African-American Religions

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African-American Religions

African-American religion cannot be reduced to any one form or tradition. It is a complex constellation of diverse systems of belief and practice ultimately concerned with the relationship between the sacred and the profane. African-Americans' religion has been central to their survival, developing as a cultural response and adaptation to the conditions of their experience in the New World.

African captives were not homogeneous in origin, tribal affiliation, language, or religion. Yet sufficient similarities existed between their respective cultures to allow a worldview to emerge out of the context of their interaction and collective condition. To appreciate the creativity and adaptability of those first generations of African-Americans, we must first appreciate the perspective they brought with them. This generalized African worldview, particularly as expressed in religion, included: (1) belief in a supreme deity, and a lesser order of spiritual beings (including the spirits of ancestors and of nature), all of whom are imminent, intervening in the affairs of mortals; (2) ecstatic forms of worship, including drumming and ritual dancing, and the belief in spirit possession; (3) oral transmission of culture and emphasis on the collective production of the sacred; (4) close integration of the sacred and the profane, with the religious specialist not holding an exalted position over other members of the community; (5) value and respect for all forms of life, human or otherwise, and an emphasis on living harmoniously with nature; (6) respect and recognition of women as actors in the structures of power, governance, and religious leadership; and (7) emphasis on the collective over the individual. These factors were part of a general orientation to the world, shaping Africans' approach to the new cultures and conditions encountered in the Americas.


Afro-Christianity and the Black Church in America

While some Africans had been previously exposed to Christianity, the mode of Christianity imposed upon them in the Americas, particularly in the Southern United States, was carefully constructed to shape them into compliant and submissive slaves. By emphasizing certain scriptures and omitting others, many slave-holders used Christianity as an ideological tool of social control designed to help perpetuate and justify the institution of slavery.

To circumvent the control of whites in their plantation churches, slaves held secret meetings at night beneath the brush arbors (called "hush harbors" because the dense foliage contained and quieted the sounds of their worship). These secret services provided emotional, physical, and spiritual catharsis, hope, a sense of solidarity, and affirmation of their intrinsic value as human beings. These meetings were also used to obtain news from friends and loved ones on other plantations via itinerant slave preachers, and to plot acts of covert and overt resistance as seen in the acts of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Harriet Tubman, and others who formulated or carried out insurrections and escapes. This was the "invisible institution" of the antebellum South.

The first documented African-American Baptist congregation was founded on a Virginia plantation in 1758, but the emergence of a separate African-American-controlled Christian denomination came, at least partly, in response to continued discrimination within white-controlled churches. In 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, part of a larger group of free African-American parishioners, were forced to rise from kneeling in prayer on the main floor of the St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church sanctuary in Philadelphia and were asked to assume a place in the church's segregated upper gallery. This incident led to the collective withdrawal of the African-American parishioners and the establishment of the Free African Society. From this society developed the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1816, the first independent African-American Christian religious institution, which later developed into a national denomination. It remains the oldest extant African-American-controlled organization in the United States (membership 3.5 million). For similar reasons the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church was incorporated in New York in 1821 (membership 1.2 million), followed by the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) in 1870 (membership 1 million).

Other denominations that comprise the traditional black church and to which the majority of African-American Christians still belong today, are: the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (founded 1895; membership 8.2 million), the National Baptist Convention of America (incorporated 1915; membership 3.5 million), the Progressive National Baptist Convention (founded 1961; membership 2.5 million), the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (founded 1988; membership 3.2 million), and the Church of God in Christ, an African-American Pentecostal denomination (originally established in 1897; membership 5.5 million). African-American-controlled congregations and caucuses within other Christian denominations are also considered part of the institutional black church.

Self-help, mutual aid, political struggle for social change, and education have always been among the top priorities of the black church as expressed in their founding of a number of the historically black colleges and universities. Mutual aid societies, providing monetary aid or even burial insurance, also served African-American congregants. As a black-controlled institution, the church created one of very few spheres in which African-Americans could exercise their right to vote for their own leaders, either with the ballot or with their feet.

With the mass exodus of African-Americans out of the rural South to Southern and Northern cities in the decades following the Civil War through World War I, numerous variations on the Judeo-Christian theme emerged in the form of urban sects and cults led by charismatic personalities. Many of these were storefront churches, which were part of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements. Other movements included: the Church of God (Black Jews), which taught that the Old Testament Jews were black people, and the cults of self-proclaimed gods Father Hurley (Universal Hagar's Spiritual Church) and Father Divine (Peace Mission Movement).

In the century between emancipation and the end of Jim Crow segregation, the black church became the institutional center of the African-American community. Perhaps the finest hour of institutionalized African-American religion was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which may not have been possible without the pre-existence of the black church as an exploitable network for the mobilization of the masses of African-Americans. For example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Conference of Black Churchmen's (NCBC) ministers articulated a Christian-based vision of racial and class justice. They also trained and led the masses in tactical resistance to oppression by directing the financial, organizational, and human resources mobilized through their churches.

Today, African-American congregations and religious organizations can be found among virtually all of the major denominations and Christian traditions, including the Catholic, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian churches as well as various sects. African-Americans are also represented in nondenominational-ecumenical Christian movements. As the black church approaches the twenty-first century, its most pressing issues include: the role of women as ministers; the need to attract younger members into the ministry and as members; violence; AIDS; and the role of the church in helping to foster economic development and revitalization within its communities.


Islam in the African-American Experience

Islam has always been part of the African-American religious experience. Many African slaves had adopted Islam on the African continent and struggled to retain many aspects of their Afro-Arabic cultural heritage in the form of their names, language and writing, dietary customs, holidays and celebrations, as well as clothing customs.

In 1913, Noble Drew Ali (born Timothy Drew) established the Moorish Science Temple of America in Newark, New Jersey. He taught that African-Americans were not the descendants of Ethiopians, as some in the black community taught, but that they were actually descended from the Moors. In 1925 the Temple was moved to Chicago and incorporated as the not-for-profit Moorish Holy Temple of Science. In 1928 Ali published the Holy Koran, which differed significantly from the Qur'an of orthodox Islam. A few months after his death in 1930, one of Ali's followers, Wallace D. Fard, established the Nation of Islam (NOI) with its first temple (mosque) in Detroit. The Chicago branch of the NOI was established in 1933, and in 1934, after the mysterious disappearance of Fard, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole) became the movement's leader.

In 1975, Wallace (Warith) D. Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, became the leader of the movement after his father's death. Under the younger Muhammad's leadership, the movement's name was changed to American Muslim Mission (AMM), and he sought to align the movement's teachings more closely with orthodox, international Islam as well as disavow some of the more radical, nationalistic elements of his father's teachings: that Christianity was the white man's religion, that whites are the Devil incarnate, rejection of Christian, "slave," names, and that there should be a separate African-American nation on the continent of North America, among other things.

In the late 1970s Minister Louis Farrakhan led a splinter faction, which separated itself from the AMM to reclaim the name of Nation of Islam, reviving many of the original teachings of Fard and Elijah Muhammad. Since coming to prominence, Farrakhan has been quite a charismatic and controversial figure, arousing anger in many people with his nationalist, separatist, and anti-Semitic remarks. His apparent power to mobilize many of today's young African Americans was demonstrated when Farrakhan called for the Million Man March which took place in Washington, D.C., on October 15, 1995. It was to be a day of atonement for African-American men of all religious persuasions to come together in brotherhood and unity. The march and the subsequent rally on Capitol Mall, drew large numbers of African-American men and boys (the actual numbers continue to be disputed) across class, religion, and regional lines. It also encouraged a truce among rival gangs and was seen by many as a success.

In addition to the Nation of Islam under Farrakhan, today there are several groups claiming to revive or preserve the Nation of Islam's original traditions or to uphold orthodoxy. These include: Nation of Islam groups led by John Muhammad and Silas Muhammad, respectively; the Nation of the Five Percent (or "Five Percenters") founded in 1964 by Clarence Jowars Smith, who states that only five percent of African-Americans know the truth and are thus able to lead the community; and the African Islamic Mission, an orthodox group originating in 1970s Brooklyn.

Islam remains significant in the African-American experience as it provides an Afro-Arabic identity for blacks while its self-help emphasis is carried on in its educational institutions, community-based economic enterprises, rehabilitation programs in prisons and inner cities, affording a major source of discipline and self-esteem for African-American youth, particularly young males. Today African-American Muslims comprise 1.4 million of the total 5 million Muslims in the United States.

Yoruba-Based Religions: Vodun and Santería (Orisha)

Throughout the Caribbean and South America the structure of slavery under the Spanish made possible the creolization of Yoruba (and Dahomey) West African religious traditions with certain elements of Catholicism. Vodun (or vodou, or voodoo, as popularly known in the United States) is the term used to describe this complex religious system as practiced in Haiti. In Puerto Rico and Cuba it is known as santería or orisha. It is also practiced in Trinidad, Jamaica, and Brazil under still other names. The African belief in the hierarchy of spiritual beings and deities, some of which were responsible for some aspect of life or nature and all having distinct personalities and sensibilities, correlated with the pantheon of Catholic saints and other sacred beings. For example, the snake god of traditional African religion was recognized as similar to Saint Patrick of Catholicism.

Led by the priests—manbo (female) or oungan (male)—participants invoke a particular spirit, or loa, achieving a trancelike state during which one or more spirits possesses, or "rides," one or more worshipers. Communal rites include drumming, dancing, feasting, and sometimes animal sacrifice. While the invoked spirit controls the body and mind of an entranced worshiper, who then displays the characteristics associated with it, that spirit may perform cures or speak to the assembly, dispensing wisdom and guidance or the solution to some question or problem. Because these religions have been associated with various slave uprisings throughout the Americas, practitioners have generally had to operate within underground, secret societies out of fear of official sanction and reprisal from those who view them as Satanic or as catalysts for slave rebellion.

Practitioners of these Yoruba/Dahomey-based religious traditions are generally concentrated in communities with large numbers of immigrants from South America and the Caribbean (New York and Miami). In the Southern United States, particularly Louisiana, vodun has had a long history of mystery, fear, and folklore which has kept it an underground movement for most of its existence there. These rites offer a sense of cultural continuity with a traditional African past, strengthen social bonds, and give a sense of empowerment for many in the immigrant populations who may also be newly arrived members of the African-American community in a racially stratified system.

Finally, conjuration and magic are also part of the multifaceted world of African-American religion still in existence today. Sometimes collectively referred to as hoodoo, its beliefs and practices include: homeopathic healing with herbs and roots, divination with bones or pebbles, influencing the will of others or casting curses on them, and other forms of spiritualism in which a medium consults the spirits of the dead on behalf of a client.

In short, the story of African-American religion is one of creativity and adaptability in the face of circumstances not of their choosing. Their diverse religions and the institutions informed by them have emerged as dynamic collective responses to institutionalized discrimination and exclusion from mainstream paths to social and economic equality. As such, the religion they made helps them to maintain a sense of their existential human value and to survive, the first order of resistance in the African diaspora abroad.


See alsoAfro-Cuban Religion; Animal Sacrifice; Civil Rights Movement; Drumming; Ecstasy; Fard, W.D.; Farrakhan, Louis; Islam; Jackson, Jesse; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Magic; Muhammad, Elijah Karriem; Noble Drew Ali; SanterÍa; Secret Societies; Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Southern Religion; Spirit Possession; Spiritualism; Vodun.

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