Folk Religion

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Folk Religion

The folk religious traditions of blacks in the United States have roots in a number of sources, but it is their African origins that have left the most indelible and distinctive cultural imprint. Of the 400,000 Africans who were held in bondage on the North American mainland during the slave trade, most if not all were influenced by some indigenous philosophical or sacred system for understanding and interpreting the world. Religion for Africans, however, was more a way of life than a system of creeds and doctrines. The African religious experience allowed for meaningful relations between members of the human community and personal interaction with the world of ancestors, spirits, and divinities, who closely guided mortal existence and provided their adherents with explanations and protections within the realm of earthly affairs. African religions, although differing according to their national origins, provided an overall theological perspective in which spirituality was infused into every aspect of life.

In the colonies, Africans came into contact for the first time with the customs and cultures of white Europeans and Native Americans. Although strange and unfamiliar, the perspectives of these groups did share certain aspects, particularly in the realm of beliefs surrounding the supernatural. Both whites and Indians had worldviews that encompassed mythical perceptions of the universe and powers that pervaded human life and nature. Spiritual beings, holy objects, and the workings of the enchanted world were thought to be powerful and efficacious. Evil and misfortune were perceived as personalized agents of affliction.

Such beliefs were expressed, for the most part, in folklore and legend. Africans themselves had corresponding ideas concerning the supernatural that included sacred entities, charms, and places, although it is difficult to disengage these beliefs from their primary religious framework. We can speculate that from their initial periods of contact, blacks, whites, and Indians exchanged and adopted compatible ideas and visions of the world, each group drawing from the cultures of the others.

It was during the colonial era that enslaved Africans were first exposed to Christian missionary activity, although up to the mid-eighteenth century few blacks were actually converted. Evangelical revivalism, exploding among white Americans in the early national period, had a significant impact on blacks. Adopting their own interpretations and understandings of the message of the Christian faith, black preachers and laypersons developed unique and creative styles of religious devotion. It is here that one of the prominent strands of African-American folk religion developed.

African-American religion, however, was characterized by diversity from the start. Scattered references to the activity of "sorcerers," "doctors," and "conjurers" from the 1700s and early 1800s indicate that black religious beliefs were multifaceted. Traditional African spirituality recognized the roles of individuals who were sacred practitioners, diviners, and healers, dynamic intermediaries between the unseen realm of spirits and the world of the living. Although they had been separated from the structures and institutions of their national homelands, African specialists recreated aspects of their religious identities within New World environments. Adapting their native beliefs and practices to the American context, these early black practitioners formed yet another thread in the evolving tapestry of African-American religion.

By the antebellum era, the second generation of blacks born in the United States had developed an indigenous culture. Although the overseas slave trade was declared illegal by 1808, most black Americans in the mid-nineteenth century had some knowledge of or acquaintance with recently arrived or native-born Africans who recalled the traditions and ways of their homeland. To the American-born slaves, these Africans represented the presence and mystery of a powerful sacred past. While some blacks converted to Christianity and a few adhered to Islam, others maintained the beliefs of their forebears through their observance of modified African ceremonies. Accordingly, the religion of slaves consisted of widely differing innovations of traditions and beliefs.

African-American folk religion thus emerged as a composite creation, drawn from scattered elements of older cultural memories and grafted New World traditions that were later passed on from generation to generation. An "invisible institution," the folk Christianity of the slave quarters developed as a religion of the vernacular. As a community, slaves prayed, sang, "shouted," and preached to one another in the manner and styles reminiscent of their African heritage. The emphasis on the verbal medium in performance generated the distinctive vocal traditions that became characteristic of African-American liturgy, including the inventive oral repertory of chanted sermon and song.

Other traditions made real the power and presence of the supernatural in human life. Belief in a variety of mysterious beings, including hags, witches, and ghosts, suggests that for many African Americans the spiritual world was alive and immediate, active with forces ominous and threatening. Sacred folk beliefs were derived from Old and New World sources: local variations of Haitian-derived vodun (see Voodoo), the interpretation of signs, the usage of charms, and the mystical knowledge of conjurers, root workers, and hoodoo practitioners, who tapped supernatural forces for prediction and protection. Although many of these traditions were deeply embedded in black folklore, they reflected viable perspectives on spirituality, the need for control and explanation that leads to religious thought.

Healing, another prominent dimension of African-American folk religion, was practiced by specialists who combined knowledge of traditional remedies with holistic therapy. As in Africa, the onset of sickness was understood by many blacks to have both physical and spiritual implications. Folk religion undergirded African-American faith in skilled practitioners who were able to counteract ailments with herbal and natural medicines, as well as techniques such as prayer. Folk beliefs also offered a theory or explanation for why such afflictions might occur. For example, illness was often thought to be caused by negative spiritual forces. In the early twentieth century, some of these latter impulses would find their way into sectarian Christianity, within groups such as the Holiness Movement, and Pentecostalism, churches that emphasized faith healing and physical wholeness through spiritual power.

With the drastic demographic shifts and movements in black life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from South to North and from countryside to city, African-American folk religion took on a broader significance. The "old-time" revivalist traditions of worship in the rural churches would no longer be restricted to the South, as thousands of migrants made their way to northern urban areas. Relocating in search of new prospects and new lives, they brought their local traditions and beliefs with them, establishing new religious institutions within storefronts and homes. Many of these transplanted folk churches recalled features of African religion, especially the emphasis on emotional styles of worship, call and response, spirituals, and Holy Ghost spirit possession.

The folk religion of blacks also lived on in noninstitutionalized forms within urban centers. African-American conjurers, healers, and other specialists underwent a metamorphosis, some reemerging as leaders within the socalled cults and sects of the cities, and others setting up within occult shops and botanicas as spiritual advisers. This vast network of urban practitioners attracted devotees from diverse religious backgrounds, including members of the mainstream Christian denominations, who found in these traditions resolution and assistance for dayto-day concerns.

Although black folk religion continues to be varied and eclectic in its manifestations, it demonstrates a common orientation toward spirituality that is dynamic, experimental, and intensely pragmatic. Characterized by pluralism, folk beliefs fulfill diverse needs and functions that cut across doctrinal barriers and creedal differences. They constitute a way of life that is at the heart of the African-American religious experience.

See also Africanisms; Candomblé; Religion; Santería; Voodoo; Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas


Andrews, Dale P. Practical Theology for Black Churches: Bridging Black Theology and African American Folk Religion. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Fauset, Arthur Huff. Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Cults in the Urban North. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944.

Hurston, Zora Neale. The Sanctified Church. Berkeley, Calif.: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981.

Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926.

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

yvonne p. chireau (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005