By Vanessa Taylor
The “black church” is a term used to describe Protestant churches that have predominately black congregations. More broadly, the black church is both a specific religious culture and a socio-religious force that has shaped protest movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Origins of the Black Church
The black church in the United States can be traced back to chattel slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Enslaved Africans brought to the Americas a variety of religions, including traditional spiritual practices. But the system of slavery was built on the dehumanization and exploitation of enslaved people, and this could only be achieved by depriving slaves of meaningful connections to land, ancestry, and identity. The dominant white culture of the time accomplished this through a system of forced acculturation, which included forced religious conversion.
Missionaries would also use promises of freedom to convert enslaved Africans. Many enslaved people were told they could return to Africa as missionaries themselves if they converted. While it was easier for polytheistic beliefs to merge with Catholicism, which ruled in areas such as the Spanish colonies, than the Protestant Christian denominations that dominated early America, enslaved populations constantly read their own narratives into Christian texts and incorporated elements of their previous faiths into Christian frameworks. Out of this cultural and religious acculturation, early versions of the black church were born.
Exodus, The Curse of Ham and Black Theodicy
Black pastors and their congregations maintained their autonomy and identify by reading their own histories into Christian texts, unlocking new routes for self-realization. For example, many black churches identified with the Book of Exodus’s story of the prophet Moses leading the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. The story of Moses and his people spoke to hope, promise and the benevolence of a God which was otherwise absent in the systematic and oppressive structure of chattel slavery. White Christians worked to justify slavery through the employment of a white savior complex, which in addition to dehumanizing black people, infantilized them. They insisted that slavery was good for black people, because black people were inherently uncivilized. Some went so far as to claim that black people had been cursed and slavery was the necessary, God-intended punishment.
Seeking to maintain their own religious authority and identity, black scholars developed their own branch of theology. Black theodicy refers specifically to theology that answers for the reality of anti-blackness and the suffering of our ancestors. This is done in a number of ways, but primarily by re-examining suffering, the concept of free-will, and God’s omnibenevolence. Specifically, they examined the following question: If there is nothing that God does that is not good in and of itself, why would he inflict such immense pain and suffering on black people?
Questions like this one presented by black theodicy led to the development of another type of theology, which was still rooted in accounting for the suffering of black people. It is perhaps the most popular branch of black theology, even if its name is not always well known: Black Liberation Theology.
Black Liberation Theology and Civil Rights
Black Liberation Theology strove to incorporate Christian thought into the black community’s legacy as a “protest people.” By recognizing the social power of the church, along with the safety it offered within its four walls, the black community was able to explicitly bring God into the daily liberation struggle.
This was famously done within the Civil Rights Movement. Although Martin Luther King Jr. is most often associated with the black church in the context of civil rights, there were many organizations and leaders during that time who leveraged the church’s political power. And although King and other early civil rights leaders are now famous for their nonviolent, religiously-rooted tactics, not every member of the church embraced nonviolent resistance. On July 10, 1964, a group of Black men led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick founded The Deacons For Defense and Justice in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The purpose of their organization? To protect members of the Congress For Racial Equity (CORE) against violence from the Ku Klux Klan.
The Deacons became one of the first visible self-defense forces in the South. Although self defense was not new, the Deacons were one of the first groups to embrace it as part of their mission.
The power of Black Liberation Theology within the black church did not go unnoticed. The church itself came to serve as a place of strategy, development and reprieve. It has also been a target of attacks by numerous hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.
The history of the Black church is long and not over. Today, the church continues to redefine itself to meet the demands of new generations; there are those within its ranks who work to remove factors of social conservatism and align it with new movements. No matter what position it takes in the future, it cannot be denied that the black church has been a pivotal force within Black American communities for hundreds of years and those generational memories are not likely to fade.