As the antebellum period began, America was approaching its golden anniversary as an independent political state, but it was not yet a nation. There was considerable disagreement among the residents of its many geographical sections concerning the exact limits of the relationship between the Federal government, the older states, and the individual citizen. In this regard, many factions invoked concepts of state sovereignty, centralized banking, nullification, popular sovereignty, secession, all-Americanism, or manifest destiny. However, the majority deemed republicanism, social pluralism, and constitutionalism the primary characteristics of
antebellum America. Slavery, abolition, and the possibility of future disunion were considered secondary issues. Cultural and social changes were sweeping the cities of America during the period. Industry and urbanization had moved the North toward a more modern society with an unprecedented set of novel cultural values, while the South had essentially lagged behind in the traditions of the 18th century. The mixing of traditional folkways with a more modern vision of America had caused social influence, political authority, and traditional concepts of family to become uncertain, unstable, and somewhat ambiguous. (Volo & Volo, 2004)
The history and sociopolitical influence of the African-American church documents an interminable struggle for liberation against the exploitative forces of European domination. Although Black religion is predominantly Judeo-Christian, its essence is not simply white religion with a cosmetic face lift. Rather the quintessence of African-American spiritual- mindedness is grounded in the social and political experience of Black people, and, although some over the years have acquiesced to the dominant order, many have voiced a passionate demand for “freedom now. ” The history of the African-American church demonstrates that the
institution has contributed four indispensable elements to the Black struggle for ideological emancipation, which include a self-sustaining culture, a structured community, a prophetic tradition, and a persuasive leadership. The church of slavery, which began in the mid-eighteenth century, started as an underground organization and developed to become a pulpit for radicals like Richard Allen and the platform for revolutionaries like David Walker. For over one hundred years, African slaves created their own unique and authentic religious culture that was parallel to, but not replicative of
the slave-owner’s Christianity from which they borrowed. Meeting on the quiet as the “invisible church,” they created a self-preserving belief system by Africanizing European religion. Commenting on this experience, Alice Sewell, a former slave of Montgomery, Alabama, states, “We used to slip off in de woods in de old slave days on Sunday evening way down in de swamps to sing and pray to our own liking” (Yetman, 1970, p. 263). During the late 1700s, when slavery was being dismantled in the North, free Black Methodists courageously separated from the patronizing control of the white denomination and
established their own independent assemblies. This marked the genesis of African-American resistance as a nationally structured, mass-based movement. In 1787, Richard Allen, after suffering racist humiliation at Philadelphia’s St. George Methodist Episcopal Church, separated from the white congregation and led other Blacks, who had been similarly disgraced, to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A. M. E. ) in 1816. The new group flowered. By 1820 it numbered 4,000 in Philadelphia alone, while another 2,000 claimed membership in Baltimore. The church immediately spread as far west as Pittsburgh and as far south as Charleston as
African-Americans organized to resist domination. (3) Through community groups, they contributed political consciousness, economic direction, and moral discipline to the struggle for freedom in their local districts. Moreover, Black Methodists sponsored aid societies that provided loans, business advice, insurance, and a host of social services to their fellow-believers and the community at large. In sum the A. M. E. Churches functioned in concert to organize African-Americans throughout the country to protect themselves from exploitation and to ready themselves for political emancipation.
During this same period, David Walker exemplified the prophetic tradition of the Black church with his “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” published between 1829 and 1830. Walker employed biblical language and Christian morality in creating anti-ruling class ideology: slaveholders were “avaricious and unmerciful wretches” who were guilty of perpetrating “the most wretched, abject, and servile slavery” in the world against Africans. To conclude, the church of the slave era contributed substantially to African-American social and political resistance. The “invisible institution” provided physical and psychological
relief from the horrific conditions of servitude: within the confines of “hush arbors,” bondspeople found unfamiliar dignity and a sense of self-esteem. Similarly, the A. M. E. congregations confronted white paternalism by organizing their people into units of resistance to fight collectively for social equality and political self-direction. And finally, the antebellum church did not only empower Blacks by structuring their communities; it also supplied them with individual political leaders. David Walker made two stellar contributions to the Black struggle for freedom- -he both created and popularized anti-ruling class philosophy.
He intrepidly broadcasted the conditional necessity of violence in abolishing slavery demanding to be heard by his “suffering brethren” and the “American people and their children” in both the North and the South. As churches grew in size and importance, the Black pastor’s role as community leader became supremely influential and unquestionably essential in the fight against Jim Crow. For instance, in 1906, when the city officials of Nashville, Tennessee, segregated the streetcars, R. H. Boyd, a prominent leader in the National Baptist Convention, organized a Black boycott against
the system. He even went so far as to operate his own streetcar line at the height of the conflict. To Boyd and his constituents no setback was ever final, and the grace of God was irrefutability infinite. Then, with the advent of World War I (1914-1918) and the availability of jobs in the North, Blacks migrated to urban centers such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis–and they took their church with them. Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans packed not only their dreams, but also their Bibles, and struck out for the “promise land.
” In exploding metropolitan enclaves they built thriving congregations like the 14,000-member Abyssinian Baptist church of Harlem, which won international acclaim for serving and organizing its people: it found them jobs, it secured them housing, it fought for their rights, and it directed their ballots. This was consistent with the “Social Gospel” as advocated by Black ministers who preached that societal sin–such as the starvation of children–could only be destroyed through Christian love and benevolent programs.
To them the primary responsibility of the church was to establish ministries of social service that would eliminate injustice and abolish poverty in the African-American community, and this became the objective of many large urban assemblies. However, these impersonal metropolitan congregations with their grand strategies of social improvement did not appeal to all migrants, especially newcomers from the rural South. Instead, this group founded small assemblies in abandoned stores that offered them personal acceptance, belonging, identity, friendship–and perhaps most of all–a shelter from white racism.
Hence, “storefront churches” had their genesis as part of the self-preserving culture produced by African-American Christians to ensure the survival of their communities. (Simms, 2000) Citing church membership figures accounting for fewer than twenty percent of the antebellum slave population, a number of revisionist historians have recently challenged the widespread view that Christianity was embraced by millions of slaves hungering for its message of love, hope, and salvation.
And although revisionist critics have responded that such statistics provide a far from accurate gauge of just how deeply Christianity permeated the slave population, the question remains as to whether or not the mass conversion of as many as four million slaves within a single generation ever occurred, given that the vast majority had little or no exposure to Christian teaching prior to the Jacksonian period.
Despite such controversy, nearly all interpretations of slave religion maintain that after about 1830, Southern planters, motivated by a desire for social control as well as sincere concern for the salvation of bondsmen, successfully introduced Christianity to the spiritually starved slave community. And even though support for this conclusion rests heavily on supposition and interpolation, it has nonetheless been presented in a number of the modern era’s most influential studies of slave religion.
Local preachers were encouraged to minister to nearby plantations and, in regions lacking sufficient clergy, slaveholders, themselves, were urged to hold prayer meetings among bondsmen. Also, many churches invited slaves to join their congregations, often partitioning off separate areas such as balconies to enable them to worship alongside whites. Taken as a whole, then, it is difficult to deny that Christianity played an important role in at least some quarters of the slave community after 1830.