Intro to Afro-American Studies


Religion and the Black Church

Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies

LOGIC OF CHANGE Social Cohesion Traditional Africa - Slavery - Rural Life - Urban Life
Social Disruption - Slave Trade - Emancipation - Migrations -
UNITS OF ANALYSIS Ideology A1 B1 C1 D1 E1 F1 G1
Nationality A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 F2 G2
Class A3 B3 C3 D3 E3 F3 G3
Race A4 B4 C4 D4 E4 F4 G4


On Sunday mornings the women all seemed patient, all the men seemed mighty. While John watched, the Power struck someone, a man or woman; they cried out, a long, wordless crying, and, arms outstretched like wings, they began the Shout. Someone moved a chair a little to give them room, the rhythm paused, the singing stopped, only the pounding feet and the clapping hands were heard; then another cry, another dancer; then the tambourines began again, and the voices rose again, and the music swept on again, like fire, or flood, or judgment.  Then the church seemed to swell with the Power it held, and, like a planet rocking in space, the temple rocked with the Power of God.  John watched, watched the faces, and the weightless bodies, and listened to the timeless cries. One day, so everyone said, this Power would possess him; he would sing and cry as they did now, and dance before his King.

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953


The relation between religion and political radicalism is a confusing one. On the one hand, established religious institutions have generally had a stake in the status quo and hence have fostered conservatism. The other-worldly orientation of the masses, particularly as expressed in the more fundamentalist branches of Christianity, has been seen as an alternative to the development of political radicalism. On the other hand, as the source of both universal humanistic values and the strength that can come from believing one is carrying out God's will in political matters, religion has occasionally played a positive role in movements for radical social change.

Gary Marx, Protest and Prejudice, 1969


Speaker: Let a new earth arise! 
Congregation: Let a generation full of courage rise and take control! 
Speaker: In the Union of South Africa (USA) to the United States of America (USA)! 
Congregation: Let a new earth arise!
Speaker: Let the dirges disappear!...
Congregation: Stop bank loans in South Africa! Stop redlining against Blacks and the poor!
Speaker: Let a generation of men and women rise and take control!
Congregation: No Sowetos over me, No more Sowetos over me, No more, no more!
Speaker: From the USA to the USA!
Congregation: No more Bakkes over me, No more Bakkes over me, No more, no more! 
Speaker; Let a new earth arise!
Congregation: No more auction blocks for me! No more police brutality!...
Speaker: "For my people everywhere!"
Congregation: Rise up, fight for what is right! Rise up and fight!
Speaker: From the USA to the USA!
Congregation: This land is my land! I built it with my hands!
Speaker: Let a generation of men and women rise and take control.
Congregation: Stand up, fight for your rights! Stand up and fight!
Speaker: Come out to the picket line!...
Congregation: We make our stand to defend our rights and fight for liberation.
Speaker: From the USA to the USA!
Congregation: Same struggle. Same fight!
Speaker: From the USA to the USA!

Chicago Committee for a Free Africa, "New Wine in Old Bottles: A Responsive Reading on the Black Church and Struggle," 1978.



The church has been the most important social institution in the Black community. This means that the ideology of religious beliefs (particularly Christianity), the social organization of the church, and the community leadership of the minister have combined to represent the main organized social form of historical stability.

Religion is a set of ideas, ideological beliefs, in which the beginning of the world and all subsequent historical and social phenomena are the result of actions by one or more Supreme Beings (God, Allah, Jehovah, etc.), which exist outside of the material world. But the concrete historical conditions that Black people have faced, and still face in their day-to-day lives, call for changes in "the here and now." Thus, religion and the Black church have been historically confronted with a contradiction: to believe that "God helps those who help themselves" and to get fully involved in the struggle for Black liberation, or to wait for some "Supreme Being" to solve the problems that Black people face.

However "otherworldly" in its focus, the church exists "down here on the ground" with other aspects of the society, economy, politics, culture, etc.  Our analysis of the church and religion must therefore take into account the concrete conditions within which they exist. In this way, we discover that the main forms of the Black church and the religious experience of Black people have changed during the three main periods of Afro-American history: from the invisible institution during slavery to the small rural church, to the large urban church and the storefront church.  Let us look at these in greater detail, beginning with religion in Africa.



The impact of African religious practices on Afro-American religion had been the subject of an intense debate. There are two schools of thought. E. Franklin Frazier and others argued that the manner in which Africans were captured and enslaved in Africa and slavery in the Americas practically stripped the slaves of their African social heritage, religion included. This was a deliberate process by the slave traders and slaveowners, who could more easily maintain control over culturally disoriented and dehumanized slaves. On the other hand, Lorenzo Turner, a Black linguist, and Melville Herskovitz, a white anthropologist, attempted to show that African survivals could be discovered in almost all aspects of Black life in the United States. Included among these survivals in religion, for example, were the "call and response" interaction between preacher, choir, and congregation; "shouting," which results from "possession" by the supernatural; and the practice of immersing the body in water (baptizing). All have been found in parts of Africa and in some Black churches in the United States.

Subsequent research has indicated that the brutal experiences of enslavement and the "middle passage" did not completely erase all of the African cultural heritage of Afro-Americans. Arthur Fauset, sociologist and student of Black urban religious movements, maintained:

Common sense requires us to believe that everything cultural which the Negro brought over with him from Africa could not have been eradicated from his heritage, despite the centuries since he left Africa, the thousands of miles which have separated him from the ancestral homeland, and the eroding influences of an overwhelming and inescapable super-culture.


Even Frazier admitted in The Negro Church in America: "Those slaves who were largely isolated from the whites engaged in religious practices that undoubtedly included some African Survivals."  However, he quickly added that "there was a determined effort on the part of whites to prevent any resurgence of African religion."  Always fearful of the possibility of slave revolts, whites even passed laws to prohibit African religious practices. These new conditions of slavery in the New World were significant factors in determining what would remain of this cultural heritage as Black people struggled for survival in the United States. Thus, the religious practices of Black people are best understood by looking at them in the concrete social context of the Afro-American experience in the United States as it has historically evolved.


Although Frazier incorrectly argued that slaves suffered a total loss of African culture, he was the leading scholar recognizing the pivotal social role that the Black church has played in the Black experience since slavery. The slave trade represented a profound disruption in social life of the Black people. During slavery, the Christian religion to some extent provided a new and vitally necessary basis of social cohesion. It helped to create group solidarity and a structured social life among Black people.

While Quakers, Presbyterians, and Catholics were the first to try and recruit Blacks, it was mainly the Baptists and secondarily the Methodists that slaves responded to and joined. Several factors accounted for this:

1. Baptist and Methodist preachers were mainly uneducated and poor like the slaves, and their appeal appeared to be more genuine and inviting.

2. The emotionalism of Baptists and Methodists provided more of an outlet for the pent-up feelings and emotions of the oppressed slaves than did the more reserved practices of other denominations.

3. The decentralized political structure of the Baptist denomination, with each church operating as an autonomous unit under the leadership of a local preacher, gave more real involvement to the members and proved more appealing than the centralized structure of the Methodist Church.

In addition to providing social cohesion among slaves, religion was a bridge to the white world. House slaves and slavemasters often worshipped together, either in special sections of white churches or in special services in the slaveowner's house. Not only did religion provide slaves with a link to white society, but, as Frazier pointed out, it also "tended to break down barriers that isolated them morally from their white masters... Thus, despite the vast gulf in the status that separated master and slave, participation in the same religious services drew the Negroes out of their moral isolation in the white man's world."



Slavemasters, however, deliberately used religion to reinforce slavery. First, they passed laws which overruled the view of many Christians that only a heathen could be enslaved and that once baptized a slave was free. Second, the bible was used to teach slaves a submissive orientation and a "divine, God-given" justification for their condition as slaves. Slaves were the "cursed children of Ham" and destined always to be oppressed workers - "Hewers of wood and drawers of water."  If slaves accepted their lot and were obedient, hardworking, and truthful, they would be rewarded in heaven, the world after death. Third, slavemasters used religion to further social distinctions between "house slaves" (who were more assimilated and shared the religious practices, beliefs, and interests of the master) and the "field slaves" (who remained more African in orientation). It was always in the slavemaster's interest to keep slaves divided as much as possible. Because preachers functioned with the blessings of the master, they often became a useful tool of social control.

Since plantation owners did not allow organization to develop openly among the slaves, an underground church - what E. Franklin Frazier calls "the invisible institution" - emerged. There, the religious practices of the slaves flourished beyond the watchful eyes of the slaveowner and overseers. An ex-slave wrote describing a typical underground church:

Our preachers were usually plantation folks just like the rest of us. Some man who had a little education and had been taught something about the Bible would be our preacher... When we had our meetings of this kind, we held them in our own way and were not interfered with by the white folks.

In the underground church, preachers usually were called to their positions by some religious experience that indicated they were God's chosen leaders. Preachers, however, were always ultimately under the control of whites. Thus, under slavery there was never really an independent Black church, except those established by free Blacks.


Slavery also defined the status of free Blacks. In white churches, even free Blacks were denied equality and continually were subjected to racist abuse. In 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, faced with vicious discrimination in Philadelphia, led a group of Black people in establishing the first Black denomination - the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Others followed in their footsteps and formed independent Black churches, most notably the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AMEZ). The AME and AMEZ churches today are two of the largest Black denominations, performing missionary work, in Africa, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Resistance was a central aspect of the church during slavery. Slave spirituals spoke of the fight against slavery. As the theologian James Cone pointed out:

The basic idea of the spirituals is that slavery contradicts God; it is a denial of his will... They rejected white distortions of the gospel, which emphasized the obedience of slaves to their masters. They contended that God willed their freedom and not their slavery. That is why the spirituals focus on biblical passages that stress God's involvement in the liberation of oppressed people. Black people sang about Joshua and the battle of Jericho, Moses leading the Israelites from bondage, Daniel in the lions' den, and the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace. Here the emphasis was on God's liberation of the weak from the oppression of the strong, the lowly and downtrodden from the proud and mighty. And blacks reasoned that if God could lock the lion's jaw for Daniel and could cool the fire for the Hebrew children, then he could certainly deliver black people from slavery.

The "sweet chariot" that would "swing low" referred to the underground railroad, a clandestine escape route for slaves organized by Harriet Tubman and others and supported by Black churches in the South and North.  Men like Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and Denmark Vesey were either inspired by biblical passages or used their roles and skills as preachers to organize armed resistance against the institution of slavery. It is therefore not surprising that Black churches and Black preachers were declared illegal by the laws of many states after the slave revolts of the early 1800s.



In the rural period, the end of slavery provided conditions under which the "invisible institution" of the slaves merged with the institutional churches of the free Blacks. In addition to the AME and AMEZ churches, the other major Black denominations were: the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, which was established in 1870 and changed its name to Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1956; the National Baptist Convention, USA, which was established in 1880 and became the largest Black denomination; and the National Baptist Convention of America, which split off from the National Baptist Convention, USA. These and other. new church institutions increased in both size and importance. During the rural period, Black churches made significant contributions to social stability, economic well-being, education, and political life in the Black community.

Social Stability

The moral life of captured Africans was disrupted and subjected to the economic dictates of slavery. Thus, family life, moral values, religious beliefs, and social practices were corrupted and negated. The Black church in the post-Civil War period helped to foster a new sense of community and to evolve a system of beliefs and values that sustained the development of stable families, social practices, and moral values. Charles S. Johnson, in his 1934 study of the Black rural church, summarized its role as a social institution:

It is in a very real sense a social institution. It provides a large measure of the recreation and relaxation from the physical stress of life. It is the agency looked to for aid when misfortune overtakes a person. It offers the medium for a community feeling, singing together, eating together, praying together, and indulging in the formal expressions of fellowship. Above this it holds out a world of escape from the hard experiences of life common to all. It is the agency which holds together the subcommunities and families physically scattered over a wide area. It exercises some influence over social relations,. setting up certain regulations for behavior, passing judgments which represent community opinion, censuring and penalizing improper conduct by expulsion.

Almost a decade later, he wrote:

Among rural Negroes the church is still the only institution which provides an effective organization of the group, an approved and tolerated place for social activities, a forum for expression on many issues an outlet for emotional repressions, and a plan for social living. It is complex institution meeting a wide variety of needs.


Table 23
Denomination Number of Members Number of Churches Number of Pastors Sunday School Members
National Baptist Convention, USA 5,000,000 26,000 27,500 2,407,000
National Baptist Convention of America 2,668,000 11,398 7,598 2,500,000
AME Church 1,166,000 5,878 5,878 363,432
AME Zion Church 770,000 4,082 2,400 199,250
CME Church 444,493 2,523 1,792 115,424

Source: John P. Davis, ed. The American Negro Reference Book, 1966, p. 402.


Economic Cooperation

Black people pooled their meager resources to build their own churches after slavery. "Mutual aid societies" and "sickness and burial societies" also emerged. These early efforts at capital accumulation also helped to lay the basis for church-supported businesses, newspapers, banks, and insurance companies.


The first independent Black schools were established by Black preachers while the Civil War was still being fought. Immediately after the war, millions of dollars were raised to support Black education through church suppliers and programs. Black church-supported colleges were also a response to the need of Black churches for an educated ministry, though many Black people other than ministers were trained.

Arena of Political Life

During Reconstruction, Black preachers became important elected and appointed political leaders. After the Hayes-Tilden sellout forced Black people out of politics, the Black church became the most available center for Black political activity. Here, individual preachers could struggle for power, and the masses could voice their choice for leadership through voting, committee work, and holding various church offices.

Black preachers emerged as the personification of the cohesiveness and national unity of Black people. They were leaders in all phases of community life. They motivated Black people to build schools and to contribute to denominational colleges; they encouraged homeownership and even helped some to become homeowners; they provided leadership in civic activities; and they often served as the main link between the Black community and white officials.



During the slave and rural periods, Blacks were molded into an Afro-American nation. As the main social institution during these periods, the Black church reflected the contradictions inherent in the Black experience. On the one hand it was a progressive institution insofar as it served as a motivating force behind liberation struggles. On the other hand, it was a conservative force that encouraged people to accept their condition as a means of dealing with their oppression.

While Black churches were centers of resistance throughout much of the slave period and early rural period, many churches became quite conservative in the rural areas. Writing on the rural church in 1941, Charles S. Johnson declared:

It is an inescapable observation that the rural Negro church is a conservative institution...its greatest present value appears to be that of providing emotional relief for the fixed problems of a hard life. As one woman put it, "It just seem like I can stand my worries better when I go to church."

Based on his study of Black rural church people, he concluded in Shadow of the Plantation:

The dominant attitude was one of unquestioning belief in and reliance upon God as a protection against everything that was feared, and an answer to everything that could not be understood...

Just as God brought droughts, rain, pestilence, disease for a purpose both local and inscrutable, there was no appeal from his elections, whether with respect to the incidence of contagion or the exigencies of the cotton crop. All is mystery colored by a faith and fatalism which tended to dull both striving and desire.


Benjamin Mays, in his 1938 study, referred to these attitudes as "traditional, compensatory ideas," which were reflected in sermons, prayers, and church school literature after 1914.  Describing these ideas, he maintained:

They are conducive to developing in the Negro a complacent, laissez-faire attitude toward life. They support the view that God in His good time and in His own way will bring about the conditions that will lead to the fulfillment of social needs. They encourage Negroes to feel that God will see to it that things work out all right; if not in this world, certainly in the world to come. They make God influential chiefly in the beyond, in preparing a home for the faithful - a home where His suffering servants will be free of the trials and tribulations which beset them on the earth.

Though Black people in the northern urban areas may have been receiving different messages, the masses in the rural areas were being given a hefty dose of otherworldly ideas to compensate for their tribulations.



As conservative as the church may have been in the rural period, it did play a very important role in the development of the Afro-American nation. As a social institution, it was the backbone of the Black community. In addition, the church was the basis for the collective expression of Afro-American national development in the area of economic life. This was especially the case since imperialism and racism stunted the development of a Black bourgeoisie. The political life of the Black community emanated from the rural church. The pivotal role of the church in Afro-American national development is the basis for the continued key role of the church among Black people.


Migration, urbanization, and proletarianization had a profound impact on the institutional life of Black people. The Black church, the center of social life in the rural South, was not immediately available to meet the needs resulting from the new, cold, and impersonal life in the city. In response to this new environment and the transformation of the Black experience from rural to urban and from farm to factory, the Black church was also transformed in several significant ways.


The Black churches added more social programs to deal with the conditions of Black people "on this side of Jordan." More importantly, many churches and ministers became actively involved in the struggle for Black liberation. They joined the struggles for jobs and housing and fought against lynching.

Many of the prohibitions like those against dancing, card playing, and other recreational activities were dropped (certainly in part because they were being increasingly ignored). Religious music was also secularized with the emergence of gospel music. This music is not as religious and otherworldly as the spirituals, the "sacred folk songs" which arose during slavery. Instead, gospel - a synthesis of spirituals and blues - symbolized the efforts of Black people to use their traditional religious heritage in coming to grips with their changing life and the problems they confronted in the real world.


Storefront Churches 

In order to compete with the large and varied institutions which characterized urban life, many Black churches became large impersonal bureaucracies. Many churchgoers, especially the newly-arrived migrants from the South, desired a more intimate church experience and joined one of the many smaller churches housed in rented stores or houses. Many southern preachers even followed their members North as they migrated and set up shop in their new communities.

Writing in the 1940s, Vattel Daniel described these new urban churches:

These "storefront" churches, as, the name suggests, are generally conducted in unrented or abandoned stores, though some may be found in run-down houses. They are located in the poorer and deteriorated areas of Negro communities. They often owe their existence to the initiative on the part of a "Jack-leg" preacher, that is, a semiliterate or an uneducated preacher, who gathers about him the poorer Negroes who seek a religious leader in the city...

The "storefront" church represents an attempt on the part of the migrants, especially from the rural areas of the South, to re-establish a type of church in the urban environment to which they were accustomed. They want a church, first of all, in which they are known as people. In the large city church they lose their identity completely and as many of the migrants from the rural South have said, neither the church members nor the pastor know them personally. Sometimes they complain with bitterness that the pastor of the large city church knows them only as the number on the envelope in which they place their dues. In wanting to be treated as human beings, they want status in the church which was the main or only organization in the South in which they had status...

In these small "storefront" churches the Negro migrant could worship in a manner to which he had been accustomed. The sermon by the pastor is of a type to appeal to traditional ideas concerning hell and heaven and the imagery which the Negro has acquired from the Bible. Much emphasis is placed upon sins of the flesh, especially sexual sins. The preacher leads the singing of the spirituals and other hymns with which the Negroes with a folk background are acquainted.


Storefront churches were historically necessary responses to the inadequacy of established denominations in meeting the spiritual needs felt by Black people from the South in the urban industrial environment.

Black Religious Cults

Storefront churches usually maintained traditional beliefs and practices, Black religious cults abandoned conventional beliefs about God and about Black people. Two kinds of cults stand out: 1) the "holiness" cults, and 2) the salvation" cults.

The "holiness" cults seek to restore a purer form of Christianity through the sanctification (or Purification) of their members. Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement and Daddy Grace's United House Of Prayer for All People are examples of this type of cult.

The beliefs and practices of the United House of Prayer for All People were described by Arthur Fauset in 1944:

[T]he cult represents a Christian sect of the holiness type, believing in conversion, sanctification, and the intervention of the Holy Spirit, etc. There are the usual taboos.

Actually, however, the beliefs boil down to a worship of Daddy Grace. God appears to be all but forgotten. The followers concentrate their thoughts on His "great man," Grace...

The United House of Prayer for All People has meetings every night and all day Sunday.

The distinguishing characteristics of the practices of this cult are their extreme physical frenzy, and the use to which these frenzies are applied in raising money for carrying on their work...

Allusions to sex motives are numerous in a moment of comparative tranquility, I heard a preacher call out to the followers, who were chiefly women, "Who has the best thing you ever did see? I mean the best feeling thing you ever did feel? You feel it from your head to your feet. You don't know what I mean? Makes you feel good. Makes everybody feel good"...

Followers are encouraged to dance ecstatically, but always with members of the same sex. Frequently the dancer falls to the floor and lies there, many minutes...

While these things are happening, time is taken to make collections, invite members to purchase food at the canteen, or to place on sale various Daddy Grace products which are an essential part of the spiritual exposition. Thus Daddy Grace soap will cleanse the body, or reduce fat, or heal, according to the individual need. Daddy Grace writing paper will aid the writer in composing a good letter. Has the follower a cold or tuberculosis? The Grace Magazine will, if placed on your chest, give a complete cure.

In general, these holiness cults were characterized by a religious frenzy called "shouting" or "getting happy" and prohibitions on alcohol, gambling, and the like.

The "salvation" cults seek salvation through escape from being identified as Christian. They develop a mark of distinction by rooting their beliefs and practices in a religious tradition (often Islam) that is not common to Black people in the United States. The Moorish Science Temple of America, founded by Timothy Drew around 1913, is an example of a salvation cult. Its origin and practices were outlined by Fauset:


Somewhere in his life he [Timothy Drew] came upon two facts which radically influenced his thinking:

He encountered some forms of oriental philosophy and was impressed with its racial catholicity. The fruits of his research have been compressed into the Holy Koran of the Moorish Holy Temple of Science, which is not
to be confused with the orthodox Mohammedan Koran.

He became obsessed with the idea that salvation for the Negro people lay in the discovery by them of their national origin, i.e., they must know whence they came, and refuse longer to be called Negroes, black folk, colored people, or Ethiopians. They must henceforth call themselves Asiatics, to use the generic term, or, more specifically, Moors or Moorish Americans...

Complete emancipation through a change of status from "Negro" to "Asiatic" promised an easy way to salvation...

In connection with the services in the temple the following practices are especially to be noted, for they are quite distinct from practices to be observed at most Negro religious services.

When sitting in the temple, men and women are segregated...

Exclamations from the congregation are few and almost inaudible; there is a complete absence of that emotionalism which is considered characteristic of Negro services...

There is no baptism or communion and little singing. There are few hymns, and these are mostly chants. Members must pray three times daily, at sunrise, noon, and at sunset. When praying, members stand facing the east (Mecca), and raise their hands but do not prostrate themselves. 

All Moorish Americans must obey the laws of their (American) government. "Radicalism" is forbidden.

Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, established years later, is another example of a salvation sect.

Generally, cults and sects reflect Black people's dissatisfaction with their exploitation and oppression as well as their genuine desire to seek a way out of these conditions. People will try anything, regardless of how slim the possibilities of success are, to alleviate oppressive conditions.


The last two decades have revealed several trends in Black religion. Black people have become more differentiated - socially, culturally, and economically. Black religious practices likewise have become more varied. Religion has generally become less important among Black people. This is because the church has had to compete with other institutions and activities. It is also because of the historical and continuing failure of the church to deliver Black people from the valley of exploitation and oppression to the mountaintop of freedom and liberation.



Two contradictory forces have shaped the recent activity of the Black church. One, the struggle for Black liberation since 1954 has had a great impact. As the masses of Black people got more involved in struggle, so too did the Black church. Black preachers got up off their knees and into the streets - if for no other reason than to keep up with their constituency and to save their jobs. Two, the rise of the new Black middle class has greatly influenced the church. This new middle class has more of an interest in business, politics, and securing government appointments and grants. Therefore, it is often solely interested in the organized power of the Black church to achieve these aims.

All of the important ideological forces in the Black liberation movement over the past few years have had an impact on the Black church. Writing on the role of religion in liberation struggles, Gary Marx observed in the 1960s: 

The quietistic consequences of religion are all too well known, as is the fact that only a relatively small segment of the Negro church is actively involved. On the other hand, the prominent role of the Negro church in supplying much of the ideology of the movement, many of its foremost leaders, and a place where protest can be organized, can hardly be denied.

Like most ideologies, both religious and secular, Christianity contains many themes, which, if not in contradiction, are certainly in tension with one another...One important strand of Christianity stresses acceptance of one's lot and glorifies the after-life. However, another is more concerned with the realization of Judaeo-Christian values in the current life...When one's religious involvement includes temporal concerns and acceptance of the belief that men as well as God have a role in the structuring of human affairs, then, rather than serving to inhibit protest, religion can serve to inspire and sustain it.

The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others clearly represented the latter strand, the "social gospel" tradition. This has also been referred to as Black liberation theology.

Reverend King addressed his fellow clergy who were critical of protest activities in his letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963:

[B]asically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here...Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere...

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham...It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative...

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws...One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?"  The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws...I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."...

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro...If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place...

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

Indeed, many churches did become involved in issues of social justice and were active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Later in the 1960s, some preachers advocated Black power. The National Committee of Negro Churchmen declared in 1966:

The fundamental distortion facing us in the controversy about "black power" is rooted in a gross imbalance of power and conscience between Negroes and white Americans. It is this distortion, mainly, which is responsible for the widespread, though often inarticulate, assumption that white people are justified in getting what they want through the use of power, but that Negro Americans must, either by nature or by circumstances, make         their appeal only through conscience...We are faced now with a situation where conscienceless power meets powerless conscience, threatening the very foundations of our nation...

We deplore the overt violence of riots, but we believe it is more important to focus on the real sources of these eruptions. These sources may be abetted inside the ghetto, but their basic causes lie in the silent and covert violence which white middle-class America inflicts upon the victims of the inner city. The hidden, smooth and often smiling decisions of American leaders which tie a white noose of suburbia around the necks, and which pin the backs of the masses of Negroes against the steaming ghetto walls - without jobs in a booming economy; with dilapidated and segregated educational systems in the full view of unenforced laws against it; in short: the failure of American leaders to use American power to create equal opportunity in life as well as in law - this is the real problem and not the anguished cry for "black power."...
     When American leaders decide to serve the real welfare of people instead of war and destruction; when American leaders are forced to make the rebuilding of our cities first priority on the nation's agenda; when American leaders are forced by the American people to quit misusing and abusing American power; then will the cry for "black power" become inaudible, for the framework in which all power in America operates would include the power and experience of black men as well as those of white men.


Others (e.g., Reverend Albert Cleage in Detroit and the Black Christian Nationalist Movement) incorporated nationalist and pan-Africanist practices and beliefs. Anti-imperialist consciousness also surfaced with the opposition of many ministers to the war in Vietnam, in their protest against the role of U.S. imperialism in exploiting and oppressing people of Africa, and in their support for the African liberation struggles.

While some churches currently are involved in the struggle for Black liberation, many more are pulling Black people from the struggle and more into religious fanaticism, escapism, and a "wait and God will take care of everything" mentality. The Black church continues to make contributions to the freedom struggle. Today, however, it falls far short of the decisive contributions it made during slavery and even during the recent period of the civil rights struggles. Thus, the Black church comes closer to repeating the role that E. Franklin Frazier described some twenty years ago in The Negro Church in America: "[T]he Negro church and Negro religion cast a shadow over the entire intellectual life of Negroes and have been responsible for the so-called backwardness of American Negroes."

Given the worsening social conditions of Black people in the United States, the role of such an influential institution as the Black church must be strongly criticized. The solution to this dilemma is clear if we study and correctly understand the lessons of Black people's struggles in the 1950s and 1960s. We must reclaim the Black church for the struggle and rekindle its fighting heritage. The Black church must "get up off its knees and back into the streets" with the same fighting spirit with which the masses of Black people have historically fought for freedom and justice. In short, to use the language of the Church itself, "heaven," if it comes, will not come without a successful struggle for freedom and liberation for Black people right here on "earth."




African survivals Invisible institution
Black liberation theology Religion
Call and response Secularization
Church denominations Spirituals/Gospels
Cults/Sects Storefront church


1. In what ways did the Christian religion help the slaves? Help the slavemasters?

2. How did the Black church serve as the central institution in the Black community during the rural period?

3. How did urbanization transform Black religious practices?

4. What are the main themes of Black liberation theology?


1. James H. Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984.

2. Philip S. Foner, ed., Black Socialist Preacher. San Francisco: Synthesis Publications, 1983.

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

4. George E. Simpson, Black Religions in the New World. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

5. Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982.

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