The History of the Black Church
Most of the first black congregations and churches formed before 1800 were founded by free blacks – for example, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Petersburg, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia. The oldest black Baptist church in Kentucky, and third oldest in the United States, was founded about 1790 by the slave Peter Durrett.
After slavery was abolished, freed blacks continued to establish separate congregations and church facilities, creating communities and worship in culturally distinct ways. They had already created a unique and empowering form of Christianity that creolized African spiritual traditions. In addition, segregationist attitudes in both the North and the South discouraged and, especially in the South, prevented African-Americans from worshiping in the same churches as whites.
The tradition of African-Americans worshipping together continued to develop during the late 19th century and continues to this day despite the decline of segregationist attitudes and the general acceptability of integrated worship. African American churches have long been the centers of communities, serving as school sites in the early years after the Civil War, taking up social welfare functions, such as providing for the indigent, and going on to establish schools, orphanages and prison ministries. As a result, black churches have fostered built strong community organizations and provided spiritual and political leadership, especially during the civil rights movement.
The Next Chapter
The status and role of the black church in the post-civil rights era has been the subject of lively debate among African American scholars. Some argue that “the black church” is “dead,” that it has lost its prophetic and progressive voice and its capacity to mobilize for reform on the national stage. Others argue the church is very much alive, and point to the results of the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey that shows that African Americans are more likely than any other ethnic or racial group to report a formal religious affiliation. Even those who count themselves “unaffiliated” describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated.”
Yet it is clear that the church, like all social organizations, is changing. It is also clear that the debate about what the church is, is highly charged by competing ideas about what it ought to be. Should it carry forward the prophetic imperative of the civil rights movement, the collective mandate for social change? Or should it focus on personal prosperity and individual economic advancement? Some influential black ministers and televangelists have promoted the prosperity gospel, sending the message that God wants you to be rich and that wealth is a sign of divine favor. The prosperity gospel is sometimes linked to a social conservatism that opposes homosexuality, gay rights and same-sex marriages. In the 2004 presidential race, Republican strategists courted these preachers with success.
By contrast, at Trinity Church in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright stressed pride in African identity and espoused a brand of black liberation theology. Trinity is “unapologetically Christian, unashamedly black.” His message of affirmation and identity remains far more complex than a few sound bites can possibly express. Now under the guidance of a new pastor, Trinity continues to offer a wide range of social services, including meals for the homeless, housing for the elderly, child care programs and ministries for people with AIDS and HIV infection and prison inmates.
According to Professor Jonathan Walton, for more than 300 years, the black church in America has provided a safe haven for black Christians in a nation shadowed by the legacy of slavery and a society that remains defined by race and class. Inspired by the story of Exodus, African Americans can think out, pray out and shout out their anger and aspirations, free from the unstated yet powerful constraints that govern dialogue with the larger white society. In the pulpit and the pews, in choir lofts and Sunday schools, the black church continues to offer affirmation and dignity to people still searching for equality and justice, still willing to reach out for a more inclusive, embracing tomorrow.
For more on this article on history of Black Churches: http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/black-church/