Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have recognized the central significance of religion in African American culture. Scholarly studies on African American religion in the United States can be traced to W. E. B. Du Bois's The Negro Church (1903). In addition to exemplifying the richness of the African American experience, black religion provides us with significant insights into the social condition of black people in U.S. society. E. Franklin Frazier (1974) argues that African American religion historically has functioned as a "refuge in a hostile white world." At another level, however, it has served as a form of cultural identity and resistance to a white-dominated society. The development of African American religion, particularly during the twentieth century, took a multiplicity of interrelated streams, which makes it a variegated phenomenon that has only begun to be more fully explored in recent decades (Nelsen et al. 1971, Murphy et al. 1993).

Many scholars have debated the extent to which African American religion draws upon African religion in its diverse forms. Despite the presence of Africanisms in African American religion, such as the call-and-response pattern characteristic of black preaching, it is evident that no single African culture or religion could have been diffused intact to North America. African religious concepts and rituals, such as ancestor worship, initiation rites, spirit possession, healing and funeral rituals, magical rituals for obtaining spiritual power, and ecstatic ceremonies enlivened by rhythmic dancing, drumming, and singing, are found in African American religion but generally in syncretized ways, blended with diverse European American elements.

Prior to the American Revolution, very few slaves were Christian, other than in a nominal sense. Most planters initially were reluctant to foster the conversion of their slaves to Christianity because they feared that it might provide them with notions of equality and freedom. Eventually, however, they became convinced that a selective interpretation of the Gospel would foster docility in their subjects. Indeed, as Eugene Genovese (1974) demonstrates in his application of Gramsci's notion of hegemony, the slave owner's paternalistic ideology relied heavily upon religious themes. That the slaves internalized portions of their masters' ideology is manifested by their belief that Jesus Christ was a meek, humble, and compassionate figure with whom they could converse about their earthly tribulations. A few exceptions aside, they did not picture Jesus as a messiah-king bearing a sword and mounted on a horse ready to lead them in battle against their oppressors. As a hegemonic system, paternalism encouraged the slaves to accept the slave masters as brothers in Christ. Conversely, it is important to note that Christianity served as an inspiration in the three best known slave rebellions in U.S. history, namely, those led by Gabriel Proesser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner.

Some blacks joined the evangelical churches—Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian—during the Great Awakening (1720-1740). The Second Awakening (1790-1815), with its camp meetings, attracted many slaves and free black people to evangelical Protestantism. The Methodists emerged as leaders in the development of religious instruction among slaves. Following its creation in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention also initiated missionary work among slaves. The Baptists in particular may have been able to make inroads among the slaves because baptism by immersion resembled initiation rites associated with West African cults. The slaves worshiped in a wide variety of congregations, including with whites, with free blacks, exclusively by themselves, and in private. Slave masters often took house slaves to religious services at white churches, where they were required to sit in separate galleries or in balconies. Although white ministers presided over these services for slaves, the latter often chose instead to hold meetings in their quarters, in "praise houses" or "hush arbors," or even deep in the woods, swamps, and caverns.

Although black people in North America never enjoyed complete religious autonomy during the antebellum period, relatively independent African American congregations and religious associations emerged at this time. Scholars debate whether a slave congregation established in 1758 near Mecklenberg, Virginia, or the Silver Bluff Church in South Carolina established sometime between 1773 and 1775 constituted the first independent black church in North America. Early northern Baptist churches, such as the Joy Street Baptist Church in Boston (established in 1805) and the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York (established in 1808), appear to have emerged as protests to discrimination in racially mixed congregations. Black Baptist congregations in the Midwest formed the first separate regional associations beginning in the 1850s. The first of the National Baptist associations, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., was formed in 1895.

Black Methodists also established independent congregations and associations during the antebellum period, although primarily in the North. A group of free blacks belonging to the Free African Society, a mutual aid society within St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, severed ties with its parent body sometime between 1787 and 1792 in response to the discriminatory practices of the church's white members. The majority of the schismatics formed St. Thomas's African Episcopal Church in 1794, under the leadership of Absalom Jones. Richard Allen led a minority contingent to establish the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mother Bethel became the founding congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the largest of the black Methodist denominations. The racially mixed St. John's Street Church in New York City served as the focal point for the development of what became the second major black Methodist denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Because the vast majority of blacks resided in rural areas of the South prior to 1910, the black rural church became the prototype for much of organized African American religion. Most black churches in the countryside relied on circuit preachers or on deacons as ceremonial leaders when their pastors were not present. Most black rural churches were and still are either Missionary Baptist or Methodist, but black Primitive Baptist and Holiness churches began to appear in the countryside in the late nineteenth century. Revivals constitute an important part of the annual ritual cycle and often serve as a homecoming. Funerals are extremely significant religious occasions that often prompt more ecstatic behavior than do preaching services or even revivals. Particularly during the Jim Crow era, black rural churches often played an accommodative role by providing their adherents with a cathartic outlet for coping with the vagaries of racism and the frustrations associated with poverty and economic exploitation. Although the civil rights movement was based primarily in urban churches, some rural churches played a supportive role in it.

African American religion underwent a process of further diversification in the early twentieth century as an increasing number of blacks began to migrate from the rural South to the cities of both the North and the South. By this time, two National Baptist associations and three black Methodist denominations had become the mainstream churches in black urban communities. Congregations affiliated with these denominations were mass churches in that they often crosscut class lines. Conversely, black congregations affiliated with white-controlled Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches catered primarily to elite African Americans.

Although the mainstream churches often valiantly attempted to cater to the social needs of the migrants, their middle-class orientation often made the migrants ill at ease. As a consequence, many migrants established and joined storefront and house churches, many of which eventually became affiliated with one of the black-controlled mainstream denominations. Often, however, the migrants were attracted to a wide array of Holiness-Pentecostal or Sanctified, Spiritual, Islamic, Judaic, and other syncretistic sects, such as Father Divine's Peace Mission and Daddy Grace's United House of Prayer for All People. During its zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, the Peace Mission movement catered to the unmet social and psychic needs of working-class blacks, who elevated their leader to the status of God. Indeed, the Depression accelerated the process of religious diversification. As Gayraud Wilmore observes (1983), the African American community by the end of the 1930s was literally glutted with churches of every variety.

African American Religious Organization

Most African American religious groups fit into one of several types: mainstream denominations, messianic- nationalist sects, conversionist sects , and thaumaturgic sects (Baer and Singer 1992).

The mainstream denominations are committed, at least in theory, to a reformist strategy of social action that will enable black people to become better integrated into the American political economy. Although many of their congregations conduct expressive religious services, churches affiliated with mainstream denominations often exhibit a strong commitment to instrumental activities, such as supporting mass actions, social uplift programs, and church-related colleges. Members of mainstream denominations tend to accept the cultural patterns of the larger society and seek to share in the American Dream. Institutional racism, however, historically has been viewed as an impediment to this goal but one that can be overcome through social reform. Most mainstream congregations are affiliated with three National Baptist conventions, the AME, the AME Zion, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal churches. Approximately 90% of churchgoing African Americans belong to black-controlled religious organizations. The remaining 10% or so belong to white-controlled religious bodies, including various liberal Protestant denominations, the Mormon Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and various sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Unity, and the Seventh-day Adventists. Black Roman Catholics in the United States numbered close to 2 million in 1990, a figure that resulted in large part from Caribbean immigrants and upwardly mobile African Americans who had children in parochial schools (McDonough 1993).

Messianic-nationalist sects generally are founded by charismatic individuals who are regarded as messiahs who will deliver black people from white oppression. In their early stages, messianic-nationalist sects often repudiate "Negro identity" and define blacks as the original human beings. They express strong criticism of white racism and create alternative communities, businesses, and schools. African American messianic nationalism has exhibited Judaic, Islamic, and Christian streams. Black Judaic or Hebraic sects include the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations, the Church of God and Saints of Christ, and the Original Hebrew Israelite Nation.

The best known of the messianic-nationalist sects subscribe to Islam. Noble Drew Ali established the first of these, the Moorish Science Temple, in Newark, New Jersey, around 1913. Its main thrust was picked up by the Nation of Islam, initially under the leadership of Wallace D. Fard during the early 1930s in Detroit and subsequently under Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam grew rapidly, in part due to the militant preaching of Malcolm X during the early 1960s. Rapid growth did not check schismatic tendencies that led to the appearance of numerous splinter groups, including the Ahmadiya Moslem movement of Chicago, the Hanafis of Washington, D.C., and the Ansaru Allah community of Brooklyn. Following the assassination of Malcolm X and the death of Elijah Muhammad, Wallace D. Muhammad led the transformation of the Nation into the American Muslim Mission. To counter the Mission's shift to orthodox Islam, Louis Farrakhan established a reconstituted Nation of Islam.

The smallest wing of messianic nationalism remained within the Christian fold. George McGuire, a former Anglican priest from Jamaica, established the African Orthodox Church as the religious arm of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Association. Albert B. Cleage, a former United Church of Christ minister, began to assert in the 1960s that Jesus had been a revolutionary who came to free peoples of color from white oppression, and established the Black Christian Nationalist Church.

Conversionist sects characteristically adopt expressive forms of religious behavior, such as shouting, ecstatic dancing, and glossolalia as outward manifes- tations of "sanctification." They stress a puritanical morality and often are other-worldly and apolitical, although some congregations have been known to participate in social activism. Conversionist sects encompass a multitude of Holiness-Pentecostal (or Sanctified) sects and smaller Baptist organizations. The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) is the largest African American Pentecostal body. Although it still manifests many conversionist elements, the church began a process of denominationalizing and mainstreaming in the middle of the twentieth century. Other conversionist bodies include the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A., Christ's Sanctified Holy Church (Holiness), the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, and the National Primitive Baptist Convention as well as numerous independent congregations. Although the more established conversionist bodies prohibit women from serving as bishops and pastors, many others have female pastors and even overseers of associations.

Thaumaturgic sects maintain that the most direct means of achieving socially desired objectives, such as financial prosperity, prestige, love, and health, is to engage in various rituals or to obtain esoteric knowledge and develop a positive attitude. These groups generally accept the cultural patterns, values, and beliefs of the larger society but tend to eschew social activism. Spiritual churches constitute the foremost example of the thaumaturgic sect (Baer 1984). These groups blend elements from American Spiritualism, Roman Catholicism, African American Protestantism, and Voodoo as well as other religious traditions, including New Thought, Judaism, and Islam. Spiritual churches often urge their members and clients to obtain salvation in this life by burning candles before images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or the saints, obtaining messages from prophets and mediums, and taking ritual baths. Most Spiritual churches are small and cater primarily to lower-class people, but some are housed in substantial edifices and cater to relatively affluent working-class and middle-class people. Even more so than Sanctified churches, Spiritual churches provide women with a vehicle for obtaining religious leadership. Although not a part of the Spiritual movement per se, the United Church and Science of Living Institute, founded by the Reverend Frederik Eikenrenkoetter (better known as Rev. Ike), constitutes the best known of the black thaumaturgic sects in the United States.

African American Religious Music

In addition to their status as houses of worship, black churches function as centers of social life, ethnic identity, and cultural expression in the African American community. While African American music is derived from a variety of sources, religion has historically served as one of its major inspirations. As Lincoln and Mamiya (1990: 347) observe,

In the Black Church singing together is not so much an effort to find, or to establish, a transitory community as it is the affirmation of a common bond that, while inviolate, has suffered the pain of separation since the last occasion of physical togetherness.

Eileen Southern (1983) traces the "spiritual" to the camp meetings of the Second Awakening where blacks continued singing in their segregated quarters after the whites had retired for the night. Conversely, the spiritual also appears to have had its roots in the "preacher's chanted declamation and the intervening congregational responses" (Lincoln and Mamiya 1990:348). The "ring shout" in which "shouters" danced in a circle to the accompaniment of a favorite spiritual sung by spectators standing on the sidelines was a common practice in many nineteenth-century black churches. By 1830, many black urban congregations had introduced choral singing into their services. Praying and Singing Bands became a regular feature of religious life in many black urban churches. Despite the opposition of African Methodist and other religious leaders to the intrusion of "cornfield ditties," folk musical styles became an integral part of African American sacred music. After the Civil War, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a student ensemble at the newly established Fisk University in Nashville, did much to contribute to the dissemination of African American spirituals on tours both at home and abroad.

According to Southern (1983:402), black gospel music emerged as an urban phenomenon in revivals conducted in tents, football stadiums, and huge tabernacles. Although Charles Albert Tindley, a black Methodist minister, composed religious songs that drew upon the urban experiences of African Americans around 1900, Thomas A. Dorsey is usually credited as having been the "Father of Gospel Music." Beginning around 1927, he promoted what he called "gospel songs" in churches in Chicago, the Midwest, and the South. At a time when many Baptist and Methodist churches rejected gospel music, Sanctified churches in both urban and rural areas embraced it wholeheartedly. The Church of God in Christ in particular has served as a prime mover in the development of contemporary gospel music. Spiritual churches also accepted gospel music and, in the case of New Orleans, jazz as an integral feature of their worship services. In time, many mainstream congregations incorporated gospel music into their musical repertoire. Based upon their fieldwork, Lincoln and Mamiya (1990:381) conclude "that among young people, teenagers and young adults, gospel music programs constitute the major drawing card."

Interpreting the African American Heritage

From its beginnings, African American religion has exhibited a contradictory nature. One of the major themes in the social scientific and historical literature poses the question of whether African American religious movements have served primarily as vehicles of protest or of accommodation. In his classic study of civil rights militancy among churchgoing blacks, Gary Marx (1967:67) made the following observations:

It can be seen that those belonging to sects are the least likely to be militant; they are followed by those in predominantly Negro denominations. Ironically, those individuals in largely white denominations (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Roman Catholic) are those most likely to be militant, in spite of the perhaps greater civil rights activism of the Negro denominations. This pattern emerged even when social class was held constant.

In a reexamination of Marx's data on religiously inspired civil rights militancy, Hunt and Hunt (1977) argue that Marx failed to differentiate between "conventional militancy" and "corporate militancy." Whereas the items used to measure "conventional militancy" focus upon "structural awareness" of racial inequality in U.S. society, those items from Marx's data measuring what Hunt and Hunt term "corporate militancy" focus upon the advocacy of collective forms of protest. In assessing research on the sociopolitical attitudes of black Catholics, Peck (1982) suggests that Catholicism may have played a more accommodative role in African American history than has black Protestantism. Furthermore, like various other scholars, Marx fails to recognize variations of political attitudes and behavior of unconventional religious groups. One might, for example, expect a member of a messianic-nationalist sect, such as the original Nation of Islam or its reconstituted variant, to be much more militant than a member of a conversionist sect, such as a small Sanctified storefront congregation. Perhaps more than any other institution, religion illustrates the diversity of strategies that African Americans have adopted in attempting to address racism and class inequality. As in the past, African American religion no doubt will continue to manifest both accommodative and activist qualities, but its more progressive expressions hold the potential of being a part of efforts for radical social transformation emanating from the black community.

See also Civil Rights, W. E. B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Nation of Islam, Racism

Hans A. Baer


H. A. Baer, The Black Spiritual Movement (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984)

H. A. Baer and M. Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992)

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Negro Church in America (Atlanta: Atlanta University Press, 1903)

E. F. Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken, 1974)

E. D. Genovese, Roll Jordan, Roll (New York: Vintage, 1974)

L. L. Hunt and J. G. Hunt, "Religious Affiliation and Militancy among Urban Blacks," Social Science Quarterly 57 (1977):821-834

C. E. Lincoln and L. H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1990)

G. T. Marx, "Religion: Opiate or Inspiration of Civil Rights Militancy Among Negroes," American Sociological Review 32(1967):64-72

G. W. McDonough, Black and Catholic in Savannah Georgia (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993)

L. G. Murphy et al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of African-American Religions (Hamden, Conn.: Garland, 1993)

H. M. Nelsen et al., The Black Church in America (New York: Basic Books, 1971)

G. R. Peck, "Black Radical Consciousness and Black Christian Experience," Sociological Analysis 43 (1982):153-169

E. Southern, The Music of Black Americans (New York: Norton, 1983)

G. S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1983).

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