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African American History: A Close Up on Baptist Churches Essay

As you enter through the door on the first level of this San Francisco-based Baptist-rooted church, you become overwhelmed by the warm hug and kiss of Sister “What’s-her-name?” as she bold and kindly greets you, “Good morning! God bless you!” Walking up the stairs heading into the Worship Center, Brother and Sister “So and so” affectionately embrace you, just as an aunt or uncle would at a family function. In an instant, you are drawn in by the harmonious singing of the choir over the upbeat sounds of musicians playing the drums, keyboard, guitars, organ and tambourines.

As you look around, you may not recognize everybody, but you sense a powerful family-like bondage.

Although the love of Christ is all-inclusive to any and everyone, this non-exclusive church is predominantly African American in population. There is a noticeably implied bond which seems to be more genuine, the more melanin you contain.

This tremendously impacts individuals within the congregational community. Why is it that the most segregated hour in America continues to be 11:00am Sunday morning? Research directs us towards clues on how church origins and U.S. history has and still is heavily influencing African Americans in the Modern Church of today.

In James P. Eckman’s Exploring Church History he writes about the foundation of the church starting with the Apostolic Age, which began around 30 B.C. and immediately followed the death of Jesus Christ in the first century, through the modern church of the 21st century.

Reviewing the timeline from the Apostolic Age (1st century) to the Church Fathers (95-300s), onto Ancient Church and Theology (4th century), following the Medieval Church (400-1500s), through the Reformation period and Catholic Church (16th century), to the Scientific Revolution (1600-1700s) onto the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, we discover that many events influenced the building and forming of the “black church” in America.

Tracing these events we can see a thread of the Christian Church trailing through European countries for several hundreds of years. In the latter of events above, we learn that Europeans began enslaving Africans and started to migrate over to a land that we now know as America. During the developmental period of the first African American Churches in the 1700-1800s slavery was very prevalent in the United States.

Henry H. Mitchell, author of Black Church Beginnings, predisposes how though enslaved Africans had their own religious traditions and practices, there were some overlooked factors that contributed to their fascination in Christianity which soon took route in the African American Society. He goes on to state that the typical West African town was a community of faith.

The tribesmen generally assumed that if they lost a war to another tribe or nation, the god of the triumphant party ought to be included in their beliefs since the conquerors’ god was strong enough to grant them victory (Mitchell, page 33). He discusses how they found commonality between their expressive African culture and the unheard of, free expressiveness for whites in their churches.

The Africans became more and more interested as they began interpreting the Bible for themselves and found parallels in traditional African religion. They were able to relate to the Old Testament stories [like the enslavement of Hebrews by the Egyptians] and saw hope in Moses and Jesus as mighty deliverers.

The above mentioned were significant factors which ultimately led to African slaves placing their hope in “the white man’s” God and Bible:

The Black church in America had its origins in the slave religion of the American South. Deprived of their identity, oppressed by their masters, and unable to establish their own institutions, many slaves turned to Christianity. Faith in Jesus Christ gave them hope for the future when His justice would right the wrongs done to them. (Eckman, page 98)

Near the dawning of the formation of the original black churches in the 18th century, some slave masters allowed [or even required] slaves to attend church services with them. Others allowed monitored the worship services, however, they were plagued with fears of possible rebellion. Mitchell describes contrasts between liberal and oppressive slave masters. Some oppressive masters withheld knowledge of Christianity from slaves and beat or even killed those who began to worship God devotedly (Mitchell, page 33).

Many, if not all, plantations held stealthy worship services in the woods, swamps or brushes. L. Maffly-Kipp describes, in her article “African American Religion in the Beginning”, how the slaves used symbolism that was not detectible by their captors. It’s as though Africans began to develop a secret society and reactively initiated exclusive churches.

The underground services of worship were labeled as the “Invisible Institution” since they were invisibly held to the eyes of slave masters. Here the slaves began mixing the Christian faith with African rhythms and singing, which led to the formation of the Negro spirituals (Maffly-Kipp). Most spirituals contained two-folded meanings of worship and freedom. [From time to time, (especially in February or around January 15th) we’ll hear some of these old Negro spirituals in today’s predominantly black churches.] Maffly-Kipp infers as the Africans made their appeals of justice unto God, they were also organizing and planning escapes.

According to Melva Wilson Costen, author of African American Christian Worship, the first African American church of record, founded in 1758 in Luneberg, VA, was called Bluestone African Baptist Church —owned mostly by slaves. The number of African American churches grew throughout the U.S. between the years of 1750-1800 (over 20 churches of record). Bluestone and subsequent black founded congregations contained partial white populations where they were outnumbered by blacks however Euro-American preachers, as controlling moderators, oversaw these churches.

African Americans were not encouraged to lead the congregations (though many were considerably powerful preachers and potential leaders) nor were they allowed any voting privileges. The African American Church continued to evolve in the South and dominant denominations of Baptist and Methodist expanded nationally from 1841-1865. Leadership began to change as did laws towards the end of the 19th century, post the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, 1865 Abolition of Slavery (13th Amendment), 1868 Civil Rights (14th Amendment) and 1870 Voting Rights (15th Amendment).

The early Black Church played a significant role in social activism by oratorical pressing towards the abolitionist movement, assisting in the Underground Railroad, ministration in civic and social responsibility, and through slave insurrections. As Mitchell put it, “in the root culture of African Americans, nothing is excludable from the design and will of God” (page 138).

[This is noteworthy; we’re able to see a continuum of legislative struggle against Africans throughout American history, in a way which the church is affected and involved.] In 1894, a pride-filled, yet rare, exception for African Americans occurred when the pastor of the first African Baptist Church was elected Moderator and Preacher of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. While racial discrimination took many blows, one civil case in Louisiana devastated the progression towards its elimination.

In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to enact the separate-but-equal principles in the famous Plessy v Ferguson case, disregarding equality while planting proliferate seeds of segregation throughout the nation (Records of Supreme Court). This ruling gravelly punctured the church as it promoted separation between Christians, which was contrary to the “Love thy neighbor as thyself” Christian teachings.

As history reveals, for more than 50 years our national society was structured in such way to where the non-association between European Americans and minority races was the norm. After several years of social discomfort, the church began to take a stand against this legal inequality.

In Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965 by Davis Houck and David Dixon a passion-filled recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at a conference in Nashville, TN on April 25, 1957 is referenced (pages 217-224). We find Dr. King proclaiming his strong conviction of faith and declaring his hope in God for deliverance while attacking the moral issues of the Supreme Court’s decision made in the 1896 case.

The revolutionary reverend, who led the Civil Rights Movement, charged the Christian Church with the responsibility of standing up against segregation and discrimination (Houck & Dixon, page 220), speaking to all Christians urging them to keep in mind that they answer to God and not the opinions of men. {In all my research, it was here that I saw the shift of focus from African American Christian Heritage to just Christian Heritage.}

How difficult would it be for the masses to grasp this concept after hundreds
of years of contradictory conditioning?

We now live in an era postdating the Civil Rights Movement by more than 40 years; in a time where we [as a nation] elected our first African American president. In the most diverse area of the country (San Francisco), while we are starting to see more racially integrated churches in the Bay Area, 11:00am Sunday morning [for some reason] continues to be the most segregated hour across the U.S. Clearly these historical events continue to affect today’s African Americans within church communities and all people within congregational communities. What else can be concluded from this research? Old habits die hard.


Works Cited

Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. Congregation & Community. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997. Print

Costen, Melva Wilson. African American Christian Worship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993. Print.

Eckman, James P. Exploring Church History. Wheaton: Crossway Books a division of Good News Publishers, 1996. Print.

Houck, Davis W.; Dixon, David E. Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006. CityCat.Web. March 3, 2010. Maffly-Kipp, L.. “African American Religion In the Beginning. ” Mississippi Link 4 Feb. 2010,Ethnic NewsWatch (ENW). ProQuest. Web. 3 Mar. 2010.

Mitchell, Henry H. Black Chruch Beginnings: The Long-Hidden Realities of the First Years. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publising Company, 2004. Print.

Records of the Supreme Court of the United States. “Plessy v Ferguson” OurDocuments.gov, May 18, 1896, Web. March 3, 2010

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