African American Religion

views updated

African American Religion


African American religion during the period from 1754 to 1828 constituted a vibrant spiritual and institutional force that allowed African Americans to cope with and adapt to the circumstances confronting them in America. It enabled African Americans to resist white supremacy and even to engage in dialog with white Americans. It also provided an avenue for blacks to express their understandings of spirituality and to develop institutions that helped organize communal life. At the same time, some white Americans attempted to use this religion to oppress their black

counterparts, while blacks deployed it in an effort to offset white supremacy.

african background

By the mid-eighteenth century, Africans had already been taken to the Americas as slaves for approximately two centuries. Slaves coming from Africa brought virtually nothing with them in the way of possessions, but they did bring religious beliefs. Although scholars debate the degree to which African religious culture survived in the Americas, its influence impacted the development of African American religion. Africa itself was not monolithic regarding religion. Although the vast majority of Africans adhered to a variety of traditional religions, a few had embraced Christianity and Islam while still in Africa. But although Christianity was not unknown to all Africans as they began to encounter it in the Americas, they now engaged it from the standpoint of minorities brought forcefully to a new land and possessing little social and political power. To those Africans who had no knowledge of Christianity, it represented a new and strange religion. Yet, these individuals would also encounter established slave communities where some people had significant experience in dealing with their masters' religion. While relatively few African Americans had converted to Christianity, these numbers were beginning to increase by the mid-eighteenth century and would accelerate through the early part of the next.

Adherents to West African religions believed in a High God who was the Supreme Creator of all things. This understanding may have had some compatibility with Christian beliefs, but the context of the two religions weakened the connection. Whereas Christianity adhered to monotheism, West African religions placed the High God within a web of lesser gods and spirits. These lesser gods and spirits were far more active in human affairs than the High God. Efforts to manage the power of and human relationship with these gods and spirits, especially by magic, constituted an important part of the African religious tradition. Dancing and singing were common ritual expressions. This context, combined with their position as slaves in a new world, composed the vantage point from which Africans understood and related to Christianity. Slaves born in the Americas, though, generally did not possess direct and unimpeded or unchallenged exposure to the African religious heritage, Africans and African Americans nonetheless had to grapple with the challenges presented by Christianity from similar, but not identical frames of reference.

african american christianity

The colonial period, particularly during its latter years, produced the initial developments toward an African American Christianity. Some blacks held tenaciously to their traditional religions. Others, particularly those born in America, began to embrace Christianity in varying degrees. Seldom, however, did this embrace constitute a wholesale rejection of traditional religious beliefs and practices. More often, an amalgamation occurred. At first, traditional religions provided the framework from which the incorporation of Christianity occurred. Later, Christianity provided the framework for absorbing the vestiges of traditional religions. An African American Christianity distinct from, but intimately related to, that of white Christianity eventually emerged.

Conversion rates. Initially, conversion rates to Christianity were low, but as evangelicalism began to proliferate after 1740, so too did African American converts. Beginning in the 1760s, the Baptist and Methodist movements reached out to African Americans in tangible ways, as did the Moravian Brethren at about the same time. It was not, however, until the post-Revolutionary period that Christianity began to become a significant factor in the African American community. By 1815 it was a dominant religious force, and by 1830 African American churches had established firm institutional foundations in the community. While it is difficult to know precisely all the reasons involved in an individual's decision to convert, it is apparent that many did so as a means of coping with their poor conditions or in an effort to provide justification for their being freed. The latter reason rarely worked. Others, however, used Christianity as a way to challenge their masters. Whether African Americans converted in order to present a challenge or whether they discovered Christianity's usefulness for challenge some time after conversion is not always clear. The extent to which personal spiritual reasons prompted conversion is also not for the most part known, particularly regarding early converts.

That the proliferation of evangelical expressions of Christianity contributed to increased conversion rates among African Americans probably reflects the appeal of these religions in contrast to Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism (although a relatively large number of blacks in Maryland and Louisiana were Roman Catholic). Evangelical Christianity extended hope to slaves by emphasizing a coming millennial kingdom that offered the promise of a better world. The stress placed on personal and immediate conversion (as opposed to one centered on a process that involved learning proper beliefs), combined with the growing use of emotion in the religious experience, also proved attractive. Within this context, African Americans began to exert their own expressions of Christian religious commitment and experience, often incorporating elements related to traditional African religions. The prominence and importance of singing, dancing, and emotional expression within African religions manifested itself in African American Christianity.

The Exodus theme. The evangelical emphasis on the individual allowed African Americans eventually to interpret and use the Bible in ways that challenged white interpretations and uses. The Bible provided African Americans powerful symbols with which to cope with and critique their environment, as well as to express their own understandings. Chief among these images was the biblical Exodus wherein the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, overthrew Egyptian bondage and became the divinely chosen nation.

White Americans had freely invoked the Exodus theme in their struggle against Britain, labeling the English monarch a pharaoh and envisioning America as a new Israel coming out of British bondage. White Christians also commonly used it to describe the experience of spiritual salvation. African Americans appropriated the theme in ways that appeared similar to their white counterparts but had quite different implications. While both white and black Christians could jointly explore their spiritual experiences and aspirations through the language of the Exodus, this same motif divided them in the social and political realms. When a slave named David told a racially mixed audience in 1775 in Savannah, Georgia, that God would deliver "Negroes" from their masters in the same way that he had delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian masters, the slave owners wanted him hanged. Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had purchased his freedom with money won in a lottery, envisioned himself as an African Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage as he attempted a slave rebellion in 1822. The plot, however, was foiled, and Vesey and others were executed. These incidents illustrate the danger African Americans incurred when they employed the Exodus in realms outside the spiritual. Nonetheless, the Exodus became the most significant theme in the nineteenth-century African American experience. Its influence contributed to effective, albeit less brazen, uses of the Exodus theme. The spiritual, Oh Mary, Don't You Weep, Don't You Moan, did not confront the slave system directly, but instead used the Exodus theme to articulate a general hope for both spiritual and physical freedom; implied in this yearning was an abolition of slavery.

The biblical story of the Exodus also provided African Americans with a way to express their suffering that cast them as God's people to whom a deliverer would be sent. One important African American minister, Absalom Jones (1746–1818), took Exodus 3:7–8 as the text of a sermon in which he celebrated the abolition of American participation in the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 as one indicator that God had heard the slaves' cries and would liberate them. David Walker, in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), assured his audience that God had heard the cries of African Americans just as he had heard those of the Israelites. The Exodus theme, therefore, took on great significance in articulating the spiritual and physical experiences and hopes of African Americans. The period from 1754 to 1828 laid the foundation for an even greater use of that theme in the subsequent decades, during which white abolitionists would join African Americans in invoking it. White Southerners employed it at the same time to buttress slavery by portraying their attempt at secession in terms of the Exodus, while also calling attention to the differences between the Israelite exodus and contemporary colonization and abolitionist schemes. These differences were used to demonstrate that the African American exodus was not endowed with divine approval and support. The figure of Jesus also operated alongside the Exodus in African American Christianity. Both motifs allowed whites and blacks to share a spiritual space that manifested itself in drastically different ways in the physical realm.

Black churches, white control. The formation of African American churches and denominations illustrates another avenue of self-expression, protest, and assertion of African American authority. As the consequence of a 1787 incident in which black members of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia were physically forced to sit in seats designated for blacks, two black churches were eventually formed: St. Thomas African Episcopal Church and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Similar occurrences happened in other cities as blacks and whites struggled over authority and power. One of the participants in the Philadelphia episode, Richard Allen (Absalom Jones also participated in the 1787 event), along with other leaders such as Daniel Coker, founded in 1816 the first national black denomination in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The denomination and its churches grew rapidly as African Americans increasingly took control of their spiritual lives on an institutional basis. Using the Bible as their authority, Allen and others proclaimed the biblical doctrines of equality and inclusiveness in the eyes of God in their protest against white supremacy. African American churches in other denominations also proliferated, but not without resistance from whites. Black Baptist churches and preachers were especially prominent, with the first churches being founded in Virginia and Georgia. Typically in Baptist churches (as well as others), blacks and whites participated in joint, but segregated, worship. Often African American members exceeded whites numerically, and sometimes African American services were held separately from whites when the number of blacks grew too large. Some separate African American churches, such as the Baptist church in Silver Bluff, South Carolina, formed in the 1770s, arose before 1800. Yet by the 1820s whites maintained control over most black churches, either through white pastors or white representatives at associational meetings.

Two African American pastors, Gowan Pamphlet and Moses, founded the African Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, during the 1780s. It became one of the largest churches in the Dover Association by 1830, but was closed by whites in 1832 after the Nat Turner slave rebellion the preceding year. White pastors often oversaw black churches in an effort to regulate more closely their activities and teachings. The Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia, for example, had become the largest church in the Portsmouth Association by 1821. Yet it continued to be pastored by white ministers, and the Association even attempted unsuccessfully to merge it with a white church. Although whites continued to exercise dominance in black churches, African Americans made great strides during the post-revolutionary period in establishing their own authority.

Black churches helped shape and foster an African American Christianity that shared certain beliefs and practices with white Christians while at the same time developing into a distinctive religion. African Americans contested biblical interpretations and congregational practices and increasingly took charge of their own spiritual instruction. While blacks were unable to exercise complete freedom in these matters, African American religion in 1828 differed substantially from that of 1754. It had developed from a conglomeration of African religious understandings held by slaves who were being taught Christianity as practiced by whites to an organized expression of black Christian spirituality that challenged the existing social order and white Christian practices and theology. White Christianity itself changed as a result of contact with African American Christianity. Black Christians, therefore, could confront the challenges of the upcoming decades with established religious institutions, practices, and theology.

See alsoReligion: Overview .

bibliography

Frey, Sylvia R., and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Glaude, Eddie S., Jr. Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

——. Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sensbach, Jon F. A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763–1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Sernett, Milton C. African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

Weisenfeld, Judith. "On Jordan's Stormy Banks: Margins, Center, and Bridges in African American Religious History." In New Directions in American Religious History. Edited by Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Scott M. Langston

About this article

African American Religion

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article

NEARBY TERMS

African American Religion