Black Churches in America

The Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a 21-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist killed nine people assembled for Bible study.


It is 1758, and a slave reports on the condition of Blacks. He says, ‘the white folks would come in when the colored people would have prayer meetings, and whip every one of them. Most of them thought that when colored people were praying it was against them.’ In 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, a weapon that was deadlier than the whip was used and it brought tragic results.

Black churches were a cause of concern to the White establishment during and after slavery. A Black congregation was seen as a threat to White supremacy. The congregation was an example of faith, togetherness, and the ownership of property and this did not sit well with Whites. When Whites in the South wanted excitement they would set fire to Black churches. The flames provided relief from boredom and sent a message to Blacks to mind their message and manners. But President Barack Obama reminded us that Black churches have provided a sanctuary from hardships. According to Mr. Obama, ‘ over the centuries Black churches served as hush harbors, where slaves could worship in safety, praise houses, where free descendants could gather and shout “Hallelujah…”

Mr. Obama, in his Charleston eulogy, outlined the importance of Black churches. They were more than centers of worship. The Black churches in America have from the time of their inception stood for justice and equality. Their influence has extended to politics, economics, and education. They challenged the status quo that a good slave would obey his master and reap the rewards in Heaven.

In 1863, the four million freed Blacks became a powerful constituency. The task was to organize their voices for militant action and the church was seen as the instrument that would facilitate such action. A towering figure in the early development of the church was Daniel Payne who for over 50 years gave both physical and religious instructions as to how to expand the laity. Payne was born in Charleston, South Carolina and his religious ideology was shaped by the belief that Black, independent churches, was the most potent way to fight slavery and racism.

There were other important figures in the church movement and they included Theophilus Gould Steward, and Richard Allen. Both were influential in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Steward was awarded a Doctor of Divinity Degree in 1881, from Wilberforce University in Ohio. Allen founded the AME Church in 1794, and realized that free Blacks needed a sanctuary in which to fight racism, and to become literate so they can organize for political action. Allen also founded Sunday Schools to teach literacy programs and to focus on discussing the politics of the day.

In 1829, there were the Cincinnati Riots in which Blacks were attacked by Whites; the reason given was that Whites resented Black settlement in parts of Cincinnati fearing that jobs would be lost to Blacks. The violence was perpetrated by Irish settlers; around 1,100 Blacks left Cincinnati and some of them even migrated to Canada where they founded the Wilberforce colony in Ontario.

It was against this repression that Richard Allen and his followers decided to act. They organized in Philadelphia in 1830 the first Negro Convention.

The riots dominated the agenda and one of the resolutions was to work to improve Black education so they could compete better with Whites for jobs. Despite the resolutions and some degree of literacy intervention the condition of blacks improved only slightly. Black children were not admitted to public schools, while Blacks that owned property were required to pay taxes to support the schools. In addition, Blacks could not give evidence in court against a White person, or sit in a jury, or even serve in the militia.

In 1841, another riot broke out. Black leaders celebrated the Emancipation of slavery in England and many in the White community were unhappy with the ceremonies. In the riots that followed there were reports of the loss of lives in the Black community and meetings were held in the Betel AME church to plan further action. The Cincinnati Daily Gazette on September 6, 1841 reported that during the mayhem the press of the ‘Philanthropist’ was seized and dumped into the river. As can be seen it was far from easy for Blacks to express themselves in the days following Emancipation. The churches played an active role to mobilize the people but there were tensions from within as well. The leadership in the North had its own ideas as to how the church should be organized and what message should be dispensed. There were those who believed that all references to Africa should be abandoned and these included dancing and drumming.

Religion should follow an intellectual path in which learning and literacy would feature prominently. But this Northern idea did not go down well with the Southern leadership. It was argued that the majority of the ex-slaves were illiterate and depended on an oral tradition that included chanting and drumming.

Many of the churches were located in the rural areas and members stuck to their customs. These involved the hush harbors and the emotional and chanting style of preaching. By 1900, however, the emergence of a Black middle class meant that the church was more involved in schools and colleges, social inequality and the ability to publish and to circulate information to its members about the latest happenings. The main issues of the day were questioned from the pulpit and rural and urban, poor and middle class, and illiterate and literate found that they had a lot in common. The stage was then set for further conflict and confrontation between Blacks and Whites.

History has a way of repeating itself and can cause one to pause and take stock when it is least expected. In 1865 there was a rededication program of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston. The Rev. Randolph Benjamin had served as a Chaplain in the 26th Regiment, United States Colored Troops. After his stint was over, he was sent to Charleston because ‘he wanted to be useful to his race.’

Rev. Randolph became the Assistant Superintendent of Education in Charleston, in 1865. His record is impressive. He was able to establish schools for freed Blacks and to advocate for adequate staff to be sent to them. In 1867, he started a newspaper ‘the Charleston Advocate’ and later that year Benjamin was elected a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention. He won a seat in the State Senate and was campaigning on the Republican ticket for Ulysses S. Grant to be President.

In 1868, tragedy struck. Rev. Benjamin Randolph was boarding a train in South Carolina. In broad daylight three men belonging to the Klu Klux Klan assassinated him. This was a life that was cut short in its prime by attackers that were blinded by hatred. No one was apprehended for the crime. In 2015, another life was cut down. He was Rev. Clementa Pinckney who was also a pastor at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his attacker was blinded by hate as well.

In the rich and engaging history of Black churches one would do well to salute the contributions of stalwarts such as Denmark Vesey and his son Robert. There was also Robert F. Boyd, educator and doctor, who used public forums to advocate for Black causes and who helped to organize the Society of Colored Physicians and Surgeons. By 1895, the importance of a union between various denominations was realized.

It was in that year that more than 2000 clergymen met in Atlanta, Georgia. The purpose was to discuss racial intolerance and violence against the Black community. The big conventions included the Baptist Foreign Missionary Convention, the American National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Educational Convention. One result of the meeting was the merging of the three Conventions to form the National Baptist Convention of America. There were some powerful names at the Convention, including Rev. A.D Walters who was the grandfather of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Black churches continued to organize and to speak out against racial inequality and injustice. When the fight for Civil Rights came, they were in a good position to advocate passionately against injustice. Black churches remain the soul of the community. Dr. Martin Luther King said in 1958 that Black churches should be concerned with people in the slums and about the economic conditions that strangle them.

In 2015, Pope Francis visited the United States and this message was repeated. Black churches then have been ahead of the times in spreading the message of justice and equality to the flock. May they long continue on this mission.


The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.