A Short History of the Black Church in America

Did you know that February is Black History Month?  This was set up because the contribution and experience of Black people in our nation has been ignored for most of America’s history, and is sometimes neglected even today.  In honor of Black History Month, I’d like to lift up the stories of Black Christians in America.

When the first Africans were brought over to this continent as slaves in the 1700s, no one tried to bring the Gospel to them.  You see, the slave owners believed that it would be wrong to hold a fellow-Christian as a slave, but had no problems enslaving non-Christians.  A few groups, such as the Baptists and Methodists (who were small minorities at that time, with little influence or power) believed that profits should not take precedence over the Gospel, and so they began sending missionaries to preach to the slaves.  By the late 1700’s, more and more slaves and free black people began converting to Christianity, finding comfort and spiritual freedom within it.  But even in church, they were treated as second-class citizens, relegated to the balcony and kept clearly separate from their white brothers and sisters in Christ.  In Philadelphia in 1787, a free Black man named Richard Allen led in the creation of a group that would become Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  An offshoot of the Methodist Episcopal Church, they had to sue in Pennsylvania courts to be allowed to remain independent of White Methodist congregations.  In 1816, Allen called a meeting of Black Methodist congregations in Philadelphia, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was born, the first Black denomination.  The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) soon followed suit.  Because the position of Black people was so precarious, and there were so few professions and other opportunities available to them, Black churches became social centers as well as religious institutions, taking care of the bodies of their parishioners as well as their souls, and standing up for their rights.

Meanwhile, attitudes toward slavery were beginning to change.  Many people (Thomas Jefferson among them) believed that it was hypocritical to be a “free” nation which held slaves, so many slave-owners began searching for a “moral” justification for slavery—a way to argue that slavery was good for the slaves.  They did so by pointing to the possibility to “Christianize” and “uplift” the slaves from their “savagery.”  So more preachers were sent among the slaves—except that these new preachers were supported by the slave owners and tried to use the Word of God to control them.  They preached that slavery was a good thing, that God wanted Black people to be slaves and that slaves should submit to whatever their masters did.  In response, slaves and free black people began holding their own worship services with their own preachers, often in secret because gatherings of Black people were forbidden in many places.  Even those Whites who believed that slavery was wrong were uncomfortable with the idea of Blacks being educated or holding their own meetings outside the control of White people, and many believed that freed slaves should be transported back to Africa.

Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893) was the first Black student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.  He was a Methodist schoolteacher, but the Methodists would only allow him to go to seminary if he agreed to become a missionary in Africa after his training.  Believing that his call was to minister to his brethren in his own country, he went to Gettysburg instead.  Afterwards, he joined the AME Church, where he was a strong advocate for education, particularly the education of pastors.  In 1852, Payne was consecrated a Bishop.  He continued his work on education, being on the first Board of Directors of Wilberforce University in Ohio and was instrumental in keeping it open despite the Civil War and racist attacks.  Payne also worked to raise the quality of music in worship.  After the Civil War, Payne was influential in organizing congregations in the South among freed slaves.  Within a year of the end of the war, the AME Church had grown by 50,000 members.

Julia A. J. Foote (1803-1901) was the first Black woman to be consecrated a Deacon.  Born in New York, she spent her early years as a domestic servant.  By the age of fifteen, she was deeply committed to her faith and a member of the AME Zion church.  Although she married at eighteen, she and her husband were childless.  She had visions and heard the voice of God calling her to testify publically to her faith, which she did despite the disapproval of her husband and pastor.  After being removed from her church, Foote became an itinerant preacher, speaking in any home, pulpit, or revival meeting that would allow a woman to speak.  She preached the Gospel with vigor, with a heavy focus on social issues such as abolition and women’s rights, and drew large crowds.  She retired to Ohio and wrote her autobiography, A Brand Plucked From the Fire.  She was consecrated a deacon of the AME Zion Church in 1894 (the first woman), and was the second ordained female Elder of the AME Church.

Black churches boomed after the Civil War, taking advantage of newfound freedoms to organize themselves and minister without needing to be either “hidden” or under the supervision of a White church body as they had before.  Existing Black churches boomed, and new ones were formed; new denominations were organized, including the National Baptist Convention and the Church of God in Christ.  Black preachers provided leadership, encouraged education and economic growth, and were often the primary link between the black and white communities.  Given the discrimination and injustice faced by their members, Black churches connected the Gospel with social activism and community support, believing that they could not meet the spiritual needs of their members while ignoring their physical needs.  This trend continues today; it is no accident that many of the great leaders of the Civil Rights movement were pastors, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, Bernard Lee, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Tee Walker, and C.T. Vivian.

Black churches continue to flourish today.  Black Liberation Theology is the most visible and controversial trend of the past forty years; several times, fragments of sermons influenced by it have been quoted out of context in the national media during moments of high racial tension.  Liberation Theology is the belief that God is on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden because they are the ones most in need of Christ’s love and care.  It tends to focus on Christ’s saving, redeeming, and healing work in this present world, rather than on hopes of heaven, and therefore it tends to be very politically active.  Black Liberation Theology often includes images of Jesus as Black, drawing on his status as a member of an oppressed and persecuted group to lift up the similarities between his experiences and those of oppressed minorities today.  Because of this theology, Black Christians tend to be liberal on most social matters except for sexuality, where they tend to be very conservative.  But remember that this is just a generalization—there is as much variation in Black Christianity as there is in White Christianity.

I hope that we will always remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ our Lord.  We all bring to the body of Christ different spiritual gifts and a unique witness to God’s work in the world.

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