A History of the Black Church in the US

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The teachings of Christ appealed to African Americans because it gave them hope and a renewed, spiritual way to cope with their troubles on earth.

The second Great Awakening of the eighteenth century led to the Christianization of free and enslaved African Americans. The Christianization, though, was neither forced nor encouraged. The teachings of Christ appealed to African Americans because it gave them hope for a better future and provided them with a spiritual escape from their miserable lives. The hostile treatment blacks received from the white congregations in white churches also motivated them to establish their own churches.

Involvement of Blacks in the Second Great Awakening

The second half of the eighteenth century was characterized by the development of new technology, such as the invention of the cotton gin, spinning and weaving machines. With these new inventions came the demand for more cotton and more African slaves to work on cotton plantations in the Southern colonies. More importantly, though, was the religious revival, the second in a series of four revivals that swept through the thirteen colonies. This revival, known as the Great Awakening, came about in response to Ministers’ Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield’s urge to spread the word of God. “After 1750 the Baptists experienced tremendous growth and influence among the common people,” says William Banks (10).

Blacks were, especially, attracted to the Baptists and the Methodists. Their messages of personal salvation gave black slaves a spiritual escape from their hardships on earth. These messages inspired them to share a personal relationship with Christ, as knowing and believing in a loving heavenly father gave them the hope of a having a much better future—spending eternity in heaven with Christ.

The Rise of the Black Church

During the second Great Awakening, African Americans attended churches in large numbers. Some black men even became preachers, but they were well in the minority. In the south, black slaves were permitted to attend their master’s church, but they were unwelcome by their white counterparts. Consequently, they were restricted to the pack rows. In some churches the gallery was the only space where they were allowed to worship. In most cases the slaves gathered in churchyards to hear the singing and the sermon. In the north, blacks were also allowed to worship in white churches. However, they too were welcomed by cold and hostile treatment and shunned mercilessly by their white brothers and sisters.

To blacks, it soon became very clear that they were not welcome in white churches. As their numbers grew, so too did their desire for separation from the white churches. These two factors led to the establishment of Black Churches.

Black Churches in the South

Until the reconstruction era, black churches in the south were very rare. However, there were a few sympathetic whites who helped establish churches for the black slaves. These churches were overlooked by whites who appointed white preachers. Often, though, there were not enough white ministers interested in preaching to a congregation of black slaves to fill the pulpit. Therefore, black ministers filled their place. These ministers were former slaves, freed by their masters to preach the word of God.

Black Churches in the North

Black churches in the north were also rare. However, they became more prevalent in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The situation of blacks was much different in the north than in the south. In the north, African Americans were free. Some of them were slaves who had successfully escaped from their southern masters. Since there was no slavery, there was no restriction on blacks forming their own churches. They freely established their own churches led by black ministers and with black congregations, entirely independent from white churches.

The Black Church was instrumental in creating a black society where blacks came together to share their Christian beliefs with one another. It also gave blacks a sense of hope in their miserable lives. One day they will spend eternity with God. This renewed hope gave African American communities the strength to cope with the cruel treatment they received from their white masters and white communities.

Sources:

  1. Banks, William L., The Black Church in the US. Haverford, PA: Infinity Publishing.com,1999-2001.
  2. Battle, Michael, The Black Church in America: African American Christian Spirituality. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
  3. Lincoln, Charles E. And Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the AfricanAmerican Experience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.