The slave trade resulted in Africans being transported to the New World beginning as early as  the fifteenth century. There were many tribal religions represented. Some slaves came from Muslim parts of Africa

There have been three major influences on African American religion

    Influences from the African past
Isolated songs, rhythms, movements, and beliefs in the curative powers of roots and the efficacy of a world of spirits and ancestors survived well into the nineteenth century. These were increasingly combined with the various forms of Christianity to which Europeans and Americans introduced African slaves. For example, African rhythms were combined with Christian hymns.

Two reasons that African influences were limited are that slave owners deliberately separated tribal and language groups, resulting in cultural losses, and religious specialists were not enslaved because they tended to be in older age groups.
    Borrowings from European American culture
Slaves came into contact with the growing number of Protestant evangelical preachers, many of whom actively sought the conversion of African Americans. These conversion campaigns produced both general European and specifically Christian influence. Ultimately the vast majority of slaves became Christian Protestants.

In Latin America, where Catholicism was most prevalent, slaves mixed African beliefs and practices with Catholic rituals and theology, resulting in the formation of entirely new religions such as vaudou in Haiti (later referred to as "voodoo"), Santeria in Cuba, and Candomblé in Brazil

By 1810 the slave trade to the United States had officially ended and the slave population began to increase naturally. The second generation began the preservation and transmission of religious practices that were truly "African-American."
     Religious responses of African Americans to their subordinate status
African Americans have responded through American history with a complex mixture of accommodation and resistance.

Christian missionaries and slave owners attempted to use Christianity to legitimate slavery and control slaves.

Slaves found different themes in Christianity than whites. For whites, America was the “New Israel” or the Promised Land. For slaves it was the “New Egypt.” Slaves believed that God acted within human history and would act on their behalf as he had for the chosen people, biblical Israel



Christianity presented slave owners with a means of consolidating their control over slaves.

Functions of Christianity for Slavery

    Provided an ideological rationale for the enslavement of Africans and the social cohesion of white society
Slave owners convinced themselves that slavery was an uplifting experience for blacks, exposing them to proper work habits, self-discipline, and the saving grace of Christianity. Blacks were thought to be in danger of eternal damnation without Christian baptism and indoctrination. Slaveholding, therefore was “a duty and a burden”
    Constituted a component of the deculturation of slaves and a means of creating cultural uniformity among peoples of diverse cultures
Slave cultures were systematically eliminated through means such as deliberately mixing tribal groups, preventing more than one individual from a tribal group from being sold to a slave owner, and separating families.
    Contributed to subduing and pacifying slaves 
Christian missionaries emphasized being obedient to masters and salvation after death.

Enhanced slave profitability by ensuring slaves would work hard under adversity Christianity also presented potential problems to slave owners who often resisted conversion efforts

Factors impeding slave conversion

    Slave owners feared baptism would make slaves free
Legislation was passed in several colonies, beginning in 1667 in Virginia, stipulating that baptism would not change slaves’ legal status. This led to an increase in missionary activities to slaves because not conversion did not imply emancipation.
    Slave owners regarded the substantial time required for religious instruction as uneconomical

    Slave owners argued that slaves were intellectually incapable of understanding the subtleties of Christian doctrine

    Slave owners were uncomfortable with the concept of spiritual equality between master and slave

        Spiritual equality would call into question the enslavement of fellow Christians

    Slave owners feared that conversion would make slaves more difficult to control and perhaps precipitate insurrection

        Some missionaries attempted to counter this fear by arguing that conversion would make slaves more docile and industrious
    Slaves sometimes resisted conversion

Slaves worshiped in a variety of contexts  – with whites, with free blacks, with fellow slaves, in private

Mixed Congregations

In white congregations slaves were usually segregated and expected to be passive participants except for hymn singing received communion separately, could not preach, not allowed to initiate prayer. Sometimes there separate services for slaves with a message to obey their masters.

Baptist and Methodist churches were most popular with slaves, partly because of some similarities with African religious rituals (baptism by immersion similar to water spirits inducing initiates to jump into streams and shouting while under the Holy Spirit similar to shouting during initiation rites), outreach by Baptist and Methodist preachers, Baptist and Methodist organizational flexibility permitted latitude in religious worship style.

There was a gradual drift toward separation as whites found it difficult to control blacks in white churches

Slave Congregations

Meetings were held in three types of quarters

    Chapels  – religious buildings constructed by slave owners but less likely to be accepted by slaves

    Praise houses  – formally designated religious buildings on the plantation

    Hush arbors  – Informal worship sites constructed out of poles and brush in secret, wooded locations.

Slave religious meetings frequently occurred at the end of the work day, several days per week, and lasted for several hours.

Where they encountered resistance to independent worship, slaves used signals, passwords, and messages not discernible to whites to arrange gatherings in "hush arbors"

Services typically began with European hymns and long prayers. Elected preachers gave sermons. The services freely mixed African rhythms, singing, and beliefs with evangelical Christianity. In the spirituals they sang, there were double meanings of religious salvation and freedom from slavery. During the service the emotional fervor gradually mounted and ended in ritual spirit possession.

One characteristic ritual that lasted over a period of several weeks was “mourning” or “tarrying,” a ritual that symbolized death and rebirth and involved fasting, lying on a dirt floor, and other physical deprivations.

Slave religion led to acts of external rebellion and to maintain a sense of personal value

There have been a number of slave insurrections with some connection to religion, such as those by Gabriel Prosser in 1800 in Richmond, Virginia; Denmark Vesey in 1822 in Charleston, South Carolina; and Nat Turner in 1822 in Southampton County, Virginia.


Gabriel (Prosser) was born in 1776 on Thomas Prosser's tobacco plantation in Henrico County

Gabriel’s father was a blacksmith, and it is likely he was trained as a blacksmith. He had two brothers and a wife, Nanny.

Gabriel was unusually intelligent, tall, and strong. He had been taught to read and write as a child and was regarded by other slaves as a leader.

Thomas Henry Prosser, Thomas Prosser’s son and heir, allowed Gabriel to hire himself out to masters in and around Richmond. This gave him access to some of freedom, money, and contact with fellow hired slaves, free blacks, and white laborers.

He was a serious student of the Bible, where he found inspiration in the accounts of Israel's delivery from slavery.

Gabriel experienced several strong influences: the rhetoric of the American Revolution; the uprising in Saint Domingue (Haiti), the radical words of white artisans who championed the working class; the success exhibited by free blacks; his own hatred of the merchants who routinely cheated the slaves they hired; his desire to be free and to prosper.

There are different accounts of the insurrection objectives. One is that the rebels planned to seize control of Richmond by slaying all whites (except for Methodists, Quakers, and Frenchmen) and then to establish a kingdom of Virginia with Prosser as king. Another is that the objectives were to overtake the Capital and convince Governor James Monroe to support more political, social and economic equality between members of society.

The conspirators recruited from Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, Albemarle, and from Henrico  Caroline and Louisa counties. The majority of recruits were slaves, but the conspirators also drew free blacks and a few white workers to their cause. The rebels also amassed weapons and began hammering swords out of scythes and molding bullets. Gabriel organized the rebels into military units.

It was the most far-reaching slave revolt ever planned in U.S. history.

The plan was to strike on the night of Aug. 30, 1800. Men inside Richmond were to set fire to certain buildings to distract whites, and Prosser's force from the country was to seize the armory and government buildings across town. With the firearms thus gained, the rebels would supposedly easily overcome the surprised whites.

On the day of the attack the plot was disclosed by two slaves who did not want their masters slain; then Virginia governor James Monroe alerted the militia.

As the rebels began congregating outside Richmond during the evening, a violent rainstorm flooded roads, washed out bridges, and prevented Gabriel’s army from assembling. He decided to postpone the attack until the next day, but by then the city was too well defended. The rebels dispersed.

Gabriel attempted to escape via a schooner was intercepted in Norfolk when he was recognized and betrayed by two slaves. He was returned to Richmond, convicted on October 6 and sentenced to hang. He was executed on October 10.

At least 65 slaves were tried; of those not hanged, some were transported to other states, some were found not guilty, and a few were pardoned.

White authorities offered a full pardon to slaves who were willing to give testimony against the other conspirators. Some slaves, in order to save their own lives, testified against the rebel leaders, about 35 of whom were executed.

Four free blacks were arrested, but they too were released after the frustrated authorities could find no viable witnesses. There were slaves willing to give condemning evidence, but the testimony of slaves against free people was inadmissible in Virginia courts.

Virginia paid over $8900 to slaveholders for the executed slaves.

In the aftermath of the rebellion the militia increased its surveillance.  Authorities restricted slave travel and communication.  Abolition societies ceased operations in Virginia.  Free blacks had to leave the state within six months or risk re-enslavement.



The major African American denominations emerged primarily from two sources

    Free blacks who separated from predominantly white congregations prior to the Civil War

    Former slaves who separated from white Baptists after the Civil War

Concerted efforts to convert slaves did not begin until after 1700.

Religious revivals (First Great Awakening, 1734-1736 and Second Great Awakening, 1770-1815) resulted in the conversion of slaves. The Second Great Awakening was intensely egalitarian, producing feelings of equality and brotherhood.

In the period after the Revolutionary War, a number of Protestant denominations opposed slavery and admitted blacks into their churches.

In the North there were racially mixed congregations of Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Congregationalists in which free blacks participated. However, in many northern cities African Americans gradually formed separate churches in response not to doctrinal differences but to racial tensions.

In the South particularly, independence of black churches was always a matter of degree before 1860. Slaves had to receive a pass from masters and whites exerted some measure of control over the church.

By the 1830s most southern states had passes laws forbidding teaching slaves to read and write, restricted or banned preaching by blacks, and requiring while supervision of slaves’ religious gatherings

Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists divided over slavery in by the 1840s. Following the Civil War, the southern denominational organizations separated racially with the ultimate result being separate black denominations. Some churches did not divide over slavery: Disciples of Christ (were entirely congregational in organization), Unitarians, Universalists and Congregationalists (were largely northern)

By 1845 the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists were engaged in promoting religious instruction among slaves. The Baptists and Methodists were most successful in proselytizing and establishing new churches.

Most blacks worshiped in racially mixed congregations before 1860. Particularly in the South these congregations were likely to be pastored or supervised by whites.

At the end of the Civil War there were four million ex-slaves free to organize religiously as they saw fit. Over 90 percent of the African American population lived below the Mason Dixon line.

After the Civil War there were numerous independent churches in urban areas in both North and South

Even after the Civil War southern African American denominations often depended on white patrons for economic support and protection from intimidation and violence (including lynching) during the period of systematic segregation. Rural churches were indirectly supportive of the social and economic status quo and provided an escape and safe haven for members. The emphasis was other worldly


More than 80 percent of African American Protestants have chosen to join black denominations.

    Legacy of slavery

    Acts of racism

    Full ordination of clergy

    Independence from white control

There are seven historically black denominations (See separate overhead)

Characteristics of the mainline denominations
Accepted cultural patterns of American society and strive to share in benefits of the “American dream.”

Adopted a reformist strategy of social activism that will enable African Americans to become better integrated into American social, political, and economic institutions

Exhibited a strong expressive style of worship but strong commitment to instrumental activities (protests, raising funds to combat discrimination, college scholarships)


                                                                                    Membership        Churches

National Baptist Convention, USA                            7,800,000               30,000

National Baptist Convention of America                   2,700,000               11,400

Progressive National Baptist Convention                  2,500,000                1,400

African Methodist Episcopal Church                          2,210,000                6,200

African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion                  1,200,000                3,000

Christian Methodist Episcopal Church                           719,000               2,300

Church of God in Christ                                                5,500,000             15,300

African American Baptist Churches

One of the earliest “independent” African Baptist churches occurred around 1750 on the plantation of William Byrd III near Mecklenburg, VA

Numerous black Baptist churches were formed in the North in the early 19th century in response to racial discrimination in racially mixed churches

    Joy Street Baptist Church (Boston, 1805)

    Abyssinian Baptist Church (New York, 1808)

    First African Baptist Church (Philadelphia, 1809)

There has been a tradition among black Baptists for autonomy of local conventions, district conventions, and state conventions.

The first national denomination, the National Baptist Convention, USA, was not founded until 1895.

There were several subsequent schisms leading to other denominational groups

    Lott Cary Foreign Missionary Convention (1897)

    National Baptist Convention of America (1915)

    Progressive National Baptist Convention (1961)

Many of the black Baptist churches in small southern communities are not affiliated with any national Baptist denominations

African American Methodist Churches

Methodism initially was formally and strongly opposed to slavery. John Wesley’s General Rules (1739) included a rule forbidding “the buying or selling of the bodies and souls of men, women, or children with an intention to enslave them.” In 1772 he denounced the slave trade as the “sum of all villanies.”

The Methodist Episcopal church, which organized in Baltimore in 1784, adopted six rules designed to eliminate slavery among its membership. There do not appear to have been Methodist slaveholders during this period.

Most of the men who became Methodist ministers in succeeding decades had been raised in slaveholding states, and much of Methodist missionizing took place in those states.

By the early 1800s the Methodist General Conference left to Annual Conferences policy regarding the ownership of slaves

Slavery issue divided Methodist Episcopal Church into northern and southern branches in 1844 when a Methodist bishop was discovered to be a slaveholder

The Methodist Episcopal Church, South separated by race in 1866, leading to the Christian (originally “Colored”) Methodist Episcopal Church in America in 1870.

After the Civil War, northern black churches (AME, AMEZ, and Methodist Episcopal Church, North) began establishing branches in the South

Not all ex-slaves welcomed the "help" of the northerners, black or white, particularly because most northern blacks (like whites) saw southern black worship as hopelessly "heathen." They wanted to convince ex-slaves to give up any remnants of African practices and embrace a more sedate, intellectual style of religion.

AME Church

Two former slaves founded the Free African Society of Philadelphia in 1787 after being pulled from their knees while worshiping in a gallery closed to blacks at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.

Two churches emerged from Free African Society: African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AMEZ)

The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in Philadelphia in 1790 and became the mother church of African Methodism. AME Church became a denomination in 1816.

AME was banned in most of the South before 1860 because slave owners feared membership would inspire slave revolts

AME had about 20,000 members in 1860, primarily in the Northeast. By 1876 it had 200,000 members, most of whom lived in the former Confederacy.

The AME subsequently spread into the Canada, the Caribbean, western and southern Africa

The AME was involved in anti-slavery activities but overall was gradualist in its orientation. Members of the AME congregation in Charleston, South Carolina helped plan the Vesey slave rebellion in 1822. AME took a position of gradual emancipation and it was not until 1856 that slavery became a central issue on its agenda

Members of AME were leaders in the modern Civil Rights Movement (Oliver Brown was lead plantiff in the Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education case; Roy Wilkins headed the NAACP)

AMEZ Church

Some black Methodists began worshiping separately from the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City in 1796. Methodist opposition to slavery was diminishing, segregation was increasing, and there was continued resistance to black ministerial leadership.

The Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was incorporated in 1801
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church became a denomination in 1821 and formally broke ties with the Methodist denomination in 1824.

AMEZ fewer than 5,000 members in 1860 but 300,000 by 1884 and 700,000 by 1916

AME Zion became known as the “Freedom Church” for its support of abolitionism, and it was also the first Christian denomination to extend full clerical ordination and the vote to women in 1898

AMEZ spread into Canada, the Carribean, South America, and west Africa

By 2000, AMEZ had 1,300,000 members


Freedom – Jesus is the liberator of the poor and oppressed. the heritage of African-American oppression and the necessity of overcoming such conditions by uniting religiously. Liberation in this world (rights, jobs, education)
God of Justice  – God is particularly concerned with the fate of the oppressed and is allied with the oppressed against the oppressors. Kingdom of God is seen in terms of justice and equality in this world.
Contextual Theology  – Theology is a circular process in which the Bible and the current situation interpret and reinterpret one another. The beginning point is the experience of slavery and oppression.

Highly expressive religious services, particularly in preaching and music

Preaching  – the preacher must be called by God and speaks God’s word to the people
Singing  – intensifies the experience of the Spirit
Shouting (“getting happy”)  – a response to the action of the Holy Spirit. Joy over the authentic personhood given by Jesus and participation in his life and liberation, experienced as a present, here-and-now alternative to oppression and depersonalization
Prayer  – communication with Jesus
Testimony   – members speak to the congregation about their determination to stay with their lives in Christ and int the church in spite of difficulties



Began in 1930s as Nation of Islam (NOI)

A mysterious stranger, who used a variety of names (Wallace D. Fard or Master Wali Farrad Muhammad) appeared selling goods he claimed were from the West Indies, Africa or Arabia) and telling exotic tales of those lands.

He preached a message in which he denounced the white race. His followers regarded him as the messiah who had come to lead blacks into the millennium after the Battle of Armageddon.

In 1934 he disappeared just as mysteriously. Speculations about his disappearance include departure overseas, murder by the Detroit police, or death at the hands of dissident followers.

Elijah Muhammad (Elijah Poole), Fard’s second in command, then lead the Black Muslims from the 1930s until his death in 1975.

He moved NOI’s headquarters to Chicago, opened temples and mosques, housing projects, stores, restaurants, and farms.

Malcolm X was Muhammad’s second in command. Malcolm X and Muhammad came into conflict over Malcolm X’s unwillingness to accept Muhammad’s extramarital affairs and Muhammad’s unwillingness to accept Malcolm X’s criticism of the War in Vietnam, statements about John Kennedy’s assassination, and lack of governmental commitment to solving domestic problems.

Muhammad replaced Malcolm X as minister of the Harlem temple

In March, 1964 Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and announced plans to establish the Muslim Mosque Inc. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X expressed a willingness to work with whites against racism and for social justice.

In February, 1965 Malcolm X was killed by former members of the Nation of Islam (perhaps with the complicity of the FBI)

Elijah Muhammad was succeeded by Warith Deen Muhammad (Wallace D. Muhammad), a son of Elijah Muhammad, in 1975. 100,000 members followed his leadership in creating an organization, the American Muslim Mission, in the orthodox Sunni Muslim tradition.

In 1978 Louis Farrakhan rejected these changes, left the American Muslim Mission, and created a reorganized Nation of Islam with 20,000 members

The rival sects engaged in a violent conflict in 1978

Farrakan was extremely controversial for reportedly denouncing Judaism as "a gutter religion,"  suggesting that Hitler was "wickedly great," visiting foreign nations like Libya that harbor terrorists and Arab and African countries known for human rights violations. He also has strongly criticized blacks by decrying the absence of black fathers in the inner-city, blasting black-on-black violence, and exhorting blacks to do more for their own economic empowerment.

In 1995 Farrakan organized the largest, most peaceful civil rights demonstration since the 1960s, the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.

In 2000 Farrakan acknowledged that his rhetoric might have contributed to the death of Malcolm X but stopped short of admitting complicity in the killing

In 2002 Farrakan and and Muhammad publicly reconciled, although their organizations remain independent


God had created blacks as the first humans, but Yakub, a rebellious scientists, produced and released genetically weakened pale human stock.

Based on the Bible and the Qur’an, he taught that the original homeland was Mecca, Arabia and not Africa. Blacks in the U.S. are the lost Nation of Islam in North America

Christianity is a “slave religion” that keeps blacks in social and spiritual bondage.

According to NOI doctrine, heaven and hell existed on Earth, there would be a final judgment (America would be the first location), Muslims should not participate in wars, black women should be protected, God’s name was Allah, and Allah had appeared on Earth as W.D. Fard.

The “white devils” have been allocated 6,000 years to rule. That period ended in 1914. Soon the chosen of Allah were to be resurrected from the mental death imposed on them by whites and again gain control.

Blacks are naturally stronger than whites and should prepare for their return to their rightful social and political position by living disciplined lives. These disciplines included restrictions on food (avoidance of pork, alcohol) drugs (tobacco, alcohol), non-marital sex, dancing, and gambling.

Members were to maintain patriarchal households and traditional gender roles (including sex segregation), economic independence from whites, and work for the creation of a separate nation for blacks (consisting of several southern states).

Members were taught to be self reliant and to have a sense of mutual responsibility

Members were expected to eat only an evening meal after a full day of work, engage in
recreation by doing temple work, proselytizing, and reading the Koran

New Members are encouraged to change their names to symbolize rebirth by replacing their “slave name” with a Muslim name (Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Muhammad Ali).

The NOI educational system taught knowledge of self (black people’s history), Arabic, mathematics, science, and English

Warfare against whites might be necessary, but until the proper time arrived no one
one should engage in threatening behavior that would allow the slavemasters a pretext for oppression.


African American religious experience has been shaped by coercive power

The vast majority of African Americans became Christian, with 75 percent of blacks are Protestants, but they developed a distinctive style of religiosity that combined their African heritage and their experience of slavery.

The religious response of African Americans has always involved a mixture of accommodation and resistance

A sense of community that served as a base social solidarity and leadership cutting across denominational lines emerged as African American religion developed..

Through much of American history the ministry was the only profession open to blacks and churches were the only institutions they controlled. Much of black leadership has come from the churches

Black churches have not experienced the membership declines suffered by white mainline denominations