My earliest ideas about African American religion and political struggle come from my first public memories as a child of the South of the late 1950s and 1960s. The civil rights movement entered our home through the televised images of black churches opening their doors for political rallies and the funerals of martyrs. Those pictures were accompanied either by the spirited call-and-response of black religious music or by the mournfulness of its dirges. I saw Southern black people speaking and singing a language of prophecy and praise that I had come to know in the sacred space of a country church in Virginia. There was something both familiar and unsettling in this. The people I saw were without a doubt “church people,” but they were doing and saying things in public that I had never known black people, especially black church people, ever to dare to do.
I was born too late to be part of the movement, but my immersion from afar in its unfolding drama and denouement left in me gratitude and a drive to achieve when its legacy of affirmative action opened the doors of educational opportunity for my generation of black working-class children. The history I was later taught about that movement, and was later to teach, reinforced the religious sounds and images of my childhood memory, preserved in forms aural and visual. For those then and now, here and around the world, who had never set foot in a Southern black church, these images became theirs too. And so for many of them and for me, African American religion and political struggle seemed poignantly and inextricably intertwined.
The power in those images rested in part on the way they conveyed the surprising political potency of African American religion in the South. I say “surprising” because throughout the twentieth century there were spirited debates among varied groups of African Americans about whether religious doctrines, religious people, and religious organizations were a blessing or a curse in the struggle for black freedom and racial progress. Although churches were continually called upon to be savior institutions, historically they were most often criticized for failing in that mission.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the dominant political narratives treated African American religion with despair and disdain. The emergence in the late 1950s of a Southern civil rights movement with churches, church people, and church culture at its center was a powerful and startling departure from that story, rather than a natural progression. In many ways, the movement is best thought of not as an inevitable triumph or a moment of religious revival, but simply as a miracle. It was brief, bold, and breathtaking, difficult to replicate or sustain, and experienced firsthand by only a small remnant of true believers.
Many since have misread the successes of that period and applied them retrospectively over the entire span of African American political history, seeing the past through the haze of a post-civil rights consciousness. It was the movement itself that changed our notions and expectations about the relationship between African American religion and politics. Our failure to understand this has obscured the important history of the decades of complaints and controversies on the question of how or whether African American churches could be a progressive political force. Debates on the issue preceded and raged within the movement, and figured in its demise as well. My recent work aims to retrieve the history of these important debates for the decades preceding, during, and after the civil rights movement, marshaling evidence from a wide variety of public lives and venues.
Why is the history of these debates important? Because they are evidence of an intraracial struggle for control of the spiritual resources of black people across the country and for control of the churches and religious networks they had built. These debates capture the overlapping challenges of creating a basis for black collective political activism, building independent black institutions, and determining the place of women and men in racial leadership. The fact that religious belief, religious institutions, and religious people came to be seen as so essential to this process remains the central paradox in African American political history.
EVEN BEFORE THE FOUNDING of black religious institutions, black public protest against slavery and against racial injustices was cast, as was much of eighteenth-century discourse, in explicitly religious terms. As early as 1774, Africans in Massachusetts petitioned for release from their condition as “slaves for Life in a Christian land.” In both the North and the South, Christian hypocrisy became a repeated refrain in the fight to abolish slavery—a line of argument made more urgent by the spread of evangelical Christianity during the late eighteenth century, which undercut social hierarchy and racial difference among its followers.
Yet by the turn of the nineteenth century, the power of Southern white Christians had forced a retreat. White Methodists and Baptists dampened their opposition to slavery, acting out racial discrimination within their own denominations and sanctuaries. Free blacks in the North established their own churches, beginning with two groups in Philadelphia in the 1790s. One left a white church to found an independent black Methodist tradition, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, while the other, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, chose to remain within the larger Episcopal denomination. Those two decisions are an early indicator of the historical diversity among black churches, their ambivalent relationship to white American Christianity, and their political natures. Both Philadelphia churches supported the work of the Free African Society in Philadelphia, an organization dedicated to racial solidarity and the abolition of slavery.
In the South, enslaved people held a variety of religious beliefs, often sharing segregated worship experiences under the surveillance of white Baptists and Methodists. Simultaneously, many of them forged a separate and largely invisible set of beliefs and practices, some Christian, some Islam-inflected, and some derived from African belief systems. Held in common, however, was the belief that slavery was a moral wrong and that retribution would ensue, an interpretation borne out with the coming of the Civil War and emancipation. Abolitionist claims, whether advanced by blacks or their white allies, were grounded in religious arguments.
During Reconstruction, black communities established their own churches, primarily Baptist, throughout the South. Many of those who emerged as black political leaders were ministers, empowered by their literacy and by their prominent role in building the black churches which served as the first forums for collective political organizing. Despite their best efforts, racial violence and the denial of black equality worsened after the federal occupation of the South was lifted and the brief period of black participation in electoral politics ended. It was no wonder then that as the nineteenth century drew to a close, questions had already emerged about the relationship between black religion and the prospects for black political advancement. When debates about that relationship emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, most African Americans were but a few generations removed from slavery. Oral histories and memoirs show that many of them had family memories and stories reaching back to their enslaved ancestors. Many rural black Southerners had forged a chain of memory to that history which they consecrated through song and ritual, continued to rely upon for daily inspiration, and passed on to their children. Ideas about the powerful and sometimes romanticized connection between religion, history, and memory remained in place decades later as illustrated in this poem published in 1944 by the then young black poet Robert Hayden:
We have not forgotten the prayers you prayed,
Black fathers, O black mothers, kneeling in
The cabin-gloom, debased, yet in your hearts
Bearing high springtime pageantries of faith.
We have not forgotten your morning hope,
More burning than the sun of cottonfields
Upon dark, shackled limbs, nor songs your anguish
Hayden linked the power of that faithfulness and hope during slavery to the continuing struggle to realize the possibilities of American democracy:
And if we keep
Our love for this American earth, black fathers,
O black mothers, believing that its fields
Will bear for us at length a harvesting
Of sun, it is because your spirits walk
Beside us as we plough, it is because
This land has grown from your great,
Freedom had brought an end to slavery, but by the early twentieth century it had yet to yield an emancipation from gross inequalities, cruelties, and exploitation. The need for liberation continued as did the search for the material and spiritual tools with which to achieve it. Hayden’s expression of indebtedness to the religious faith and struggle of enslaved people captures that key aspect of the debate among African Americans about religion and their struggle for greater freedom.
In this period, public discussions about black religion were marked by a profound unease with the legacy of spiritual practices of enslaved people, a cultural heritage that many viewed as antiquated, primitive, tainted by the sins of slavery, and marked by pagan retentions from Africa. Some thought of black Christianity as a “slave religion” that had run its course and lost its political and spiritual potency to meet the new demands of a more modem struggle against racial oppression. Although most African Americans remained in the South, the many thousands who were steadily migrating to cities in the North and elsewhere brought with them a religious heritage that was quite distinct from that found in many established urban black communities, especially in Northern cities. Migration and rapid urbanization did little to relieve the persistent poverty that was made worse by economic depression, discrimination, segregation, and legal incapacity. The end of World War I brought a shattering of hope, a resurgence of racial violence, and virulent Jim Crow practices and not just in the South.
All of this reminds us that public expressions of anxiety about the role of black religious institutions in alleviating these conditions were never mere academic or rhetorical exercises because far too much was at stake. These debates were part of a search for ways to reshape rural and urban communities into effective political collectives. Churches were seen as central to both projects because they were the only indigenous, black-controlled organizations with the potential for mass mobilization. Some people viewed this as a good thing and some as a bad thing, but most accepted that it was a reality.
THE OPENING DECADES of the twentieth century also were marked by an intellectual clash between education and belief, modernity and religion, science and faith, the intellectual and the spiritual. Some of the conflict that emerged among African Americans about religious institutions reflected unanticipated tensions between the quest for religious freedom and the pursuit of education, two missions otherwise presumed to be closely allied in strategies for black uplift. Throughout the twentieth century, educated black elites were often at odds with the masses of black people they sought to speak for or to represent, including on important topics such as religion and politics. These controversies sometimes turned on differences between the religious beliefs and practices of the educated and those of the uneducated, manifested in attempts to control the religious freedom and religious choices of less privileged black people.
This, of course, was impossible. The first half of the century witnessed an ever-increasing African American religious diversification right alongside an exponential growth in the numbers of Baptist and Methodist churches, which served most black religious people. The practice of clearly identifiable African-derived religions persisted in the urban North and the rural South. Marcus Garvey’s attack on white Christian hypocrisy, itself a persistent strand in black political thought, was coupled with his embrace of a black God and a black Jesus. At the same time, storefront churches established by Pentecostal and Holiness believers continued to reshape the religious landscape of black communities as did the emergence in the 1930s of smaller sects led by Father Divine, Daddy Grace, and, perhaps most significantly, Elijah Mohammed.
These shifting demographic, social, and theological conditions made even more urgent the task of creating political unity among a racialized but religiously diverse minority. For all these reasons, the relationship between African American religion and political activism grew even more vexed and contentious—at once complementary and contradictory, full of promise but also damned by exalted expectations.
Three reinforcing paradoxes strain the nexus between black religion and black politics. First, the choices that individuals make about their religious lives—where and why they worship, whether and why they believe—are among our most privately informed and freely made decisions. The rich diversity of African American religious beliefs is itself evidence of this, as are the lives of the many who choose not to affiliate with or practice in any faith tradition. It is true, however, that in the twentieth century most religious African Americans remained Christians and that strands of black Christian thought were fueled by a liberationist legacy. Yet this did not make it easy or natural for “black religion” to provide the ideological cohesion needed for effective collective political mobilization. Ultimately, religious freedom also means the freedom to define not only one’s religious beliefs, but also the balance between the personal and the political, between individual salvation and communal purpose. Black religious belief and black religious life, by their very nature, are resistant to external reach and control, including from those who seek to harness their powers for a collective political purpose on behalf of the race as a whole.
Second, black churches, like their other American Protestant counterparts, are among the most local, the most decentralized, and the most idiosyncratic of all social organizations. Despite common usage, there is no such thing as the “black church.” It is an illusion and a metaphor that has taken on a life of its own, implying the existence of a powerful entity with organized power, but the promise of that also leaves it vulnerable to unrealistic expectations. The term is a political, intellectual, and theological construction that symbolizes unity and homogeneity while masking the enormous diversity and independence among African American religious institutions and believers. The concept imposes the notion of a unified command, a national entity, a papal-like authority that does not and has never existed. Yet the “black church” lives on precisely because it is political and cultural shorthand and an all-purpose stand-in for the dearth of other black institutions, especially in the twentieth century when large institutional responses to racial inequality were required. In reality, black churches elude schemes for national unification or uniformity in programmatic or political approaches, making them ill-suited for coordinated efforts, often even within particular local settings.
In all this, both now and in the past, the underlying unresolved African American dilemma is that discrimination, segregation, and racial inequality culminate materially in a denial of access to jobs, education, and opportunity. An insufficiency of secular financial resources thwarted the evolution of a black business and philanthropic class and of independent political institutions. As a consequence, black churches, by default, were expected to assume the responsibility of addressing many urgent unmet community needs-something they were ill-equipped and financially unable to do. This is emblematic of the much larger problem of the dearth of indigenous black institutions, a quandary made even more complex in the age of desegregation.
Third and finally, to call black churches into public duty as a primary vehicle for empowering the race is to rely on an institution that was and remains largely male-led but female-dominated, not only in memberships but in fundraising and organizing activities. While the predominance of women is a feature of most religious systems, there are specific political consequences in this case precisely because of the centrality of religious institutions to black community and political life. Moreover, this reality aggravates persisting sensitivities about the strength and substantiality of black women and about black male authority and masculinity. Because the typical black church member was a working-class black woman, debates about the role that black religious institutions should or should not play in black politics were also implicitly, but rarely explicitly, arguments about the place of black women in American political life and about the unstated “problem” of their largely absent male counterparts.
The recurring social, political, and theological tensions which drove these debates involving African American religious life remain as real and as pertinent today as they were a century ago. At a time when African American religion and politics are still viewed as inextricably linked, it is crucial that scholars and activists work to highlight rather than submerge the inherent and often incurable tensions that mark the connections between black religion and black political activism. It remains a delicate and daunting task to examine both the possibilities and the restraints that religion brought to the long struggle to end racial inequalities. If we ignore that duality, we will only perpetuate deep misunderstandings about the place of religion in African American political struggle—not just in the civil rights movement, but in the history of American social movements more broadly. And for those who remain committed to the idea that black churches remain central to the political prospects of black communities, bluntly acknowledging these difficulties may be the first step to overcoming them.
The small rural Virginia church in which I was raised still sits on hallowed ground and is yet alive, although its membership rolls have been devastated by the passing of older generations and the migrations and wanderings of the younger ones. It was founded during Reconstruction in 1874 near a town then called Jerusalem, where four decades earlier Nat Turner had been hanged for enacting his vision for liberating the captives. Established in a different moment and witness to more than a century of births, deaths, weddings, funerals, and revivals, that church lives on through a caring community of believers for whom history, memory, and religion coincide. A remnant of ages past, they have lost neither hope nor faith. Inside, they hold steady to a sanctuary and an institution that, as the poet Hayden so aptly put it, nourishes “the roots of all our dreams of freedom’s wide and legendary spring.”
Barbara Dianne Savage is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book (from which this piece is excerpted), Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, was recently awarded the 2012 Grawemeyer Prize in Religion. Professor Savage also serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.