The Black Church | Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Summary of: The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song
By: Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Introduction

Dive into the compelling history of the Black Church, as detailed in ‘The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song’ by Henry Louis Gates Jr. This book summary explores the origins of Christianity among enslaved Black people in the New World colonies, the formation of independent Black denominations, and the involvement of the Black Church in social justice movements such as the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. Learn how the Black Church evolved to incorporate African traditions and religious practices, and how it continues to play a vital role in supporting the Black community in modern times.

Christianity and Slavery

When Anglican missionaries arrived in the New World colonies in the 1670s, they aimed to introduce Christianity to African slaves. However, this was a difficult task as slave masters resisted the idea, fearing it would encourage notions of equality and rebellion. Therefore, missionaries taught a version of Christianity that justified the enslavement of Black people. They tailored their message to appease the masters, teaching that freedom was a matter of race, not of religion. Laws were also imposed, making it illegal for enslaved people to read and write, and they were only allowed to worship in the presence of white people. However, despite these restrictions, African slaves found ways to worship in secret and created their own version of Christianity, incorporating elements of traditional African religion.

The Great Awakenings and the Birth of Black Christianity

The First and Second Great Awakenings of the early and late 1700s saw a wave of religious revival sweep across North America, democratizing religion and leading to the formation of Black denominations. The revivals resonated with Black people, allowing them to publicly worship and give testimonies, leading to the conversion of many to Christianity. As the Second Great Awakening brought ideas of moral reform, including women’s rights and abolition, it led to significant changes among Black Christians. The Methodist Church attracted many Black congregants after taking a stand against slavery, resulting in the founding of independent Black denominations. Preachers such as Harry Hosier and Richard Allen emerged from the Great Awakenings, with Allen establishing the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, leading to the birth of Black Christianity.

The Birth of the Pentecostal Church

The Holiness movement in the late 1800s, with an emphasis on baptism by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, led to the emergence of the Pentecostal church. The movement was initially led by Sanctified churches, incorporating moral teachings and gospel music into their gatherings. However, traditional denominations rejected these practices, linking them to African traditions. William Joseph Seymour, a Holiness preacher, faced opposition when preaching about speaking in tongues but attracted a large following in Los Angeles, leading to the three-year-long Azusa Street Revival in 1906. The event gained media attention and brought together people of all races, laying the foundation for the Pentecostal movement.

Black Churches’ Contribution to Emancipation

Black churches played a vital role in the emancipation of Black people in America. These religious spaces served not only as houses of worship but also political centers for their congregants. When President Lincoln invited five Black religious leaders to discuss a deportation plan for Black people, the clergymen, together with abolitionists and Black journalists, convinced Lincoln to reconsider. With their compelling arguments, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, freeing all enslaved people in the Confederate states. Moreover, Black churches and their leaders helped determine the fate of Black people in America. In January 1865, Union General Sherman met with 20 Black ministers from the Baptist and Methodist churches to figure out how tens of thousands of formerly enslaved Black people in the south would adjust to their new freedom. These ministers convinced Sherman that Black people needed to own land. Hence, the meeting resulted in Special Field Order No. 15, which declared that land abandoned during the Civil War would be redistributed to formerly enslaved people. Black churches also established schools to address the almost 95 percent illiteracy rate of newly freed Black people. A number of these schools grew to become today’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The Black Church as a Catalyst for Change

The Fifteenth Amendment gave Black men voting rights, and the Black church played a crucial role in mobilizing the community to exercise their right. However, Black people entering political spaces prompted violent reactions, leading to the creation of Jim Crow laws that prevented Black people from voting and targeted the Black church and its leaders. Despite this opposition, the National Baptist Convention emerged as a response to empower Black people socially, politically, and economically. In addition, Black women demanded equality within the church and founded the Woman’s Convention, campaigning for women’s voting rights and equal treatment for Black people.

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