considered life itself sacred. The deeply spiritual Africans believed strongly that there was no separation between life on earth and the afterlife, since all life took place on a continuum, where every part directly affected every other part. Those who lived good lives would please the spirits and reap rewards, but those who did evil risked angering the spirits and losing their protection.

Africans' belief in one Supreme Being, the distinction between good and evil, and the belief in creation as the work of one God were similar to the viewpoints of Christianity's and Islam's origins. This similarity and the prior exposure many Africans had experienced with Christian and Muslim missionaries in Africa did much to lessen the cultural shock of white evangelicalism.

The Religion of Slaves

During the early history of slavery in America, European church and state officials ordered colonists to instruct slaves in the ways of Catholicism. But these early American missionaries faced a number of obstacles in under-taking this task. Language barriers still existed, slave owners opposed the efforts, and many slaves lacked any desire to learn the religion of those who had enslaved them. In addition, those who accepted Christianity incorporated it into their multideistic beliefs and rituals. African practices, rituals, and dogmas were preserved in the new African American religions of Candomblê, Santería, and Vodou, commonly referred to as Voodoo, Hoodoo, or witchcraft.

Partially due to their beliefs in multiple powers and spirits, as well as their various dogmas and ritual traditions, African Americans were considered heathens who practiced a loathsome form of pagan idolatry. White Americans were threatened by such practices and put forth substantial effort to eradicate them. These attempts to obliterate Africans' religion were quite successful, with many of the practices and rituals being destroyed within a single generation.

Many scholars have attacked these eradication efforts, calling slavery so demeaning that it stripped African Americans of their dignity, humanity, and basis for religion. Others argue that African Americans never completely lost their religion and, in fact, held on to it purposely as a form of resistance or rebellion.

For a majority of whites, their mission to the slaves was part of God's grand plan to convert the entire continent of Africa. Others, however, sought to exploit religion as a way to pacify and comfort the slaves, using religion to show that they could still enjoy happiness and gratification in their eternal spiritual lives. While the views and opinions of whites at that time were decidedly mixed, it was rare for members of the "ruling race" to overlook the unfortunate caste and economic status of black people, which made racially inclusive Christianity virtually impossible.

Proselytizing the Slaves

The first major effort to Christianize African slaves came in 1701 when the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts sent forty missionaries to America. The society's primary goal was to revive Anglicans (now known as Episcopalians) and Indian tribes. In their related efforts to convert slaves, however, the organization ran into a great deal of resistance from plantation owners and other slaveholders.

In the 1780s, Methodists formulated strong rules against slavery, calling it contrary to the laws of God and damaging to society as a whole. In fact, by 1784, Methodists issued an intent to excommunicate Methodists who did not free their slaves within two years. In time, attitudes began to shift regarding slavery, and changes in southern religious hierarchies began to take place. Planters eventually granted permission to proselytize household slaves. But the mood again changed in the early 1800s when a large number of whites feared slave rebellion and the impact it would have on the general way of life. Thus, Christianity was not preached to slaves because many whites were afraid that becoming Christian could raise slaves' self-esteem, convince them of their equality to whites, and encourage them to take literally such parables as the exodus from Egypt.

Furthermore, whites feared that allowing slaves to assemble would give them an opportunity to plan rebellions, and teaching them to read the Bible would have the unwanted effect of slave literacy. This fear of insurrection was the very reason slave owners originally dispersed slaves who spoke the same language. It was for this same reason that many southern state legislatures passed laws preventing African Americans from assembling and worshipping, except under white supervision and in highly controlled circumstances.

However, another line of thought concluded that making Christians of the slaves would teach them to turn the other cheek, accept their lives, and pray for redemption and eternal happiness in the afterlife. As this notion spread, increased efforts to proselytize to African Americans began to take hold. Congregations invited African Americans and set aside segregated seating for them. A small number of slave owners even erected churches and recruited African American preachers to spread the word. Others, particularly those with large slave populations, such as Reverend Charles Colcock Jones, developed a Christian lesson plan designed specifically to prevent insurrection and rebellion.

Soon, a biblical justification of slavery based on the Old Testament account of the curse of Ham also developed. Promoters of this theory claimed that Ham, the son of Noah, was the father of dark-skinned people and cursed to be a slave forever. This story, however, is surrounded by debate since the curse was actually placed on Canaan, the oldest of Ham's four sons. The Canaanites, descendants of Canaan, became slaves of the Hebrews who were once slaves of the Egyptians, fulfilling the prophecy that Canaan would be a "servant of servants." Despite contrary evidence, slaveholders told the story to convince African Americans that they were forever condemned to do menial labor for white overseers. Another frequently advanced belief depicted Africans as beings of a lower social order who lacked souls and were therefore incapable of committing to the Christian faith or being rewarded with its promise of salvation. Most Africans and African Americans refused to accept either of these postulates and became highly critical of white preaching that attempted to rationalize slavery and keep them in their place. Scholars theorize that the life-affirming nature of many African spiritual practices may have helped slaves to reject notions of themselves as inherently evil or lacking souls.

The Religious Revival

As Christianity began to take hold in a majority of slaves, African Americans were fairly quick to adopt the prevailing evangelical culture. But denominations that stressed an ordered religious service, such as those held by Episcopalians and Presbyterians, did not attract the slaves. Most African Americans gravitated to the emotionalism of the Methodists and Baptists. In fact, the religion of the South's African American population shared much in common with the evangelical Protestantism of the region's whites. These evangelical southern whites, who were some of the first to convert slaves to the Christian faith, imparted many of their forms and practices to African American churches.

Because household slaves were normally the only African Americans allowed to attend white churches, a large majority of field slaves formed their own clandestine church meetings—called "hush harbors" and "praying grounds"—that took place secretly and in remote areas. These meeting places later became stops on the Under-ground Railroad. Though African American evangelicalism had a great deal in common with white evangelicalism, the safety provided by late-hour meetings and secluded locales allowed African Americans to express themselves differently and to interpret their faith freely in any way they desired.

One major way that African Americans distinguished themselves from their white counterparts was in the expressiveness and zeal with which they celebrated their spirituality. For African American Christians, the message of God's gifts, forgiveness, and sacrifice of love effected exuberant shouts of joy and praise. Thus, African Americans attending the more sedate services in white churches were not only segregated, but also inhibited in their ability to praise God.

African American preachers, though often illiterate, frequently earned praise from whites for their ministry abilities and rhythmic, chanted sermons. Unbeknownst to some of the white listeners, however, revolutionary themes were often implicit in the preaching and spiritual music of African Americans. The proposition that God could intervene to alter natural order—which is what many whites considered slavery—was one such recurring proclamation in African American sermons. Songs such as "Steal Away to Jesus" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" conveyed a message that was clear to African Americans: Jesus died for everyone, including African Americans, and this fundamental equality meant that everyone could be saved in a spiritual and literal sense.

African American Denominations

The first independent African American church was a Baptist church founded at Silver Bluff, South Carolina, around 1773 on the plantation of George Galphin. Other African American Baptist churches went up all along the South Atlantic seaboard, including ones in Williamsburg and Petersburg, Virginia, during 1776. However, these independent churches were allowed to hold worship services only when white persons were present, and were usually completely prohibited from meeting at night.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, due to continued segregation in white Methodist churches, a handful of independent African American Methodist churches cropped up in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The first two African American denominations originated as the result of discrimination-based contentions between the Methodist Church and its African American members. Since the two denominations did not break away for doctrinal reasons, their theology and doctrines remain similar to other Methodist churches. The basis of that theology comes from two primary theological documents: Apostle's Creed and the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion, which is based on the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England that John Wesley sent to the United States as a guide for the newly forming Methodist Societies.

Though many believe the first African American Methodist church was the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) formed in Philadelphia in 1816, the truth is that the first was formed nine years earlier. The African Union Church was incorporated in Wilmington, Delaware in 1807, claiming the honor as the first Methodist church organized by African Americans. It was not until nine years later that the former slave Richard Allen, along with representatives from five independent African American Methodist churches, founded the AME Church, creating the first African American denomination.

The auspicious beginnings of the AME Church—Allen and two other African Americans were removed from Saint George's Methodist Church after sitting in a newly

ordained all-white section—resulted in the development of the most well-known African American denomination. Allen, who had led his congregation out of the segregated Saint George Church in 1787, faced a great deal of hostility from his former church home, including threats to be permanently expelled. However, tensions later cooled and Allen led a new congregation into the Bethel African Methodist Church, and in 1799, Bishop Francis Asbury of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) ordained Allen minister of Bethel AME Church, now known as Mother Bethel. In less than forty years, the AME Church, which began with eight clergy members and five churches, would grow to include 176 clergy, 296 churches, and 17,375 members. By the end of the twentieth century, the AME Church had 8,000 clergy, 6,200 congregations, and a membership of more than 2.5 million.

The second black denomination originated under similar circumstances. In 1796, James Varick and other members of the John Street Methodist Church in New York City petitioned Bishop Asbury for permission to hold separate church meetings. These separate services occurred until 1801, when the African American congregation built its own church. However, they continued to be led by the white minister of the John Street Church. In 1820, the congregation voted to leave and establish the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ). The AMEZ Church became famous as the "freedom church" because of its strong stance against slavery and the large number of black abolitionists, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who were members. The AMEZ Church also acquired the distinction of being the first Methodist church to ordain a woman when, in 1894, it ordained Julia A. J. Foote as a deacon and, in 1898, ordained Mary J. Small as an elder. Over the next hundred years, the church's membership increased to 1.2 million, comprising 3,125 congregations and 3,002 clergy members.

The third major African American Methodist denomination is the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. It began following the Civil War (1861–1865) when African Americans in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which had broken away from the MEC because of disagreements on slavery, asked for permission to form a separate body. This group of African American congregations formed the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1870. The members adopted the Methodist South's Book of Discipline and elected William H. Miles and Richard H. Vanderhorst as their bishops. In 1954, the organization changed its name to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Records show that the CME church in the late twentieth century had a membership of approximately 1 million.

After the Civil War ended, free African Americans made formation of independent church congregations one of their first priorities. The autonomy emphasized by Baptist ideals and the complementary rejection of complex hierarchy and governance structures fit well with this goal and helped ensure that Baptist theology would become the leading denomination among freed slaves. Ironically, the same desire for autonomy that made Baptist traditions appealing to African Americans, who had no power in white churches, also made the formation of a national organization somewhat difficult. Though state and local organizations formed quickly, it was not until the late 1800s that national organizations began to take shape.

In 1895, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Incorporated (NBC), was established in Atlanta. This new African American denomination was the result of the unification of three separate Baptist groups: the Foreign Mission Baptist Convention, the American National Baptist Convention, and the Baptist National Education Convention. Although the beliefs of the NBC were identical to the beliefs espoused by white Baptist denominations, the NBC placed a great deal of emphasis on activism, promoting Christian missions abroad, and providing leadership and spiritual growth opportunities for African Americans. Their activism was rooted in the goal of transcending the evil of slavery and preaching for civil rights and equal citizenship. The denomination grew to be the largest African American church in the United States with a membership of approximately 7 million and 30,000 congregations by the early twenty-first century.

In 1915, a disagreement over the NBC publishing house and adoption of a charter created a sizable rift within the organization. Reverend R. Boyd, who organized the publishing house, left the congregation and took a sizable number of its members with him. The group went on to form the National Baptist Convention of America (NBCA), with a membership that grew to about 2.4 million by the end of the century.

Another schism within the NBC resulted in the creation of a third African American Baptist denomination. The Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) was organized in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1961. This group, which included Martin Luther King Jr., broke away from the NBC due to a split regarding succession to the presidency of the convention and differing approaches to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. The PNBC church hosted its first convention in 1962 and proceeded over the next forty years to develop a membership tally totaling around 1.2 million.

During the late nineteenth century, a movement emerged from the Methodist churches, proposing that a second spiritual experience, called sanctification, occurred after conversion. Baptist ministers Charles H. Mason and Charles P. Jones began preaching this doctrine to their congregations and were soon expelled from the Baptist church. In 1897, Mason and sixty-two members who followed him went on to form the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in Lexington, Mississippi. Mason believed that the Lord had revealed this name to him as he walked down a street in Little Rock, Arkansas. The COGIC is a Pentecostal body that is considered the only major black denomination originating with African Americans. The denomination's membership in the 1990s has been cited by various sources as between 3.5 and 7 million.

During slavery, Muslim African Americans were few in number, making up less than 20 percent of the slave population, and isolated in a country intent on converting them to Christianity. The first organized Muslim movement began in 1913 when Timothy Drew, also known as the Noble Drew Ali, established the first Moorish Science Temple in Newark, New Jersey. Seventeen years later in Detroit, a group with similar beliefs formed and became known as the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam quickly expanded and began spreading a message that included an account of the white race's origins. The story claimed that the entire human race was black until a scientist created white people, who turned out to be devils. Orthodox Muslims considered these beliefs heretical and denounced them. Following a leadership change in the 1980s, the Nation of Islam broke into two sects: one returning to the original teachings, and the other abandoning separatist notions and adopting the beliefs held by Muslims across the globe. The latter group, which became the largest African American Islamic movement of the late twentieth century, is known as the American Muslim Mission. Approximately 1 million African Americans followed the Islamic religion by the year 2000.

The African American church has been an inseparable part of African American life since the early days of slavery. It manifests a certain uniqueness in form and status, both of which were born from the peculiar history of African Americans. From the pervasive images of freedom that dominate African American spirituals to the expressiveness demonstrated in so many African American worship services, religion, particularly Christianity, has played a tremendous role in the emergence and ongoing transformation of African American culture. When Frederick Douglass frequently sang the line, "I am bound for Canaan," he meant not only that he was headed for a spiritual promised land, but also that he was going to the American North to experience a physical freedom. This dual sense of "freedom" has put economic and political empowerment at the forefront of African American religion since its beginnings in the United States.


Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. "African-American Religion in the Nineteenth Century." National Humanities Center. Updated October 2000. Available from

Mays, Benjamin Elijah, and Joseph William Nicholson. The Negro's Church. New York: Institute of Social and Religious Research, 1933.

Raboteau, Albert J. Canaan Land: a Religious History of African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: an Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans. 3rd ed., rev. and enl. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998. The original edition was published in 1972.

James T.Scott

See alsoAfrican Americans ; African Methodist Episcopal Church ; Baptist Churches ; Church of God in Christ ; Islam ; Nation of Islam .

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African American Religions and Sects

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African American Religions and Sects