Religion in African American History (2024)

Enslavement and Religious Transformation

African American religious cultures were born in the crucible of American slavery, a system that not only ruptured direct connections to African history, culture, and religious community, but also set the context for the emergence of transformed and new religious systems. Africans brought forcibly to the Americas came from a variety of cultural, linguistic, and religious environments in West and West Central Africa. Most practiced ancient religious traditions focused on maintaining harmonious relationships with nature and supernatural beings, including gods, spirits, and ancestors. Some enslaved Africans in America, especially those from the Senegambia region, were Muslim while others, such as those from the West African kingdom of Kongo who had come into contact with the Portuguese, were Catholic. African traditional religions dominated among those pressed into New World slavery, however, and these worldviews would serve as the ground for the development of varied African diaspora religious cultures. The horrors of the Middle Passage in which more than 10 million Africans were transported to the Americas and consigned to chattel slavery made it impossible to perpetuate language, culture, and religion as they had existed in African contexts. The cultural and religious resources they brought with them proved resilient and adaptable, however, and would contribute to the worldviews and practices that emerged under American slavery.1

While varied African connections are readily apparent in the practices and theological perspectives of such African diaspora religious traditions as Vodou in Haiti, Santería in Cuba, and Candomblé in Brazil, for example, the precise nature of influence in the religious cultures of African Americans is often more difficult to discern. Change over time, regional differences, and religious context are important considerations for understanding how African American religious cultures took shape in antebellum America and why they differ in significant ways from other parts of the African diaspora. The large number of Africans transported to the Caribbean and Latin America and the longer duration of the trade in some regions meant that cultural and religious ties here were more vibrant than in the North American colonies, where only 5 percent of those transported from Africa arrived, primarily in the period from 1720 to 1780. In addition, the predominance of Catholicism in the French and Spanish colonies created a context in which enslaved Africans were able to combine their ritual work to maintain connections to gods and spirits with veneration of the Catholic saints. Africans in the North American colonies were most likely to be enslaved by Protestant Europeans, who were more resistant to such blended religious practices. Although enslaved Africans in North America did not reproduce the varied religious systems of West and West Central Africa, these worldviews were among the many resources on which they drew to produce distinctive African American cultures, identity, and forms of resistance.2

Despite the fact that Europeans routinely justified the enslavement of Africans in religious terms, arguing that they were bringing “heathens” under the influence of Christianity, British American slaveholders were often uncomfortable with missions, such as those sponsored by the Church of England’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Invested economically in the institution of slavery and committed to the notion of the inferiority of Africans, many slaveholders worried that conversion would require manumission and disrupt racial hierarchy. Even with assurance from church and political leaders that conversion to Christianity did not mandate freedom for the enslaved, resistance among slaveholders remained strong, as white Anglican cleric Francis Le Jau found in his mission work in early-18th-century South Carolina, where the brutality of the slave system shocked him. Le Jau also faced discomfort in a range of forms by slaveholders to shared religious commitment with blacks, including the refusal of one man to take Communion when enslaved Africans were at the Holy Table and queries from a woman about whether she would be forced to see her slaves in heaven. Many European Americans could not imagine African Americans having the capacity to understand Christianity and also feared that extending baptism and Christian fellowship would convince the enslaved of their equality to whites. Consequently, the substance of Christian teaching that most missionaries and slaveholders conveyed focused not on liberation and equality but on divinely ordained racial hierarchy. Deploying the biblical story of Noah’s curse on Ham, which Europeans had long interpreted as one of blackness and servitude, many missionaries promoted a view that bondage was God’s will for people of African descent and that the Christian scriptures enjoined them to be obedient to their masters above all else. It is not surprising that this sort of theological framework did not appeal to the majority of enslaved African Americans in colonial America.3

The evangelical revivals of the Great Awakening beginning in the 1740s set the context for the conversion of enslaved African Americans and provided theological resources for the development of African American Christianity. Responding to evangelicalism’s emphasis on individual spiritual transformation accessible to all as the key to conversion rather than memorization of doctrine mediated through clergy, many African Americans joined the enthusiastic worship of the revivals and embraced Christianity. The ranks of the evangelical Baptists and Methodists grew through the spread of the revivals and, motivated by a commitment to spiritual equality, some white Baptists and Methodists questioned the moral grounds of slavery. Ultimately, the opposition to abolition of most southern white Christian slaveholders motivated these denominations to step back from their antislavery positions. Despite the turn away from an explicitly antislavery Christian posture, Baptists and Methodists supported the development of black Christian leadership, licensing African American men to preach and helping to foster the beginnings of institutional life among black Christians. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th centuries extended the geographic reach of evangelicalism as the nation expanded into new territory and also drew increasing numbers of African Americans to Christianity.4

Antebellum African Americans developed independent arenas in which to interpret, experience, and express their religious commitments. Enslaved black Christians found refuge from the oppressive oversight of Christian slaveholders in the “invisible institution,” as some have termed the secret religious gatherings of “slave religion.” In their worship they listened to black preachers affirm their humanity, drawing on biblical narratives like that of the Exodus, which offered them the promise of God’s deliverance of his suffering people. In enthusiastic and embodied communal worship they also sang spirituals that spoke of sorrow, joy, justice, salvation, and liberation, and they danced the ring shout in a counterclockwise circular movement meant to make the Holy Spirit present. Slave religion, then, served as a source of individual and communal comfort and the means to endure the brutality of slavery.5

Religion also provided resources for forceful public critique of the institution that enslaved and sought to dehumanize African Americans in the new republic. Black abolitionists, such as lecturer and journalist Maria W. Stewart (1803–1880), who grounded her claims for social justice in biblical exegesis, and David Walker (1796–1830), whose 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World warned of divine punishment on America for the sins of oppression, exemplified this approach. In other instances, religion fostered open rebellion against slavery, as with the planned revolt in 1800 in Richmond, Virginia, that participants organized in religious meetings led by Gabriel Prosser (1776–1880), the appeal to scripture and use of religious meetings to plan the aborted revolt of Denmark Vesey (1767–1822) in South Carolina in 1822, and the 1831 rebellion in Northampton, Virginia, organized by religious visionary and preacher Nat Turner (1800–1831). Even as the influence of religion on the men who led these rebellions against slavery is clear, evidence also exists that Christianity served to accommodate some enslaved African Americans to their status, as demonstrated in the 1806 address of enslaved poet and preacher Jupiter Hammon (1711–1806) in which he enjoined enslaved blacks to be the obedient servants he felt Christ called them to be and await their reward in heaven.6

Enslaved African Americans also turned to religious resources outside of Christianity. Conjure, derived from West Central African ritual work to harness the power of the natural and spiritual world to protect, heal, and sometimes harm, was a feature of African American culture, as were other folk healing practices using roots and herbs. Islam was also part of the religious world of enslaved Africans in the antebellum American South, with the relatively small number of Muslims struggling to maintain their religious practices, create community, and preserve the Arabic language across generations. Muslims such as Omar ibn Said (c. 1770–c. 1864), who was born in what is present-day Senegal, sold into slavery, and enslaved in North Carolina in the first decades of the 19th century, left a written record in Arabic and English of his life prior to enslavement, his experiences in slavery, and his religious life, which may have included conversion to Christianity. Taken together, this range of religious expressions provided resources for the development of culture in common, a sense of collective identity as African Americans, and affirmation of black humanity.7

Black Churches and Institutional Religious Life

In addition to the often hidden and covert religious activities in the invisible institution of slave religion, antebellum African American Christians developed churches that provided arenas for independent interpretation of Christian teaching and practice as well as a platform for political organizing. Early independent black Baptist churches include the Silver Bluff, Georgia, church led in the 1770s by David George (c. 1743–1810) and the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, founded in 1788 by Andrew Bryan (1737–1812). The Baptist framework appealed to those in bondage because its structure of congregational autonomy supported local leadership and independence. Although these formerly enslaved men and their largely enslaved congregants faced monitoring and restrictions on religious practice, the institutions they founded became important sites promoting African American interpretations of Christianity that affirmed the humanity of black people. Free black Baptists in northern states, where slavery was abolished gradually following the American Revolution, also established important congregations. They included the African Meeting House in Boston, founded in 1805 and led by New Hampshire native Thomas Paul (1773–1831), and the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, founded in 1809 by African American congregants of First Baptist Church, led by Thomas’s brother, Nathaniel Paul (c. 1793–1839), who left in protest of discrimination by white leaders.8

Significant independent black church organizing during the early national period took place under the umbrella of Methodism and, by the early 19th century, individual congregations joined together to form denominations. In many cases, black Methodists founded independent congregations in response to the racism they experienced in the predominantly white congregations to which they belonged. In Philadelphia, Richard Allen (1760–1831), a former slave and licensed Methodist preacher, belonged to the predominantly white St. George’s Methodist Church. Allen, along with Absalom Jones (1746–1818), another former slave and lay preacher, and other black congregants objected to the increasing discrimination they suffered in their home church, marked most clearly by the new policy relegating black members to the church balcony. St. George’s black Methodists left the congregation and turned to the Free African Society, which Allen and Jones had founded in 1787 to support the growing free black community, as the basis for an independent religious organization. Two congregations emerged from this movement, reflecting the varied theological and institutional interests among the former members of St. George’s. One contingent founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1792 with Absalom Jones, the first African American to be ordained an Episcopal priest, as its first rector, and the other formed Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794 with Allen as its pastor. In 1816 Allen called together the leaders of a number of other black Methodist congregations in the region and they formed the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the first black denomination in America, with Allen as the first bishop. In a similar process in New York, African American Methodists, led by former slaves James Varick (1750–1827) and Peter Williams (1755–1823), left the John Street Methodist Church in 1796 and formally chartered the independent Zion Methodist Church in 1800. Conflicts between leaders of various contingents of African Methodists led Varick and Zion Church to organize a small group of independent black Methodist congregations in 1821 under the denominational umbrella of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.9

These new institutions became vitally important arenas for antebellum African American organizing and public discussion of a range of issues, including the abolition of slavery and the status of free blacks, as well as campaigns to create colonies for free blacks outside the United States. Clergy and members of the AME and AME Zion Churches often became public voices on pressing issues, a role that highlights the significance of churches in fostering black leadership throughout African American history. African American denominations also contributed to black public life and culture throughout the 19th century by creating and supporting a range of economic enterprises, including publishing houses that produced journals and newspapers, including the AME Church Review, the Christian Recorder, and the Star of Zion, that covered religious and secular issues. By the end of the 19th century, black denominations also established a range of educational institutions. The AME Church founded Payne Theological Seminary in Xenia, Ohio, in 1844, the denomination’s first school dedicated to the training of ministers, and in 1856 it joined with the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish Wilberforce University, also in Xenia, as the first private college for African Americans. AME Zion institutions of higher education include Livingstone College, founded in 1879 in Salisbury, North Carolina, and Hood Theological Seminary, which emerged from Livingstone’s theological department in 1904. From their founding moments, then, independent African American denominations served as more than spiritual homes for black Christians; they also offered education, opportunity for economic development, a platform for political advocacy, and an environment that supported a collective sense of peoplehood.10

Even as black Methodist churches played an important role in developing leaders who made powerful public claims of equality, internal debates and struggles over ordination highlighted the institutions’ gendered understanding of religious leadership. Black women preachers such as Jarena Lee (b. 1783) challenged Richard Allen and other male AME leaders who allowed them to pray and preach but not to be ordained or serve as church pastors. Grounding their insistence on a right to leadership in both biblical interpretation and the claim to have experienced a direct call from God, Lee and other 19th-century preaching women in the AME and AME Zion Churches called their denominations to live up to their stated missions of proclaiming the equality of all under God. Facing resistance from the male leadership of their churches and from many male and female members, these women persisted in their work as itinerant evangelists and some published spiritual narratives to recount their experiences and promote their claims. Zion became the first black denomination to ordain women when Julia Foote (1823–1900) was ordained a deacon in 1894, a status women in the AME Church gained in 1948. Despite the limited access to formal leadership roles, women within these independent black church denominations, who constituted the majority of members, were active contributors to the life of the church, serving as fundraisers, evangelists, and missionaries, for example.11

The number of black churches grew rapidly following the Civil War as many of the millions of African Americans emerging from slavery established their own congregations. Baptist churches, which newly freed people could form of their own accord and govern independently, predominated among these, and Baptist worship culture proved appealing to those whose Christianity was shaped in the “invisible institution” of slave religion. The AME and AMEZ denominations also expanded beyond their largely northern bases through missionary work among former slaves. Culture and class differences sometimes led to conflict, however, as AME Church leaders sought to restrain the enthusiasm of southern black worship and impose their own standards of respectability. The Reconstruction period also saw the founding of the Colored (now Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church in 1870 in Jackson, Tennessee, by former enslaved members of the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The CME established Lane College in Jackson in 1882, expanding its presence, although it would always remain smaller than the AME Church, which claimed half a million members at the turn of the 20th century, and the AMEZ Church, which counted around 185,000 members to the CME’s 175,000.12

The 1895 founding of the National Baptist Convention (NBC) was perhaps the most significant institutional development in post-Reconstruction black religious life. Drawing together independent black Baptist congregations and mission and educational societies, the NBC emerged at its founding moment in Atlanta under the leadership of former slave Elias C. Morris (1855–1922) as the nation’s largest African American denomination with almost 2 million members. As with the AME Church, the NBC developed economic enterprises, with its publishing board producing publications such as the National Baptist Union, hymnals, and Sunday School materials. Women within the National Baptist Convention, led by prominent figures, who included black women’s rights activists Nannie Helen Burroughs (1883–1961) and S. Willie Layten (1863–1950), created the Woman’s Convention (WC) auxiliary in 1900 to provide an arena for churchwomen’s work. The WC promoted women’s mission societies and supported the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C., under Burroughs’s leadership, offering industrial and moral education. In addition, black Baptist women in the 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to the life of the church as individual evangelists or as licensed preachers. Although the women of the WC and the NBC at large did not organize to press for ordination, black Baptist women nevertheless initiated significant public discussions within their denomination about religion, gender, and equality.13

Not all black Christians located their religious lives in black denominations. Some African Americans found spiritual homes in predominantly white churches, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Episcopal denominations, drawn by family ties, theological appeal, or style of worship. For many who had been enslaved in regions with large Roman Catholic populations, Catholicism was the dominant culture that shaped their religious lives. As with other predominantly white denominations, access to leadership in Roman Catholicism was often restricted and African American men found it difficult to gain admission to the priesthood. A few prominent black priests made their mark on 19th-century black Catholic life, however, including former Missouri slave August Tolton (1854–1897), who was ordained in Rome in 1886, and Charles Randolph Uncles (1859–1933) of Baltimore, who became the first African American ordained in the United States. In a number of important instances, black women were successful in founding religious orders through which they could pursue their religious vocations. The Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in Baltimore in 1829 under the leadership of the Saint Domingue–born Elizabeth Lange (c. 1794–1882), brought together free women of color to provide support for Baltimore’s black Catholics and education for the city’s black children. In New Orleans, free women of color under the leadership of Henriette DeLille (1812–1862), founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1837 to care for the city’s poor, orphaned, and sick. Although the orders remained small, black Catholic sisters were visible figures in 19th-century African American Catholic life. African American lay Catholics organized at the end of the 19th century to represent their interests as a group to the church at large and, despite experiences of racism and exclusion, to promote Catholicism among black Protestants as a universal and inclusive tradition. Former slave and Ohio journalist Daniel A. Rudd (1854–1933) founded The American Catholic Tribune in 1885 to promote black Catholic interests, and he stood at the forefront of the Colored Catholic Congress movement that called black Catholics together from 1889 to 1894 to discuss their status within the church and to strategize to oppose racism in church and society.14 In the years following the Civil War, African American denominations and black religious societies in predominantly white denominations contributed to the work of moving from slave to free, and they served as sites for the formation or extension of black Christian communities.

Christian Mission at Home and Abroad

In the late 19th century, African American denominations turned their attention to Africa as a mission site and, in some instances, as a place to settle and pursue black self-governance. While black missionaries had worked through white mission societies earlier in the century, the support of black-led denominational structures made additional connections to Africa possible and allowed African Americans to frame their work in ways that spoke directly to their concerns. Interest in conducting Christian missions in Africa in this period derived, in part, from black Christians’ theological wrestling with the religious meaning of American slavery and of their current status under segregation. Where the biblical story of the Exodus had provided a map of meaning and a ground for hope for many enslaved and free African Americans in the antebellum period, after the end of slavery African American Christians looked to the Bible for other sources of inspiration and knowledge about their future. Some interpreted Psalm 68:31 (“Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopian shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God”) as a chart of sacred destiny that made the evil of slavery comprehensible as part of a broader divine plan for people of African descent to represent true Christianity to the world. Some African American theologians and religious leaders who found this interpretation of the meaning of past suffering and the nature of future destiny compelling emphasized missions in Africa as central to God’s plan for the redemption of humanity.15

Early-19th-century AME mission work took place in the context of debates among free blacks about the colonization movement. The American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1817 by northern and southern whites concerned about growing numbers of free people of color in the United States, advocated transporting free blacks to Africa and, to achieve that goal, established a settlement that would eventually become part of Liberia. The ACS encouraged free blacks to emigrate and secured funds to purchase the freedom of enslaved people on the condition that they agree to be transported to Africa. Shortly after the ACS’s founding, members of the AME Church met to debate colonization. Some individuals, such as founding member Daniel co*ker (1780–1846), argued that prospects for free blacks would be better in Africa given restricted opportunities in the United States. Most AME leaders opposed colonization, however, holding that as Americans they should not have to leave the country of their birth to secure liberty and rights. Moreover, many argued, it would be devastating to the cause of abolition for free blacks, who could serve as advocates for the enslaved to leave. The denomination formally condemned the colonization scheme; nevertheless, some members continued to find the idea appealing. In 1820 co*ker joined with the ACS to embark on missionary work in Sierra Leone, traveling aboard the Elizabeth with eighty-five other colonists in a largely unsuccessful venture. In the 1870s AME clergy and church members constituted part of the Liberian Exodus movement in which a number of groups, most famously the company of 206 people aboard the Azor that sailed from Charleston to Monrovia in 1878, gave up on the possibility of safety and prosperity in America and sought to build lives and communities elsewhere.16

As part of renewed African American interest in Africa in the last decades of the 19th century, the AME Church established formal missions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Black Methodists, such as internationally recognized traveling evangelist Amanda Berry Smith (1837–1915), also engaged in independent missionary work, largely without institutional support. In 1891 AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1843–1915) traveled to West Africa and southern Africa to incorporate into the denomination the churches that earlier missionaries had established. In 1900 Levi J. Coppin (1848–1924), former editor of the AME Church Review, was elected to the bishopric and appointed the first bishop of South Africa, formally extending the denomination’s scope. The AME Zion Church focused its mission work in Liberia and the Gold Coast under the leadership of Barbadian immigrant John Bryan Small (1845–1905), who was elected bishop in 1896 and appointed to a jurisdiction that included Africa, and his wife, Mary J. Small (c. 1850–1945), the first woman ordained an elder in the AME Zion Church. African American Baptists counted among their early missionaries Lott Carey (1780–1828), a former slave and pastor of the African Baptist Church in Richmond, who in 1815 helped to found the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society. In 1821 Carey traveled to Sierra Leone as a missionary, accompanied by his wife, two children, and twenty members of his congregation. The group settled in Liberia the following year and Carey founded Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, which he pastored until his death in 1828. Later black Baptists saw Carey as a model for their work, establishing the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention in 1897, which, along with state mission boards, supported Baptist missions. African American members of predominantly white denominations also engaged in missionary work in Africa, including Virginia native and ordained Presbyterian minister William H. Sheppard (1865–1927), who served as a Presbyterian missionary in the Congo from 1890 to 1910, and former slave Maria Fearing (1838–1937), who, inspired by Sheppard’s preaching on a visit to the United States in 1894, became a missionary and established a home for orphan girls.17

African American missionaries and emigrationists generally framed their projects in terms of their own history, present concerns, and hopes for the future. Incorporating Africans into their biblical interpretations of the divine plan for black Christianity to lead the way to human redemption, missionaries and colonists rejected African traditional religions and worked to transform African societies according to the standards of Western Christian civilization. Even many of those who learned indigenous languages and attended to the social, economic, and medical needs of Africans in the regions of their missionary work still viewed indigenous religious and cultural systems as heathen and in need of reform. Episcopal priest Alexander Crummell (1819–1898) and Presbyterian minister Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832–1912) represent the complex religious perspectives of African diaspora blacks in this era with respect to their relationship to Africa. A New York native, Crummell was ordained to the priesthood in 1844 and became a vocal anti-slavery activist before embarking on missionary work in Liberia in 1853. Initially opposed to colonization, Crummell became an advocate of African American emigration and an influential black nationalist, even as he remained committed to the superiority of Christian civilization and encouraged African Americans to take up the work of “redeeming” Africa. Blyden, an immigrant to the United States from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, also devoted himself to missionary work in Liberia, where he settled in 1851 and began a career in ministry, education, and politics. In his writings, Blyden advocated the preservation of African cultural traditions, which he argued had contributed to world cultures, and he also contended that Islam offered greater dignity to people of African descent than did Christianity, a perspective that led him to sever his connection with the Presbyterian Church. An ardent advocate of immigration of diaspora blacks to West Africa, Blyden lived out the remainder of his life there, dying in Sierra Leone in 1912. Although the number of missionaries and colonists remained small over the course of the 19th century, their work was located in larger discussions about religious interpretations of black racial identity, history, and future destiny.18

African American Christianity diversified in branching out in new directions in the late 19th century, reflecting and contributing to broader theological developments in American Christianity. The Holiness movement promoted the doctrine of sanctification, with advocates preaching that believers must experience an additional work of God’s grace beyond the central spiritual event of conversion. Although this theological position emerged from within evangelical churches it proved controversial and, in some cases, proponents of the doctrine formed new Holiness churches organized around belief in sanctification. Charles P. Jones (1865–1949) and Charles H. Mason (1864–1961), both Baptist preachers, began to advocate the controversial Holiness doctrine at revivals and churches in Mississippi, which led to their expulsion from their local Baptist association and the 1897 founding of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1906 Mason traveled to Azusa Street in Los Angeles to investigate a multiracial revival underway there, led by African American preacher William J. Seymour (1870–1922), a Louisiana native who preached the importance of another spiritual experience beyond sanctification. Seymour and advocates of what would become Pentecostalism strove for baptism in the Holy Spirit, which, they believed, would result in the manifestation of the gifts of speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, and interpretation. Mason reported experiencing this baptism and speaking in tongues at Azusa Street and became persuaded that all true Christians must also do so. Mason and Jones split the following year as a result of disagreement about Pentecostal theology. Jones continued to focus on sanctification and renamed his church the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A., and Jones took the name Church of God in Christ (COGIC) for his Pentecostal church. Although early Pentecostalism was characterized by multiracial interactions, the movement became segregated over the first decades of the 20th century. COCIG would become the largest African American Pentecostal denomination in the United States and one of the major sources for the spread of Pentecostalism around the world.19

Migration, Urbanization, and the Culture of African American Christianity

At the start of the 20th century most African Americans lived in the South, primarily in rural settings. Over the next decades a number of factors combined to motivate African Americans to relocate to southern and northern cities in search of greater opportunity. By the end of World War I, some 2.5 million southern blacks had become part of this Great Migration, producing a dramatic increase in the black populations of northern cities. In the cities of the Northeast, southern migrants, who continued to arrive in large numbers in this first wave until the early 1930s, encountered immigrants from the British West Indies, also on the move in search of greater opportunity. More than 100,000 Caribbean immigrants arrived in the United States in the first three decades of the century, and they contributed to the religious, political, and cultural life of the growing black urban neighborhoods. While most African Americans still remained in the South and the reality of life for those who migrated to the North did not always meet the promise of expanded opportunity, the Great Migration nevertheless set the context for important developments in African American religious life.

Some established African American religious institutions in northern cities responded by working to incorporate the newcomers, and congregations such as Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago saw a significant increase in membership. Interdenominational organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association, which had separate branches for and led by African Americans, also provided practical assistance and spiritual comfort to the migrants. Encounters between established northern black religious leaders and southern migrants were often fraught, however, as northern leaders frequently counseled migrants to conform to their middle-class religious and social standards. As a result, many migrants reconstituted their home churches in the North or founded new ones, sometimes in rented storefronts in the absence of funds to purchase property or build edifices. The growth in the number of Christian congregations in black neighborhoods in northern cities largely reflected the religious sensibilities and practices that had formed under slavery and that had become institutionalized in Baptist, Holiness, and Pentecostal churches. Some of the most prominent of these storefront churches were founded and led by women, who appealed directly to the power of God and the Holy Spirit rather than to denominational hierarchies to authorize their leadership. The experience of South Carolina native Rosa A. Horn (1880–1976), who migrated spiritually from her Methodist upbringing to Pentecostalism and geographically to Illinois and then New York, exemplifies the influence of black southern Pentecostalism on the religious culture of the urban North. Horn, who began her religious ministry in Illinois, founded the Pentecostal Faith Church of All Nations in Harlem in 1926, which not only featured emotional worship and faith healing, but also provided material aid for struggling residents of Harlem during the Great Depression. Horn became a well-known figure on the East Coast through her “Radio Church of God of the Air” broadcasts on WHN radio beginning in 1934.20

Horn was not alone in making use of popular and commercial culture as a vehicle for religious expression in this period. As radio broadcasts became popular in the 1930s, African American religious leaders took to the airwaves, and figures such as Holiness preacher Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux (1885–1968) in Washington, D.C., known as the Happy Am I Evangelist, and Elder Lucy Smith (1905–2010) in Chicago, who broadcast from her All Nations Pentecostal Church, achieved extraordinary popularity. African American musicians also used radio to broadcast black religious music in the 1930s. They included choir directors Eve Jessye (1895–1992), whose Dixie Jubilee Singers appeared on NBC and WOR radio in the 1930s, and Hall Johnson (1888–1970), whose Hall Johnson Choir offered listeners a range of black folk music, including work songs, blues, and spirituals. Radio broadcasts, either from black churches or from studios, reached beyond African American listeners and provided a glimpse of aspects of black religious culture to a national audience. The representation of African American preaching, worship, and religious music in such early-20th-century media forms as “race records,” aimed specifically at black audiences, also contributed to the process of religious and cultural formation in the era of the Great Migration. Kansas City–based Rev. J. C. Burnett, who recorded such sermons as “The Downfall of Nebuchadnezzar” (Columbia, 1926), Chicago-based Baptist minister A. W. Nix, who recorded “Black Diamond Express to Hell” (Vocalion,1927), and Chicago Pentecostal minister Leora Ross, who recorded “Dry Bones in the Valley” (Okeh, 1927), achieved tremendous popularity through the circulation of their records. The most successful of the race records preachers was James M. Gates (1884–1945), pastor of Atlanta’s Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, whose recorded sermons, including “Death’s Black Train Is Coming,” “You Must Be Born Again,” and “Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus” on Columbia Records in 1926, launched him as a preaching celebrity.21

African American religious music served as a central part of black religious culture and an important element in the success of religious race records. The recorded sermons generally presented popular sermonic subject matter in the classic chanted sermon style characteristic of many black preachers with call and response from congregants, and they also sometimes incorporated music. Congregational choirs often provided the music on many sermon recordings, but popular religious musicians sometimes teamed up with preachers to great success. Well-known blind Pentecostal pianist and missionary Arizona Dranes (1894–1963) teamed with Church of God in Christ (COGIC) minister F. W. McGee (1890–1971) on “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” (Okeh, 1927), which helped to launch his career. Dranes, whose percussive piano style contributed to the emergence of gospel music, was a recording star in her own right, and she used the popularity of her recordings, such as “My Soul Is Witness for My Lord” (Okeh, 1926), to enhance her work as a traveling missionary for COGIC.22

The spread of early gospel music, a genre that combined traditional hymnody and southern blues, reflects musicians’ work both in African American churches and in the broader media culture of records and radio. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, where in 1932 pastor Junius C. Austin (1887–1968) hired Thomas A. Dorsey (1899–1993) as music director, served as a critical site for the development of gospel. Through his compelling preaching and strong leadership, Virginia-native Austin built Pilgrim into one of the largest churches in the nation. A Georgia native who had been a successful blues pianist before taking his position at Pilgrim, Dorsey popularized gospel’s combination of sacred lyrics and blues music, penning the enduring gospel song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Dorsey and Holiness singer Sallie Martin (1895–1988), with whom he recorded such classic gospel songs as “I’ll Tell It Wherever I Go,” mentored many emerging gospel artists through the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which they helped to found in 1933. Gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972), whose musical style was formed in the Baptist, sanctified, and jazz cultures of her native New Orleans, benefited from Dorsey’s mentorship after migrating to Chicago, and she made “Precious Lord” a signature song in her repertoire. Jackson rose to prominence in the 1940s through radio appearances and records, including the million-selling “Move On Up a Little Higher” (Apollo, 1947), and she resisted appeals to sing secular music, insisting as in the lyrics of a Dorsey song she recorded in 1957, “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song.”23

Pentecostal gospel star Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), who grew up in the Church of God in Christ in Arkansas, was much more at ease moving between what most African Americans at the time would have understood as separate and competing realms of sacred and secular music and performance venues. Tharpe began her career as a gospel performer in the 1920s as she and her mother, a COGIC evangelist, traveled doing revival work. Tharpe’s blues-inflected guitar playing was influenced by Arizona Dranes’s percussive piano style, which stemmed from Dranes working with her in Rev. F. W. McGee’s traveling revival group in the late 1920s.Through these revivals and radio appearances, Tharpe came to the attention of jazz musicians and record companies, and she made her first recordings, “Rock Me” and “This Train” (Decca Records, 1938), accompanied by a jazz orchestra. Tharpe’s incorporation of secular themes into sacred music and her performances of gospel music in secular venues such as Harlem’s Cotton Club made her a controversial figure for many black Christians, who shunned the world of popular entertainments. Her success extended the cultural reach of gospel music, however, and her popularity in varied arenas of American life reveals important connections between secular and sacred culture in black life.24 Similarly, groups such as the Infantry Chorus of Leonard de Paur (1914–1998) helped to promote African American spirituals beyond black religious circles. New Jersey native de Paur began his career with the famed Hall Johnson Choir and founded his own all-male chorus, for which he served as conductor and arranger, while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Following the war, the Infantry Chorus’s recordings on Columbia records were best sellers, helping to popularize black religious music in the world of secular concert performance.

Movies served as another arena for religious expression in the era of the Great Migration, and one that also highlights complex interactions between African American church traditions and popular culture. While directors of early “race films,” such as influential writer and director Oscar Micheaux (1885–1951), often featured black churches and leaders in their stories, their films were not meant to provide moral education or cultivate religious experience. Rather, with films such as Body and Soul (1925), in which Paul Robeson (1898–1976) made his film debut, Micheaux raised questions about the political utility of churches and clergy and offered a critique of what he saw as the emotionality of southern black religious culture. In the era of sound films, veteran race movie actor and Louisiana native Spencer Williams Jr. (1893–1969) valorized the religious world of black Baptists in his films, including the highly successful The Blood of Jesus (1941) and Go Down Death (1944), and he incorporated striking special effects to simulate the presence of supernatural beings and mark extraordinary religious experiences. Like a number of other films from the 1940s, such as the Royal Gospel Productions Going to Glory, Come to Jesus (1946), Williams’s films preached temperance and the evils of commercial entertainments to black audiences, reflecting Christian responses to the cultural changes that urbanization and migration had produced in African American life.25

The Rise of New Religious Movements

In addition to developments within black Christianity, the movement of people and the exchange of cultures in the Great Migration generated new groups that offered people of African descent in the United States a range of religious options outside of the dominant Protestant Christianity. The stage for these changes was set, in part, by the 1918 establishment of Harlem as the headquarters for the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded by Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) to foster global black unity and self-determination in Africa. Garvey and his organization promoted black nationalism through the Negro World newspaper, in conventions, public rallies, and parades, and with the establishment of the Black Star Line of steamships. Although the latter endeavor ultimately failed and poor management and corruption led to Garvey’s conviction for mail fraud and to his deportation from the United States in 1927, the movement had a powerful cultural and social impact. With the motto of “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” Garvey emphasized the centrality of religion to the project of black pride, unity, and self-determination, and, through the UNIA’s chaplains, he incorporated hymns, prayers, and rituals into the organization’s activities. The religion of the UNIA was decidedly Christian—Garvey was Roman Catholic—and encouraged people of African descent to embrace a black Madonna and a black Christ. But Garvey did not insist upon Catholic or even Christian commitment for membership, which made the organization accessible to a range of people of African descent, including African Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean, in the United States as well as in other countries.26

Two individuals who were influenced by Garvey’s black nationalist sentiment opened up new religious possibilities for people of African descent beginning in the 1920s. Arnold Josiah Ford (1877–1935), an immigrant from Barbados to Harlem, was an active member of the UNIA for a number of years, working as the organization’s musical director and co-authoring its Universal Ethiopian Anthem. Raised a Methodist in Barbados, Ford studied the Bible and apocryphal texts avidly and became persuaded that black people were Israelites descended from King Solomon and the Ethiopian queen of Sheba. Gathering a group of mostly immigrants from the Caribbean, some who were also active in the UNIA, Ford promoted this understanding of black identity as Ethiopian Hebrew and, in 1924, he founded Congregation Beth B’nai Abraham in Harlem, serving as its rabbi. Ford moved to Ethiopia in 1930 to begin the work of establishing a community and forging connections to the indigenous Ethiopian Jewish community, but he became ill and died before he was able to do so. Ford’s teaching influenced Wentworth Arthur Matthew (1892–1973), an immigrant to Harlem from St. Kitts, who founded the Commandments Keepers Church of the Living God, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth in 1919. Beginning as a Christian church that emphasized the commandments of the Hebrew scriptures as the religion of Jesus, Matthew’s group transformed over time to become the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a group whose members understood themselves to be descendants of the Israelites and rejected Jesus as the Messiah. By the mid-1930s, Matthew had become the most prominent advocate in the United States of Ethiopian Hebrew identity as the true identity of people of African descent, and his congregation served as the nucleus of a group of other congregations in the Northeast served by rabbis whom Matthew had ordained.27

A number of groups founded in the first decades of the 20th century promoted versions of Islam as the original religion of black people. The Moorish Science Temple, founded in Chicago in 1925 by southern migrant Thomas (a.k.a. Timothy) Drew (1886–1929), taught that blacks in America are the descendants of the ancient Moabites. Drew, who took the name Noble Drew Ali in his role as the group’s prophet, lauded Marcus Garvey’s work to promote black unity, but he offered a different version of black racial identity, insisting that “the Negro” was an imposed identity fabricated in slavery. Drew told his followers that they should consider themselves Moorish Americans, return to their true religion, and take back their true “tribal names” of Bey and El in order to achieve racial unity and spiritual fulfillment. Drew Ali offered his followers a composite scripture in The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple, combining material from published texts in the Western esoteric tradition and text he wrote himself outlining the origins of Moorish Americans. By the time of Drew Ali’s death in 1929, the Moorish Science Temple counted thousands of followers in temples in major cities, including Baltimore, New York, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Cleveland. After his death the movement fractured under the leadership of different followers contending for succession, but it continued to promote this view of Moorish Muslim identity.

In Detroit in the early 1930s, a group of African American migrants from the South gathered around W. D. Fard’s (b. 1877?), teaching that they were not Negroes or Africans, but rather Asiatic Muslims whose true home was Mecca. Fard, who may have been a member of the MST in Chicago, preached that black people were the earth’s original people and whites were the later creations of a malicious black scientist and possessed of an inherently evil nature. Fard said that he had come from Mecca to prepare blacks for Allah’s destruction of the devilish whites by restoring their true religion of Islam and their original Islamic names, thus making them a Lost-Found Nation of Islam. Little is known about Fard except that he was successful in attracting thousands of followers to the Nation of Islam (NOI) before the Detroit police forced him to leave the city in 1934 and he disappeared. Elijah Poole (1897–1975), a Georgia Baptist migrant, succeeded Fard. Poole was an early convert to the NOI to whom Fard gave the name Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad took on the role of Messenger of Allah and began to teach that Fard was not simply a prophet but was, in fact, Allah in the flesh. While the Moorish Science Temple embraced Americanness as part of Moorish American identity, the NOI rejected the United States as evil and doomed to destruction and set economic and territorial independence as a goal. Muhammad, who served time in prison as a draft resister during World War II, moved the group’s headquarters to Chicago and the movement continued to grow, gaining a broader audience through Muhammad’s column in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper in the 1950s.28

Whereas members of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews rejected Negro and Christian identity in favor of alternative understandings of race and religion, Father Divine’s interracial Peace Mission Movement offered yet another approach in rejecting race altogether as a creation of the devil. Born George Baker (1879–1965) in Maryland, Father Divine taught that he was God in a body and had come to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. He promised his followers health, agelessness, and eternal life if they would renounce the things of mortal life. Divine’s followers, who took names like Wonderful Joy and Peaceful John that reflected their new spiritual status as raceless children of God, created their kingdom in sex-segregated celibate residences. Divine enjoined his followers to vote in aid of transforming the world according to his vision and, in 1936, the movement drafted a Righteous Government platform that included political, economic, and educational programs. At its height of popularity in the late 1930s, the Peace Mission Movement, which drew blacks and whites, counted as many as fifty thousand members in 160 missions in the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, and the British West Indies. The number of adherents in the black new religious movements of the Great Migration was small in comparison to the large numbers of blacks affiliated with Christian churches. However, their cultural impact extended beyond membership figures as they offered people of African descent in the United States new ways of thinking about their religious and racial identities, varied understandings of the relationship between the two, and approaches to politics that derived from these collective identities.29

Religion and the Black Freedom Movement

Religious beliefs, practices, institutions, and leaders contributed to post–World War II campaigns for civil rights in a variety of ways. Religious understandings of the power of nonviolence to effect change were important for many activists, such as James M. Lawson (b. 1928) for whom social justice protest was essentially religious work to foster a “beloved community” and make the Kingdom of God a reality in the present. The son of an AME Zion minister who grew up in Ohio, Lawson became a pacifist through his mother’s influence and later honed his commitments working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an international ecumenical pacifist organization. Increasingly committed to nonviolence, Lawson served time in prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and later served as a Methodist missionary in India, where he studied Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent resistance. Returning to the United States to study theology, Lawson met Baptist minister and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), who encouraged him to join the movement in the South. In 1957 Lawson moved to Nashville as the southern field secretary for the FOR and began to conduct workshops on nonviolent resistance as Christian practice. Many of the young students Lawson introduced to nonviolence as an activist strategy, including John Lewis (b. 1940), Marion Barry (b. 1936), and Diane Nash (b. 1938), would become major figures in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organized in 1960 on what its founders argued was the Judeo-Christian tradition’s core commitment to nonviolence.30

Other local civil rights campaigns emerged among southern blacks and many of the participants grounded their work in Christian commitment and religious community. In Montgomery, Alabama, in the winter of 1955, black residents engaged in an organized boycott of the city’s bus lines following the arrest of Rosa Parks (1913–2005), secretary of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for violating the city’s laws requiring segregated seating on buses. The boycott was originally planned by the Women’s Political Council as a one-day event; however, thousands of members of the African American community met at Holt Street Baptist Church and decided to extend the boycott until the buses were desegregated. The action continued for more than a year under the direction of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, whose members pressed Martin Luther King Jr., the new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, into service as its president. In the course of the year, community members gathered in mass meetings at churches to support one another in their commitment to nonviolence and to gain courage in the face of increasing violence against them. The action came to an end in 1956 following a Supreme Court decision declaring segregated buses unconstitutional. King became a national figure in the course of the year as a result of his captivating preaching and public advocacy of nonviolent resistance. In 1957 King and others involved in the boycott, including Montgomery Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy (1926–1990) and Quaker adviser to the boycott movement Bayard Rustin (1910–1987), founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With the motto “To Redeem the Soul of America,” this organization, led primarily by King and other black male clergy, served as an umbrella group for helping to coordinate local civil rights actions.31

King and SCLC became the public face of the Civil Rights movement on the national and international stages, but a variety of grassroots organizations and local groups served as the engines of the activism. Ella Baker (1903–986), a former NAACP fieldworker who had been involved in the founding of SCLC, left the organization to focus on assisting the younger generation of activists, and she served as adviser to the organizers of SNCC. Baker brought her Baptist background to the work, inspiring the young activists with her commitment to nonviolence and her faith in the ultimate triumph of a movement emerging from the people’s concerns and needs. Throughout the 1960s, SNCC’s young leaders organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, Freedom Rides of integrated groups of passengers on interstate buses, and voter education projects. SNCC’s most significant action was the 1964 Freedom Summer that brought an interracial group of college students from around the country to Mississippi to register black voters and establish “freedom schools” for children. The volunteers also worked with local activists to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the state’s all-white delegation to that year’s Democratic National Convention. Among the long-time local activists on the MFDP’s slate of delegates was Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977), a sharecropper who had suffered financial reprisals and intimidation by the police for attempting to register to vote. When Hamer finally succeeded in registering in 1963, she was arrested and beaten badly in jail; nevertheless, she continued to advocate for civil rights, drawing others to the work with powerful speeches articulating a theology of civil rights that insisted on the revolutionary role of Jesus as a liberator. Hamer came to national attention when her testimony at the Democratic National Convention on behalf of the MFDP delegates was televised, showcasing the theological richness and courage of local activists in the movement.32

Christian theology, religious commitment to nonviolence, and church culture all played important roles in the southern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Religiously grounded grassroots organizing combined with the work of national organizations such as the SCLC contributed to the legislative and judicial successes by which formal segregation was dismantled. While this approach to civil rights work received widespread support in African American communities, critics of the movement’s tactics and goals were also vocal, including some who felt Christians should not engage in mass protest and others who believed political action should not have a religious component. Malcolm X (1925–1965), a minister in the Nation of Islam and influential spokesperson for the group, was among the most prominent and influential critics of the Civil Rights movement’s goals and tactics. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm discovered W. D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad’s teachings while serving time in prison for larceny, joined the movement upon his release, and took the X in place of the family name that slavery had erased. Malcolm and other members of the NOI questioned the commitment to nonviolence that grounded much of civil rights activism, arguing that liberation must be achieved “by any means necessary,” including use of violence. Even after Malcolm’s 1964 split with the NOI, he continued to critique the tactics of mainstream civil rights activism. The NOI and advocates of Black Power in the late 1960s also challenged the Civil Rights movement’s focus on racial integration in arguing for the development of black pride and power separate from white American society.33

Many Black Power advocates rejected Christianity as irrelevant to black experience and the quest for liberation, and they criticized black churches as having helped to accommodate African Americans to inferior status in counseling love for one’s enemy and hope for reward in heaven. Some black theologians and religious leaders insisted that Christianity and black power were compatible, however, and they extolled a long interpretive tradition presenting Christianity’s primary message as one of liberation of the oppressed. James H. Cone (b. 1938), an Arkansas native, ordained AME minister, and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was the most prominent theologian in the movement that would come to be called Black Theology, interpreting Christianity through the lens of black experience. His Black Power and Black Theology (1969) garnered a great deal of attention and energized a new generation of African American theologians, who explored the liberating potential of Christianity for black people worldwide. One significant response to the Black Theology movement that extended its scope came from African American women, including Cone’s student Jacqueline Grant (b. 1948), an AME minister who challenged the gender politics of Black Theology. Grant and others charged that the work of black male theologians ignored the contributions of women to black church history and failed to take into account how gender shaped the experiences of black women in unique ways that a black theology also needed to address. The Womanist Theology movement emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the ethical and theological writings of women such as ordained Presbyterian professor Katie Geneva Cannon (b. 1950) and Delores S. Williams (b. 1937), who drew on the term coined by author Alice Walker (b. 1944) and incorporated it into a religious context. Cannon, Williams, and others drew on sources from black women’s everyday life, such as quiltmaking, music, and storytelling, and they sought to speak directly to women of African descent in their writings while also not excluding men from the religious insight their theology provided. Some critics of Black Theology and Womanist Theology questioned the relevance of an academic enterprise based in seminaries and universities to the daily life struggles facing African Americans in the period after the end of legal segregation. As the 20th century came to a close, the historical black denominations that had been important arenas for cultivating a sense of collective identity, fostering economic and educational development, and motivating political organizing faced the challenge of maintaining relevance in the face of increasing class divisions among African Americans and a generational divide that pointed to the possibility of decreased participation of young people in institutional church life.34

New Religious Formations in the New Century

A number of significant trends that began at the end of the 20th century continue to shape religious life for people of African descent in the United States in the 21st century. The American religious landscape has been greatly influenced by increased immigration from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which followed U.S. immigration reforms in 1965. These immigrants represent a diverse set of religious commitments that include African varieties of Islam, independent African churches, African Pentecostalism, Rastafari, and Afro-Caribbean religions such as Vodou and Santería. The presence of these traditions in the American religious landscape offer new religious options to African Americans even as tensions between native-born and immigrant black populations have sometimes limited religious exchange. Nevertheless, some African Americans have found fulfillment in Afro-Caribbean traditions, and some African and African American Muslims make their spiritual homes and worship in the same mosques. African American Muslims make up almost one-third of the population of Muslims in the United States, and most of these are connected to the Sunni branch of Islam. Some African American Muslims have roots in the Nation of Islam and followed Warith Deen Mohammed (1933–2008), Elijah Muhammad’s son and successor, into Sunni Islam (with the NOI continuing under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan [b. 1933]). Others have been drawn to Islam through individual journeys in search of spiritual fulfillment and through encounter with other adherents, which is also the case for many African American Buddhists and Jews in contemporary America.35

Within African American Christianity, significant 21st-century trends include the increasing prominence of “megachurch” congregations that count two thousand or more members. This development is not exclusive to black churches and, in many cases, predominantly white congregations have attracted significant numbers of African American members while churches with majority black membership and black pastors have white congregants. Most black megachurches, such as 19,000-member First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, the 10,000-member National Baptist Convention Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis, and the 13,000-member West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, are connected to historically black Protestant denominations. Many, like Crenshaw Christian Center, based in Los Angeles with a branch in New York City and claiming more than 20,000 members, are nondenominational, reflecting a growing trend in black Christianity. The influence of Pentecostal beliefs and practices is strong in African American megachurches whether denominational or nondenominational. While formal membership figures do not necessarily reflect the number of active congregants, these are strikingly large congregations that offer congregants a variety of ministries targeted at interest and demographic groups. The social engagements of black megachurches tend to focus on community development rather than electoral politics or organized protest, and they use some of their considerable financial resources to sponsor social, economic, and educational services such as legal clinics, family counseling, health projects, housing developments, and schools.36

Some African American megachurches participate in the “Word of Faith” movement commonly referred to as the prosperity gospel, a theological orientation that sees prosperity, figured in material and other terms, as a sign of a right relationship with God.37 Frederick K. Price (b. 1932), founder of Crenshaw Christian Center, was one of the key figures promoting the prosperity gospel in black churches in the 1970s, and he continues to be influential. Other prominent African American prosperity preachers in the first decade of the 21st century include Eddie Long (b. 1953) of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church located near Atlanta, Creflo Dollar (b. 1962) and Taffy Dollar of World Changers Church International, also located near Atlanta, and T. D. Jakes (b. 1957) of The Potter’s House in Dallas. In addition, prosperity gospel can be found in churches that operate on a much smaller scale than these megachurches led by celebrity pastors, but key to the success of preachers such as Price and Jakes has been their use of multiple media, including satellite network televangelism and broadcast over the Internet, to promote their theologies in the United States and, increasingly, in the Caribbean and Africa. Proponents of the prosperity gospel have been criticized and subject to scrutiny for their tax-exempt lavish lifestyles characterized by mansions, private jets, luxury cars, and jewelry that are supported by the Word of Faith’s strong theological emphasis on the need to tithe to receive God’s blessing of prosperity. Critics have charged that the focus on individual financial gain has turned black churches away from addressing the broader issues of racism and economic inequality. Personal scandals involving figures such as Eddie Long, accused of sexual misconduct with young men in one of his church organizations, and Gaston Everett Smith, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, Florida, who was convicted of stealing public grants made to his church to aid the poor, have also raised questions about a number of celebrity ministers who contravene the sexual and financial standards they preach in their ministries. While nondenominational megachurches, prosperity gospel, and media ministries have garnered a significant presence in the African American religious landscape, a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center shows that African American commitment to historically black Protestant churches remains strong.

Discussion of the Literature

The process by which religious culture developed under slavery has been one of the most debated topics in the field as scholars have sought to understand the relationship of African American religious formations to the various traditions in the African contexts from which enslaved people were transported. Was there cultural continuity and, if so, how was it produced, maintained, and manifested? Were cultural links irreparably ruptured and, if so, what were the consequences for religious developments in America? The varied terms scholars have used to describe the relationship of African diaspora religions to Africa and the process of cultural change—retention, survival, syncretism, transculturation, polyculturalism, bricolage, among others—reflect a range of approaches to addressing these questions. One prominent scholarly narrative emphasizes a clear and enduring impact of African traditions in African American religious culture seen in understandings of the sacred, ritual practices, and general sensibilities. Scholarly accounts differ regarding the specific ways these influences are manifested in African American religion. Another narrative argues that the break with African cultures proved so profound that the religious orientations of African Americans bear few traces and represent entirely diasporic formations facilitated by religious exchange with European Americans. Recent developments in the study of the transatlantic slave trade have encouraged scholars of African American religious history to attend in greater detail to the ethnic origins of enslaved Africans, to the cultural distinctiveness of different regions and states, and to change over time as African American religious culture developed. Such work focuses less on generalized answers to the question of the relationship of diasporic religion to Africa and more on exploring specific cases, such as the impact of Kongo culture in a particular region of North America.

Scholarly analysis of African American religion has focused heavily on politics, highlighting questions about the role of Christianity in the formation of black collective identity and its impact on the possibility of political mobilization under slavery and beyond. Did Christianization accommodate enslaved people to their status in significant ways? To what extent did Christian theology and institutional formations enable and support resistance to slavery, oppression, and racism? Scholars have also debated the degree and nature of the contributions black religious leaders and churches made to the modern Civil Rights movement. Some of this work has highlighted the political conservatism of some black church leaders and other work identifies a retrospectively romanticized view of black church activism, presenting a much more complex range of positions on politics among black Christians. In light of changes in the broader literature on the Civil Rights movement in shifting from a focus on national organizations and prominent leaders to local activism, recent scholarship on religion and civil rights has also sought to tell a broader range of stories about the movement and its participants.

Historians most often attend to religion in their narratives of African American history in relation to politics and have been less interested in questions of theology and culture. The dominance of the political narrative has brought to the fore certain aspects of African American religious life, such as moments of resistance, mobilization, and electoral politics, but it has offered little insight into the cultures, theologies, and spiritual experiences of black religion in the United States. Recent scholarship on the cultures of African American religious life, including music, the visual arts of painting, photography, and film, and media such as phonograph records, radio, and television, has highlighted the richness of these sources for the study of black religion. Attention to African American religion in literature, theater, and other arts in recent work has also broadened the source base for scholarship and underscored the complex engagements between the mainstream of orthodox black Protestant Christianity and the post-Christian, the secular, and religious alternatives.

Despite the fact that African American women constitute the majority of members in the Protestant churches that dominate in African American religious history, they remain underrepresented figures in scholarship. Narratives emphasizing the role that leaders of black church institutions have played in politics beyond the churches necessarily devote little attention to women, who have often been excluded from assuming formal leadership roles. Much of the scholarship on black women in churches has focused on the struggle over gender and ordination in the 19th century and on recovering the stories of significant figures in the movement. Research on women’s religious organizations within and outside of denominations has supplemented that work, but many areas remain to be explored in efforts to move beyond the limited focus on ordination and formal leadership. In addition, scholars are only beginning to attend to questions of gender and sexuality in African American religious history in ways that reflect the complex contributions that religious beliefs and practices have made to the construction of gender and sexual identity.

Scholarly narratives of African American religious history most often end with the Civil Rights movement, and they sometimes chart the rise of Black Power as representing a secular rejection of religiously inspired social protest. Historians of African American religion have yet to fully assess the religious developments of the 1980s and 1990s, and the field would benefit from greater attention to the impact on black religious life of Reagan-era economic policies, the rise of black conservatives, the AIDS epidemic, and the war on drugs as well as the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, multiracial church congregations, and cultural developments such as rap music.

Primary Sources

African American narratives published in the 19th century are useful sources for considering the role of religion in shaping black identity and culture. The University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South project features a “Guide to Religious Content in Slave Narratives” as well as full text online versions of the narratives. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library hosts a digital collection of works by African American Women Writers of the 19th Century that includes the spiritual narratives of AME preacher Jarena Lee, AME Zion preacher Julia A. J. Foote, and black Baptist missionary Virginia Broughton, among others. The Library of Congress has made available interviews conducted with former slaves in its archive, “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938,” and conversion narratives collected by Fisk University’s Social Science Institute have been published in Clifton H. Johnson’s God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex Slaves (Pilgrim Press, 1969).

Resources for studying black religious institutions include church and denominational periodicals, many of which are available on microfilm in the American Theological Library Association’s African American Historical Serials Collection. The Church in the Southern Black Community, part of the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South project, contains memoirs, published diaries, denominational and congregational histories of black churches, encyclopedias, theological treatises, catechisms, and conference proceedings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The records of the American Missionary Association are a valuable resource for studying missionary work among freed individuals in the South, and the American Colonization Society’s records and photographs contain materials about religion and emigration. A collection of materials related to Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia is available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and on microfilm, and the United Methodist Archives and History Center[] at Drew University holds additional materials related to African American Methodists. The records of First African Baptist Church of Savannah are on deposit at the Schomburg Center, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s holdings include resources for studying African American Baptist associations. The Consortium of Pentecostal Archives houses a number of digitized collections, including The Apostolic Faith periodical produced from the Azusa Street revival, and the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Archive has information on archival collections around the country related to the Church of God in Christ and other black Pentecostal denominations.

The scrapbooks in the Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana at Columbia University, also available on microfilm, contain materials on the African American new religious movements of the Great Migration and a range of other early-20th-century religious subjects. Emory University’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library holds a large collection of sources related to Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement at its Philadelphia headquarters, and the Schomburg Center contains a smaller collection from followers in Washington State. The Schomburg Center also holds papers from the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation and related congregations, and Malcolm X. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s online reading room features files related to the Moorish Science Temple, W. D. Fard, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, and a range of other black religious leaders.

Collections related to African American religion and music are available at numerous archives, including the Thomas A. Dorsey Collection at Fisk University and the Mahalia Jackson Papers at the Williams Research Center. The Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University is an excellent resource for studying religion and African American theater. Various collections of photographs provide insight into aspects of African American religious life and history not accessible through text as well as examples of the aesthetics of black photography of religious subjects. The Center for Southern Folklore houses the Rev. L. O. Taylor Collection of photographs and films from the 1920s through the 1960s, focusing not only on Memphis, but also on National Baptist Convention subjects. The Teenie Harris Archive at the Carnegie Museum of Art contains 80,000 of Charles “Teenie” Harris’s photographs from the 1930s through the 1970s of Pittsburgh’s African American community. The photographs contained in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress document a variety of aspects of African American life in the 1930s and 1940s and contains images by African American photographer Gordon Parks.


Important documentaries that focus on aspects of African American religious history:

Black Israel (Maurice Dores, 2003): On the African Jewish diaspora

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 (Blackside, 1987): Multiart television series tracing the history of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.

Four Little Girls (dir., Spike Lee, 1997): On the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama

God’s Alcatraz (dir. Boris Stout, 1993): Profiles Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood of St. Paul Baptist Church in Brooklyn

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (dir., Stanley Nelson, 2006)

Legacy of the Spirits (dir., Karen Kramer, 2005): Haitian Vodou in New York

Let the Church Say Amen (David Petersen, 2005): Profiles World Missions for Christ Church in Washington, D.C.

The New Black (dir., Yoruba Richen, 2013): On black churches and marriage equality

Say Amen, Somebody (dir., George T. Nierenberg, 1982): On the history of early gospel music and featuring Thomas A. Dorsey

Sermons and Sacred Pictures (dir., Lynne Sachs, 2004): On Memphis Baptist minister Reverend L. O. Taylor’s photographs and films

A Time for Burning (dir. Bill Jersey and Barbara Connell,1966): Religion and the Civil Rights movement in Omaha, Nebraska

This Far by Faith (PBS, 2003): Multipart television series tracing the history of African American religion

Trouble the Water (dir., Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, 2008): On the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Digital Materials

Black Gospel Music Restoration Project by Baylor University Professor Robert Darden houses audio and visual materials from the 1940s through the 1980s.

Daniel A. P. Murray Pamphlet Collection at the Library of Congress contains materials from 1852 to 1925, including religious magazines, organizational annual reports, school catalogues for religious schools, sermons, catechisms, and more.

NYPL Digital Collections at the New York Public Library contains photographs, prints, maps, and other digitized images from the library’s collection.

Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom, an online Exhibit at the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

Sinners and Saints: Black Religion in Film, an exhibit produced by Separate Cinema and curated by Judith Weisenfeld.

Folkstreams, an online repository of films about American roots cultures, including many on African American religion.

Religion in African American History (2024)
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