AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGION
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGION
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
Borrowings from European American culture
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.
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.
Religious responses of African Americans
to their subordinate status
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
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
RELIGION AND SLAVERY
THE RELIGIOUS BENEFITS AND COSTS OF SLAVERY
Christianity presented slave owners with a means of consolidating their control
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
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
Contributed to subduing and pacifying slaves
Christian missionaries emphasized being obedient
to masters and salvation after death.
Factors impeding slave conversion
Enhanced slave profitability by ensuring slaves would work
hard under adversity Christianity also presented potential problems to slave
owners who often resisted conversion efforts
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
SLAVE WORSHIP FORMS
Slaves worshiped in a variety of contexts – with whites, with free
blacks, with fellow slaves, in private
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
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
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
THE PROSSER INSURRECTION
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
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
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
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
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.
INDEPENDENT BLACK CHURCHES AND
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
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
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
MAINSTREAM AFRICAN AMERICAN DENOMINATIONS
More than 80 percent of African American Protestants have chosen to join
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)
MAJOR AFRICAN AMERICAN DENOMINATIONS
National Baptist Convention, USA
National Baptist Convention of America
Progressive National Baptist Convention
African Methodist Episcopal Church
African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Church of God in Christ
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
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.
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
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)
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
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
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
MAJOR THEMES IN AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGIOSITY
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
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
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
THE NATION OF ISLAM
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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