The Black Church Phenomenon

The Black church is better understood less as an institution and more as a phenomenon—a religious force of enduring power both spiritual and social, economic and esthetic, personal and political. 

Second only to the Black family, the Black church is unrivaled in the lives of Black Americans as an institution of social organization and cultural transmission.

While the role of the Black church in the long freedom struggle is undeniable, the shape and character of its involvement is widely misunderstood. In his book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, sociologist Charles Payne observes that the dominant narrative of the civil rights movement gives the Black church more credit than it deserves:

On the plantations, some planters subsidized Baptist churches directly; in other cases, Baptist preachers expected a size-able year-end bonus from nearby landlords for keeping their flocks happy… In the urban South, where churches were larger and better financed, where ministers were not so subject to reprisal, churches could afford to play a more active role in the early stages of the movement… In much of the rural South, the church as an institution became involved even more gradually, and only after much effort by organizers.

The Black church’s participation in movement work wasn’t top-down, but bottom-up; movement leadership came not from male pastors, but women parishioners. 

If the Black church as an institution—or, rather, a collection of institutions—was variably cautious and courageous, the spirit of the Black church was the beating heart of the civil rights movement:

Mass meetings, which had the overall tone and structure of a church service, were grounded in the religious traditions and the esthetic sensibilities of the Black South. If the drudgery of canvassing accounted for much of an organizer’s time on a day-to-day basis, mass meetings, when they were good, were part of the pay-off, emotionally and politically. 

So perhaps the Black church is better understood less as an institution and more of a phenomenon—a religious force of enduring power both spiritual and social, economic and esthetic, personal and political. 

In today’s issue, The Dossier features two projects released this week that explore the rich histories, present realities and future prospects of the Black church.


The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song

Interview: Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reveals Details of His New Book and TV Series, The Black Church

John Thornton, the Boston University historian, estimates that about 20% of our ancestors had been baptized Congolese Catholics. So two of the three Abrahamic religions were represented in the slave population-- Catholics, Muslims, and people who practiced traditional African ancestral worship, all thrown in together in the new world. And out of that stew through the embracing, refashioning of Christianity, came the identity of the cultural identity of our people and a form of religion that we think of collectively as the Black Church.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
source: The Oprah Magazine

Review: Henry Louis Gates Jr. on African-American Religion

“To Gates, the Black church is the soil in which Black culture and political action flowered… It is a commonplace but not uncontroversial argument. A tragic irony of the American experience is that faith has been deployed to suppress as well as to liberate; to exclude as well as to include; to control as well as to free. To tell the story of the Black church is something of a risk even to a scholar as secure as Gates, for voices in the arena of racial justice have long diminished religion as overly safe and accommodationist… Yet Gates writes here as a historian, and the historian can chronicle progress, assess its origins and commemorate its course while noting its incompleteness.” - Jon Meacham for The New York Times

Stream the documentary series and get the book. 

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Faith Among Black Americans

“Many findings in this survey highlight the distinctiveness and vibrancy of Black congregations, demonstrating that the collective entity some observers and participants have called “the Black Church” is alive and well in America today. But there also are some signs of decline, such as the gap between the shares of young adults and those in older generations who attend predominantly Black houses of worship.” - Besheer Mohamed, Kiana Cox, Jeff Diamant and Claire Gecewicz, Pew Research Center