Role of the Black Church During Slavery
By Dr. Kwame Nantambu
November 08, 2007
The Methodist Movement arrived in America at a most propitious time. There was very little religion in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War and, on the whole, there was very little church life in the colonies and little religious interest. Moral standards were low. Many people were hungry for spiritual leadership and development. So naturally, Methodism seemed potentially suited to the colonial situation. It involved little theology and less ritual and as such, it consisted primarily of a vivid personal experience based on simple direct faith. It was well-suited for the colonial masses. Methodism was introduced to the people - both slave and free men, by preachers, who allowed nothing to stop them in their mission of spreading the word. However, many colonialists resented the preachers' interference with their way of life. In retaliation, many preachers were physically attacked and churches were burned to the ground.
It was, however, in the fight against slavery, that the church had its hardest and most difficult struggle. From the beginning, Methodism held that slavery was wrong. The early preachers found inspiration in that conviction. They started with a clear call for abolition. But slavery was more than personal sins. It was an entrenched economic, social, and political system involving vast interest motivated by the passion for the maximization of profit no matter how inhumane the process. It was in this struggle against slavery that Methodism learned what was a sad fact for the church. The church had to decide whether to continue to preach and practice the Brotherhood of Jesus, fight slavocracy and possibly die, to soften its voice on slavery, or accept segregation and subjection of Afrikan members, which was the prevailing social practice of the day. The church chose the latter.
One reason for this choice was the fact that the church was not a separate body of saints who lived in a pure world and passed judgment on its fallible fellows outside. In these evangelist efforts, the church had taken in many who were mild on slavery or were slave owners themselves.
Many worshipers in the church believed that slavery was right and good; it was not an immoral institution and that slavery had some beneficial effect on the slave. At any rate, they reasoned that slavery was a political issue, therefore, not the proper province for the church. Thus, in it's very early stages, the church became compromised. The church was in the world but what is most disturbing is that the world was not in the church. In the quest for standards of righteousness, man has only the human mind and the mind is an undependable instrument. Now, the softening stand on slavery fell to separation and segregation of Afrikans as members of their societies. The pews in the back corners of churches all over became the slave gallery or separate meeting house for Afrikan worshipers. This segregation led to separation especially in the North where free Afrikan-Americans had more of an opportunity to express themselves. They formed congregations where they could worship without the humiliating ostracism imposed by Whites and this enabled Afrikans to express their hopes and sufferings, especially their passion for freedom. Thus, the Afrikan Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was born.
Throughout its history, the Black church has provided more than a place of worship for its community. It provided leadership in secular aspects of community life, and a demonstration of Afrikan-American capabilities. The Afrikan Methodist Episcopal Church is no exception. Although not formally organized until 1816, the origin of A.M.E. Church dates back to 1787 in Philadelphia. Led by Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, William White and Darius Jinnings, they refused to abide by newly instituted Jim Crow laws which limited Black communicants to a gallery corner. In protest, they all left the church and established their own genre of worship.
The founders of Afrikan Methodist church were uneducated and for the most part, illiterate ex-slaves. Triumphantly, despite their conditions, they had a clear sense of their own dignity and worth. They scorned the unkind treatment of their White counterparts, who considered them as a nuisance in the house of worship. The Whites wanted to keep Afrikans within the church separate. They even imposed legal obstacles to separation. As a result of overt, prevalent racism and blatant disrespect, the Afrikan Methodist took their first breath and formed independent churches in Baltimore, Maryland; Wilmington, Delaware; Attleborough, Pennsylvania; Salem, New Jersey and elsewhere. On call from Richard Allen and the Afrikan Methodist in Philadelphia, delegates met in Baltimore in April 1816. They entered an ecclesiastical forum to form the Afrikan Methodist Episcopal Church. This early example of Afrikan independent initiatives and self-help flourished. However, this was not accomplished without turbulence and setbacks.
After disclosure of Denmark Vessey's slave revolt conspiracy in 1822, many of the four thousand members of the first A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were deeply involved in 1822 slave insurrection. Consequently, the church was banned in South Carolina as subversive. The Black church functioned as revolutionary unity during slavery.
The ability of the Afrikan Methodist Episcopal Church to provide for its self, even in its early life, can be clearly displayed by the following facts: Within twelve years, 1841 to 1853, the A.M.E. Church built and remodeled two churches in the city of Baltimore, which cost about $16,000. Secondly, the separation of the A.M.E Church from the Methodist Church was beneficial in that they could neither hope for nor attain anything if they had remained under the White man. This has resulted in the extension of this ecclesiastical organization over nearly all states in the United States and extensions in Canada, the Caribbean and Afrika. The A.M.E. Church has given Afrikan people an independent hierarchy and this hierarchy recognized our individuality and Afrikanness. The A.M.E. Church has empowered Afrikan-Americans.
In celebration of their Afrikanness, the Methodists sought to render services to their people. They built schools and conducted cultural and charitable programs, all aimed at lifting the spirits of the destitute, bewildered freedmen. Educating their people, through vocational training and cultural development, to aid the thousands of Afrikan Americans, young and old, were their primary goals.
One of the few hopeful signs that the historic Black churches provided a measure of unity beyond class boundaries involved the rise of neo-Pentecostal movement in some Black denominations. While the neo-Pentecostals in the A.M.E. Church had produced enormous church growth and a revitalized energy and enthusiasm in some congregations, there were severe critics of the movement who resented the threat to traditional worship in an atmosphere of order and decorum. They also criticized the spiritual chauvinism of many charismatic persons who tended to view their way as the only way. The charismatic movement represented a powerful potential for the revitalization of the A.M.E. Church, but it also produced a serious schism with the whole church ending up as the loser.
There is some evidence that this neo-Pentecostal movement has also involved Black church denominations other than the A.M.E. Church, including a few churches in the A.M.E. Zion Church and some middle-class Baptist churches. These churches have also exhibited similar characteristics such as rapid and enormous church growth in membership. However, the extent of these neo-Pentecostal phenomena among Blacks churches is unknown because it has not been examined thoroughly. Nevertheless, the challenge which neo-Pentecostalism posed for the Black church is real, and the issue of how to benefit from this potential of church growth and spiritual revitalization without the pillars of normative tradition, both lay and clergy, and without producing a crisis of schism was a challenge most Black churches must inevitably address.
The Black church helped our fore-fathers to survive slavery. It helped Black people to get out of stagnation, to keep their sense of respect for other Black people and their respect for themselves; it brought Afrikan-Americans from a state of exploitation of each other to a sense of communal interdependent, cooperative living achieved by pooling energies and resources together in activities for the good of all. In the words of Rev. John H. Satterwhite:
The Black church must continue to perform this role so that Afrikans can cross the time-line into 21st century as a united, solidified, Afrika-conscious, and empowered people.
Shem Hotep ("I go in peace")
Dr. Kwame Nantambu is a part-time lecturer at Cipriani College of Labour
and Co-operative Studies and University of the West Indies.
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