The History of Black Americans and the Black Church

The church and religion has played and continues to play a big role in the African-American community. Yet, many of us who grew up in the traditional black church do not have an understanding of how our faith evolved under the duress of slavery and discrimination to be and to represent what it does today. The purpose of this broadcast is to provide that background knowledge while also pointing out the dividing line between what is just tradition and true faith in Jesus Christ.
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The History of Black Americans and the Black Church




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Now displaying: January, 2015
Jan 29, 2015

Our Scripture verse for today is John 8:36 which reads: "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed."

Our History of Black Americans and the Black Church quote for today is from Arthur Ashe, the World No. 1 tennis player and the first black man to be selected for the U.S. Davis Cup tennis team. He said, "If I were to say, ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life."

In this podcast, we are using as our texts: From Slavery to Freedom, by John Hope Franklin, The Negro Church in America/The Black Church Since Frazier by E. Franklin Frazier and C. Eric Lincoln, and The Black Church In The U.S. by William A. Banks.

Our first topic today is a continuation of some good work done for the "God In America" series titled "The Origins of the Black Church" which was aired by the Public Broadcasting Service. This is just a brief historical overview; we will delve into these topics in great detail in upcoming episodes


In the late 18th and early 19th century, thousands of Americans, black and white, enslaved and free, were swept up in the revival known as the Second Great Awakening. In the South, the religious fervor of evangelical Christianity resonated easily with the emotive religious traditions brought from West Africa. Forging a unique synthesis, slaves gathered in "hush harbors" -- woods, gullies, ravines, thickets and swamps -- for heartfelt worship which stressed deliverance from the toil and troubles of the present world, and salvation in the heavenly life to come.

Yet most of the enslaved lay outside the institutional church. In the 1830s and 1840s, Southern churchmen undertook an active campaign to persuade plantation owners that slaves must be brought into the Christian fold. Because plantations were located far from churches, this meant that the church had to be carried to the plantation. Aided by denominational missionary societies and associations, plantation missions became popular institutions. But missionaries recognized that Christianity would not appeal to all enslaved blacks. Novice missionaries were warned: “He who carries the Gospel to them ...discovers deism, skepticism, universalism...all the strong objections against the truth of God; objections which he may perhaps have considered peculiar only to the cultivated minds...of critics and philosophers!”

The Methodists were the most active among missionary societies, but Baptists also had strong appeal. The Baptists' insistence that each congregation should have its own autonomy meant that blacks could exercise more control over their religious affairs. Yet the independence of black churches was curbed by law and by the white Southern response to slave uprisings and abolition.


In the years leading up to the Civil War, the black church found its political and prophetic voice in the cause of abolition. Black ministers took to their pulpits to speak out against slavery and warned that any nation that condoned slavery would suffer divine punishment. Former slave and Methodist convert Frederick Douglass challenged Christians to confront an institution that violated the central tenets of the Christian faith, including the principle of equality before God. In 1829, African American abolitionist David Walker issued his famous tract, "Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World," urging slaves to resort to violence, if necessary. He, too, warned of divine punishment. He said, "God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth... His ears are continually open to the tears and groans of His oppressed people..."

In the North, black ministers and members of the African American community joined white abolitionists in organizing the Underground Railroad, an informal network that helped persons escaping bondage to make their way to freedom. Prominent among these activists was Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in 1849 and made her way to Philadelphia. Having secured her freedom, Tubman put herself in jeopardy by making repeated return trips to the South to assist others. Her courage and determination earned her the affectionate nickname of "Moses."

We will continue this brief historical overview of the black church in our next podcast.

Jan 23, 2015

Our Scripture verse for today is Genesis 15:13-14 which reads: "And [God] said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance."

Our History of Black Americans and the Black Church quote for today is from Lee June, a professor at Michigan State University and the author of the book, "Yet With A Steady Beat: The Black Church through a Psychological and Biblical Lens." He said, "Faith in the God of the Bible and an association with the institutional church have had overall positive influences on the African-American community and were key in the survival of the slave experience in America."

In this podcast, we are using as our texts: From Slavery to Freedom, by John Hope Franklin, The Negro Church in America/The Black Church Since Frazier by E. Franklin Frazier and C. Eric Lincoln, and The Black Church In The U.S. by William A. Banks.

However, our first topic today is some good work done for the "God In America" series titled "The Origins of the Black Church" which was aired by the Public Broadcasting Service. This is just a brief historical overview; we will delve into these topics in great detail in upcoming episodes

The term "the black church" evolved from the phrase "the Negro church," the title of a pioneering sociological study of African American Protestant churches at the turn of the century by W.E.B. Du Bois. In its origins, the phrase was largely an academic category. Many African Americans did not think of themselves as belonging to "the Negro church," but rather described themselves according to denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and even "Saint" of the Sanctified tradition. African American Christians were never monolithic; they have always been diverse and their churches highly decentralized.

Today "the black church" is widely understood to include the following seven major black Protestant denominations: the National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ.

New historical evidence documents the arrival of slaves in the English settlement in Jamestown, Va., in 1619. They came from kingdoms in present-day Angola and the coastal Congo. In the 1500s, the Portuguese conquered both kingdoms and carried Catholicism to West Africa. It is likely that the slaves who arrived in Jamestown had been baptized Catholic and had Christian names. For the next 200 years, the slave trade exported slaves from Angola, Ghana, Senegal and other parts of West Africa to America's South. Here they provided the hard manual labor that supported the South's biggest crops: cotton and tobacco.

In the South, Anglican ministers sponsored by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, founded in England, made earnest attempts to teach Christianity by rote memorization; the approach had little appeal. Some white owners allowed the enslaved to worship in white churches, where they were segregated in the back of the building or in the balconies. Occasionally persons of African descent might hear a special sermon from white preachers, but these sermons tended to stress obedience and duty, and the message of the apostle Paul: "Slaves, obey your masters."

Both Methodists and Baptists made active efforts to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity; the Methodists also licensed black men to preach. During the 1770s and 1780s, black ministers began to preach to their own people, drawing on the stories, people and events depicted in the Old and New Testaments. No story spoke more powerfully to slaves than the story of the Exodus, with its themes of bondage and liberation brought by a righteous and powerful God who would one day set them free.

Remarkably, a few black preachers in the South succeeded in establishing independent black churches. In the 1780s, a slave named Andrew Bryan preached to a small group of slaves in Savannah, Ga. White citizens had Bryan arrested and whipped. Despite persecution and harassment, the church grew, and by 1790 it became the First African Baptist Church of Savannah. In time, a Second and a Third African Church were formed, also led by black pastors.

In the North, blacks had more authority over their religious affairs. Many worshipped in established, predominantly white congregations, but by the late 18th century, blacks had begun to congregate in self-help and benevolent associations called African Societies. Functioning as quasi-religious organizations, these societies often gave rise to independent black churches. In 1787, for example, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones organized the Free African Society of Philadelphia, which later evolved into two congregations: the Bethel Church, the mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination, and St. Thomas Episcopal Church, which remained affiliated with a white Episcopal denomination. These churches continued to grow. Historian Mary Sawyer notes that by 1810, there were 15 African churches representing four denominations in 10 cities from South Carolina to Massachusetts.

In black churches, women generally were not permitted to preach. One notable exception was Jarena Lee, who became an itinerant preacher, traveling thousands of miles and writing her own spiritual autobiography.

We will continue this brief historical overview of the black church in our next podcast.


Our second topic for today is "The First West African States: Mali (Part 1)" from John Hope Franklin’s book, From Slavery to Freedom. He writes:

As Ghana began to decline, another kingdom in the west arose to supplant it and to exceed the heights that Ghana had reached. Mali, also called Melle, began as an organized kingdom about 1235, but the nucleus of its political organization dates back to the beginning of the seventh century. Until the eleventh century it was relatively insignificant and its mansas, or kings, had no prestige or influence. 

The credit for consolidating and strengthening the kingdom of Mali goes to the legendary figure Sundiata Keita. In 1240 he overran the Soso people and leveled the former capital of Ghana. It was a later successor, however, who carried the Malians to new heights. Variously called Gonga-Musa and Mansa-Musa, this remarkable member of the Keita dynasty ruled from 1312 to 1337. With an empire comprising much of what is now French-speaking Africa, he could devote his attention to encouraging the industry of his people and displaying the wealth of his kingdom. The people of Mali were predominantly agricultural, but a substantial number were engaged in various crafts and mining. The fabulously rich mines of Bure were now at their disposal and served to increase the royal coffers. 

We will continue looking at this topic in our next episode.

Jan 15, 2015

Our Scripture verse for today is Galatians 3:28 which reads: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."

Our BA and BC quote for today is from preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. He said, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

In this podcast, we are using as our texts: From Slavery to Freedom, by John Hope Franklin, The Negro Church in America/The Black Church Since Frazier by E. Franklin Frazier and C. Eric Lincoln, and The Black Church In The U.S. by William A. Banks.

Our topic for today is “The First West African States: Ghana” from John Hope Franklin’s book, From Slavery to Freedom. He writes:

The first West African state of which there is any record is Ghana, which lay about 500 miles northwest of its modern namesake. It was also known by its capital, Kumbi Saleh. Although its accurately recorded history does not antedate the seventh century, there is evidence that Ghana's political and cultural history extends back perhaps into the very early Christian era. The earliest observations of Ghana were made when it was a confederacy of settlements extending along the grasslands of the Senegal and the upper Niger. Its boundaries were not well defined, and doubtless they changed with the fortunes of the kingdom. Most of the public offices were hereditary, and the tendency was for the stratified social order to become solidified. 

The people of Ghana enjoyed some prosperity as farmers until continuous droughts extended the desert to their lands. As long as they were able to carry on their farming, gardens and date groves dotted the countryside, and there was an abundance of sheep and cattle in the outlying areas. They were also a trading people, and their chief town, Kumbi Welt, was an important commercial center during the Middle Ages. By the beginning of the tenth century the Muslim influence from the East was present. Kuenhi Saleh had a native and an Arab section, and the people were gradually adopting the religion of Islam. The prosperity that came in the wake of Arabian infiltration increased the power of Ghana, and its influence was extended in all directions. In the eleventh century, when the king had become a Muslim, Ghana could boast of a large army and a lucrative trade across the desert. From the Muslim countries came wheat. fruit, and sugar. From across the desert came caravans laden with textiles, brass, pearls, and salt. Ghana exchanged ivory, slaves, and gold for these commodities. The king, recognizing the value of this commercial intercourse, imposed a tax on imports and exports and appointed a collector to look after his interests. 

Under the rulers of the Sisse dynasty, Ghana reached the height of its power. Tribes as far north as Tichit in present Mauritania paid tribute to the king of Ghana, while in the south its influence extended to the gold mines of the Faleme and of the Bambuk. It was the yield from these mines that supplied the coffers of the Sisse with the gold used in trade with Moroccan caravans. In faraway Cairo and Baghdad, Ghana was a subject of discussion among commercial and religious groups. 

The reign of Tenkamenin in the eleventh century is an appropriate point at which to observe the kingdom of Ghana. Beginning in 1062, Tenkamenin reigned over a vast empire which, through the taxes and tributes collected by provincial rulers, made him immensely wealthy. Arab writers say that he lived in a fortified castle made beautiful by sculpture, pictures, and windows decorated by royal artists. The grounds also contained temples in which native gods were worshipped, a prison in which political enemies were incarcerated, and the tombs of preceding kings. The king, highly esteemed by his subjects, held court in magnificent splendor. During Tenkamenin's reign the people of Ghana adhered to a religion based on the belief that every earthly object contained good or evil spirits that had to be satisfied if the people were to prosper. The king, naturally. was at the head of the religion. In 1076, however, a band of Muslims invaded Ghana and brought the area under the influence of their religion and trade. They seized the capital and established the religion of Islam. The strife that ensued was enough to undermine the kingdom of Ghana. By the end of the eleventh century, Ghana entered a period of economic decline brought on by a series of droughts. Under such trying circumstances Ghana fell easy prey to the waves of conquerors who swept in to destroy the kingdom during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. 

Jan 8, 2015

Our Scripture verse for today is Jeremiah 13:23 which reads: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil."

Our BA and BC quote for today is from the scientist and surveyor Benjamin Banneker who helped survey the borders of Washington D.C.. He said, "It is the indispensable duty of those, who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who possess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labor under."

In this podcast, we are using as our texts: From Slavery to Freedom, by John Hope Franklin, The Negro Church in America/The Black Church Since Frazier by E. Franklin Frazier and C. Eric Lincoln, and The Black Church In The U.S. by William A. Banks.

Our topic for today is “European and Asian Interest in the Slave Trade” from John Hope Franklin’s book, From Slavery to Freedom. He writes:

When the Christians of Western Europe began to turn their attention to the slave trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they were not introducing a new practice. Although they displayed much originality in approach and technique, they were engaging in a pursuit that had been a concern for countless centuries. As a matter of fact, slavery was widespread during the earliest known history of Africa as well as of other continents. Doubtless there was cruelty and oppression in African slavery as there was anywhere that the institution developed. At least in some portions of Africa there was no racial basis of slavery. The Egyptians enslaved whatever peoples they captured. At times those peoples were Semitic, at times Mediterranean, and at other times blacks from Nubia. Slavery in the Greek and Roman empires is well known. In both empires the traffic in human beings from western Asia and North Africa brought a continuous stream of slaves to perform personal services and to till the fields for the ruling class. Neither in Greece nor Rome was menial service regarded as degrading. The opportunities for education and cultural advancement were, therefore, opened up to slaves. It was not unusual to find people in this class possessing a degree of intelligence and training not usually associated with slaves. 

When the Muslims invaded Africa, they contributed greatly to the development of the institution of slavery by seizing women for their harems and men for military and menial service. By purchase as well as by conquest, the Muslims recruited African slaves and shipped them off to Arabia, Persia, or some other Islamic land. As kings and princes embraced Islam, they cooperated with the Arabians in the exportation of human cargo. Long before the extensive development of the slave trade by Europeans, many of the basic practices of the international slave trade had already been established. It is to be noted, however, that slavery among the Muslims was not an institution utilized primarily for the production of goods from which wealth could be derived. There were no extensive cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane fields in Arabia, Persia, and Egypt. Slaves in these lands were essentially servants, and the extent of the demand for them depended in a large measure on the wealth of the potential masters. Slavery was, therefore, a manifestation of wealth, and the institution showed little of the harshness and severity that it possessed in areas where it was itself the foundation on which wealth was built. Although becoming Muslims did not release slaves from their duties, it did have the effect of elevating their standing and enhancing their dignity among others. While in the face of continued enslavement this effect was of doubtful value, it could have been viewed by slaves of a later and a more ruthless system as a straw to which to clutch. 

It was the forces let loose by the Renaissance and the Commercial Revolution that created the modern institution of slavery and the slave trade. The Renaissance provided a new kind of freedom—the freedom to pursue those ends that would be most beneficial to the soul and the body. It developed into such a passionate search that it resulted in the destruction of long established practices and beliefs and even in the destruction of the rights of others to pursue the same ends for their own benefit. As W. E. B. Du Bois has pointed out, it was the freedom to destroy freedom, the freedom of some to exploit the rights of others. If, then, people were determined to be free, who was there to tell them that they were not entitled to enslave others? 

Coupled with this new concept of freedom was the revitalized economic life of Europe that was brought forth by the Commercial Revolution. The breakdown of feudalism, the rise of towns, the heightened interest in commercial activities, and the new recognition of the strength and power of capital, all of which were essential elements of the Commercial Revolution, brought about a type of competition characterized by ruthless exploitation of any commodities that could be viewed as economic goods. The rise of powerful national states in Western Europe—Spain, France, Portugal, Britain, and, later, Holland—provided the political instrumentalities through which these new forces could be channeled. While the state acted as referee for competitors within its borders, it also served to stimulate competition between its own merchants and traders and those of other countries. The spirit of the Renaissance, with its sanction of ruthless freedom, and the practices of the Commercial Revolution, with its new techniques of exploitation, conspired to bring forth new approaches to the acquisition of wealth and power. Among these was establishment of the institution of modern slavery and the concomitant practice of importing and exporting slaves.

Jan 3, 2015

Our Scripture verse for today is Matthew 2:13-15 which reads: "And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son."

Our BA and BC quote for today is from the late poet and author Maya Angelou. She said, "I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God's will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at commensurate speed."

In this podcast, we are using as our texts: From Slavery to Freedom, by John Hope Franklin, The Negro Church in America/The Black Church Since Frazier by E. Franklin Frazier and C. Eric Lincoln, and The Black Church In The U.S. by William A. Banks.

Our topic for today is “the Family, Religion, and Society in Africa Before the Slave Trade” from John Hope Franklin’s book, From Slavery to Freedom. He writes:

As among other peoples, the clan, a group of families related by blood, was the basis of social organization in early Africa. The foundation of even economic and political life in Africa was the clan, with its inestimable influence over individual members. Although the eldest male was usually the head of the clan. relationships were traced through the mother rather than the father. Women were central figures in African society because they were, through marriage, the keys to appropriating land and, through their labor and that of the children they bore, the means to cultivating land. These realities were reflected in the widespread practice of polygamy, especially by men of wealth and power. 

In communities where matrilineal practice was followed, children belonged solely to the family of the mother, whose eldest brother exercised the paternal rights of the family and assumed all responsibility for the children's lives and actions. In clans that admitted only female relationships, the chief of the community was the brother of the mother. In communities that were, on the other hand, patrilineal, the chief was the real father. With either group, those forming the clan comprised all the living descendants of the same ancestor, female in the matriarchal system and male in the patriarchal system. 

In general, a wife was not considered a member of her husband's family. After marriage she continued to be a part of her own family. Since her family continued to manifest a real interest in her welfare, the bride's husband was expected to guarantee good treatment and to pay her family an indemnity, a compensation for taking away a member of the family. This indemnity was not a purchase price, as has frequently been believed. The woman did not legally belong to her husband but to her own family. Naturally, the amount of the indemnity varied both with community practice and with the position of the bridegroom. Indeed, in some communities the tradition was maintained by a mere token payment out of respect for an ancient practice that had once had real significance in intertribal relationships. 

Although polygamy existed in virtually every region, it was not universally practiced. The head of the family would defray the expenses involved in the first marriage of a male member of the family, but if the husband wanted to take a second wife, he would have to meet all the expenses himself. Religion played a part in determining the number of wives a man could have. Local religions did not limit the number. When the Muslims made inroads into Africa. they forbade adherents to take more than four wives. Christian missionaries insisted on monogamy altogether. The practice of polygamy does not appear to have produced many evils. As a matter of fact, the division of household duties in a polygamous family had the effect of reducing the duties and responsibilities of each wife, a highly desirable condition from the point of view of the wives if the husband was without servants or slaves. 

The clan, the enlarged family, was composed of all families that claimed a common ancestor. The clan would develop in the same community or area, but as it became larger and as some families found more attractive opportunities elsewhere, the clan would separate, and one or more families would go to some other area to live. Unless the separation resulted from a violent quarrel or fight, the departing families regarded themselves as still being attached to the clan. Once the unity was broken by separation, however, the clan ties tended to disintegrate because cooperation in war, economic activities, and religious life was no longer practicable. Under the strain imposed by separation over the course of time, the traditions and practices of the parent clan tended to become obscure and unimportant. Consequently, little more than a common name bound members of the same clan together, and new environments and new linguistic influences had the effect of causing clan names to be changed or modified. In such instances, members of the same clan living in different places had no way of recognizing each other.