Worn wooden benches were filled to capacity on a Sunday morning in Georgia. Men and women sat shoulder to shoulder, slowly rocking, trying to forget the heat that turned small southern churches into potters’ kilns. Wilted children in their Sunday best knew that misbehavior was not an option and bided their time. The rhythmic movement of straw fans blended evenly with the gentle rocking, confirming the small Black congregation’s appreciation of the preacher’s words, which would inspire, protect, and sustain them as they lived through the violence of Jim Crow.
Standing at the pulpit in his heavy black robe, the preacher delivered an encouraging and familiar message about the power of faith, testifying that God “can drive you home to truth, and he can fix it for you, if you trust him.” He looked down upon his flock and understood the poverty that confronted them; he understood that many worked their farms from sunup to sundown—in ways that were similar to their enslaved ancestors—and still had little material wealth to show for it. He knew of their daily indignities: the women prohibited from shopping in certain stores, the men forced off the sidewalk into the muddy road to let a white woman and her child pass. It was his duty to remind them that there was a remedy for all that ailed them: an unconditional belief and trust in the Lord. These men, women, and children could not count on local law enforcement or the federal government for protection; instead it would come from their God.
The church choir began the ritual of song; standing in white robes trimmed with mustard-yellow collars, they endorsed their preacher’s words. The soloist offered a message in gospel music: “If I were you I would say yes,” inviting congregants to turn their problems over to God. Her powerful voice pleaded, “Speak lord, speak to me,” a reminder that God had an intimate and direct connection to all those who committed themselves to him.
Her voice and the music spilled out of the tiny church and into the rural roads, reverberating across a nearby pond, reaching the ears of the preacher’s estranged daughter—the blues singer Shug Avery. The sound was so powerful that it stopped her in mid-performance, compelling her to step off the stage and follow her heart until she, her band, and the juke joint customers walked through the doors of her father’s house of worship. It was a moment when the secular and the religious merged together, a moment of redemption and forgiveness, but most important, a moment that symbolized that the church—the Black Church—would always be home.
This scene is from the 1985 film The Color Purple, adapted from Alice Walker’s novel, and one of the few films produced by a major studio that has offered entry into the intimate space known as the Black Church. Certainly there were earlier depictions of the Black Church in television, novels, poetry, and theater, but in this case Hollywood stars like Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover invited white audiences into the sacred place of worship and deliverance that had existed for centuries. The film helped cement the image of the Black Church as something that was small and southern, and in many ways monolithic.
It is this image that Henry Louis Gates Jr. attempts to explain, disrupt, and complicate in The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. Gates’s book is both a stand-alone, wide-ranging tour of Black religion in mainland North America and a companion text for his PBS documentary on the same subject. In his acknowledgments, he thanks his friend Oprah Winfrey for helping him decide upon a title—one whose subtitle is familiar to Christian churchgoers. “This is our story, this is our song” are lyrics from the chorus of the nineteenth-century hymn “Blessed Assurance,” which begins:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
And then the chorus:
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
The hymn reminds Christians of the optimism and certainty that accompany a devout belief in the work and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As Gates demonstrates throughout The Black Church, religion, spirituality, and Christianity in particular have been sustaining forces for people of African descent who have for centuries called America their home.
This book is a much-needed addition to the work of Gates, who has dedicated his career to examining Black life and explaining it to a wide audience. He writes, “The Black Church has influenced nearly every chapter of the African American story, and it continues to animate Black identity today, both for believers and nonbelievers.” The Black Church, he notes, functions as a spiritual center and a cultural repository for the traditions and transformations of Black life. And although he has named his book and documentary The Black Church, Gates wrestles with and attempts to dismantle the notion that there is a single Black Church, which has been a widely accepted idea among academics and religious leaders. Readers will come away from this extremely accessible book with an understanding that the title The Black Church is far from accurate.
Gates does not locate the origins of Black religion in the British colonial experiment in America. Instead, The Black Church locates its beginnings in sixteenth-century Spanish Catholicism. The Spanish and Portuguese, who built their empires on human trafficking, were among the earliest Europeans to enslave and baptize Africans. Focusing on seventeenth-century stories of men and women who fled their British enslavers in South Carolina and found asylum in Spanish-controlled Florida, Gates takes a benevolent view of the Spanish colonial project that is somewhat overstated when he writes, “Virtually overnight, conversion to Roman Catholicism became an unprecedented route to freedom south of the British colonies.”
Some enslaved Africans did travel nearly three hundred miles to Florida to escape the misery of slavery. They accepted the terms that were offered to them there—including baptism—for the promise of an opportunity (if not an immediate one) to throw off slavery’s yoke. This moment in seventeenth-century Florida, however, does not erase the centuries of brutal enslavement and genocide carried out by the Spanish government, which decimated the indigenous inhabitants of Latin America and set up a social and political hierarchy with white supremacy as its cornerstone.
Perhaps one of the most powerful interventions in the public understanding of Black religion offered by The Black Church is its inclusion of Islam in the early history of African people who were trafficked to mainland North America. A significant number of them were born in Senegambia and were practicing Muslims who brought their faith and practices across the ocean. Gates interviews a dazzling array of scholars and religious practitioners, including the historian Melissa Cooper, who offers both a historical and personal understanding of the importance of Islam in early America.
An interview in 1937 with her ancestor Katie Brown, one of the oldest living women on Sapelo Island, Georgia, illustrates the long history of Islam in the South. Speaking to an interviewer from the Georgia Writers’ Project, Brown recalled the life of her great-grandfather Bilali Mohammed, who was born in the late 1700s and trafficked to Sapelo Island in the early 1800s. Mohammed held onto his Muslim faith and his language, a reminder that the practices and sounds of early America were deeply influenced by Senegambians. Gates estimates that between 8 and 20 percent of the enslaved Africans at that time followed the teachings of Islam. If we accept the higher estimate, then one in five of them pleaded for mercy from Allah.
The centrality of Islam for Africans in America is essential to understand. Yet in most history textbooks it’s the conversion to Christianity and the spread of Protestantism that are most discussed when examining Black religion in early America. The Black Church walks its readers through the chronology of what the scholar Katharine Gerbner calls “Protestant Supremacy.” Many British colonists linked their Christian beliefs to their sense of superiority (accompanied, of course, by their whiteness) and over time articulated a version of Christianity that validated white supremacy. In 1667 the General Assembly of colonial Virginia passed an act declaring that the baptism of enslaved people did not exempt them from bondage. New colonial laws nullified a previous understanding in British common law that baptism granted freedom. This allowed enslavers to convert their human property to Christianity without fear of losing their significant investments. By the late 1660s the justification for the enslavement of Blacks had shifted from religion to race.
It is here that The Black Church most powerfully demonstrates the resistance and survival that linked Africans in America to a creolized faith. While the majority of enslaved men and women didn’t accept Christianity until the nineteenth-century religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening, those who chose to follow Christ did so in a way that was uniquely their own. The merging of Christianity and African spirituality served as the foundation for what we call the modern Black Church—a religious world that emphasized music and dancing as well as a physical display of belief. The heart, the soul, and the body fused together in the ritual of worship—but only in the secret spaces controlled by Black people. The historian Barbara Savage explains that places of worship that forced the enslaved “to listen to sermons that were designed to continue to deny the humanity of Black people and certainly to argue for the continued enslavement of Black people” must have been nonsensical to them. But in their clandestine praise houses, they fashioned their own “invisible institution,” a place where worship included song and the ring shout.1 These were the spaces in which “Africanisms”—traditions passed down from kidnapped Africans to their kinfolk born on the shores of America—helped the enslaved make “a world of their own” that was spiritually separate from their enslavers.2
From Richard Allen’s Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia to Denmark Vesey’s African Methodist Episcopal Church (eventually named Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church) in Charleston, Black men and women used their sacred spaces not only to commune with God but also to educate themselves, engage in social protest, and plot the downfall of slavery. By April 1861 it seemed possible that that long-standing prayer might come true, as the nation plunged into the Civil War, and both enslaved and free people understood the chaos and destruction as a prelude to freedom. And when the war ended and slavery was abolished, Black men and women prioritized the locating of lost family members, the pursuit of literacy, and the building of churches.
The years following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, began with the most difficult of days—perhaps a harbinger of things to come. President Lincoln’s assassination was an ominous sign for recently freed African-Americans, nearly four million men, women, and children. The election of Black leaders to the Senate and House of Representatives was a flash of optimism, but it was obliterated by the wave of white terror that threatened Black life, especially in the South. With the removal of the last federal troops from the former Confederate States of America in 1877, the South rebuilt itself in ways that were hauntingly similar to the years before the war. The post-emancipation period was the nadir in race relations, and most history textbooks highlight the deep anguish and trauma that accompanied the rise of Jim Crow and white supremacy.3
However, Gates uses this moment not only to expose the barbarity of racial terrorism but to focus on the Black Church as the leading force in confronting it. Freedom created space for the institutionalization of the Black Church and the erection of church buildings across the nation. As in the antebellum years, the Black Church sustained its members, nurturing and supporting faith in the darkest of hours. It presided over the funeral services of those murdered by white supremacists, but it also offered educational programs and hosted political meetings for its congregants. The Black Church charted a path forward for Black America, signaling to the nation by its formalized denominations and educated clergy that it would produce a new generation of Black leaders who were Christian activists.
The historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham highlights the Black women who at the turn of the twentieth century were crucial to the building of church memberships but also pushed for progressive politics, both within the church and in the secular world. Women like Nannie Helen Burroughs, who was involved in organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, challenged the National Baptist Convention to endorse gender equity in the pulpit and throughout church leadership. Burroughs also agitated for women’s suffrage, a reminder to Black male church leaders that progress must include the women of the Black Church.4
But the political and social activism that swept through Black churches coincided with a growing conservatism. Respectability politics and an emphasis on rigid social codes of decorum created a widening fissure between Black churches. According to the religious scholar Anthea Butler, “In the latter part of the nineteenth century, many African Americans in the South and around the country begin to get involved in this Holiness movement, which would set the stage for the entrance of what would eventually become the Pentecostal movement.” The Holiness, Pentecostal, Apostolic, and Deliverance congregations known as Sanctified churches held fast to strict moral codes but remained committed to a very physical and demonstrative form of worship. Music, in particular the incorporation of drums and guitars, distinguished them from churches with more staid and conservative music ministries.
During the first few decades of the twentieth century, sharecropping tightened its grip on southern Black farmers, pulling them deep into unbreakable cyclical poverty, with the trauma of racial violence and lynching added to the despair. Millions of Black men, women, and children left the South and settled in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles, looking for opportunity, safety, and new church homes. They often arrived with nothing more than a satchel and hope. Gates follows these migrants into what would become working-class neighborhoods, explaining the culture clashes that inevitably occured. The informality and spontaneity of the southern worship experience bumped up against more structured northern church services, and class divisions within Black communities were on full display on Sunday mornings. The Black Church might have spent more time discussing the experiences of southern migrants; instead, it concentrates on the explosion of recorded music in the 1920s and 1930s that captured preaching ministers and popularized gospel music, blues, and jazz—a source of tension in the Black Church between the religious and the secular.
Gates’s brief mentions of Marcus Garvey, Pan-Africanism, and the Nation of Islam—secular and religious movements that critiqued white supremacy—serve as a bumpy segue to what is generally known as the civil rights movement. Unsurprisingly, he begins his journey through the turbulent 1950s and 1960s with the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The biographical information he provides might be familiar to most readers, but Gates’s examination of the theologian Howard Thurman and his profound impact on King and his ministry expands our understanding of the movement. The religious scholar Yolanda Pierce says:
Years before the civil rights movement formally began, [Thurman] had an understanding that an interracial cooperation around religious and theological concerns was going to be the key to political and social and civil movements.
His book Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) spoke to the power of Christian redemptive love. King carried a copy in his briefcase and turned to it for inspiration.
Picking up on a through line in The Black Church, Gates points out that the civil rights movement, the Black Church, and music cannot be separated from one another. The freedom songs that became the soundtrack for the movement were gospel hymns with altered lyrics that spoke to the power of protest. The voice of the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson “offered not only a spiritual foundation to the movement but also a financial one.” Artists like Jackson sponsored concerts and raised thousands of dollars (she helped to fund the freedom rides and King’s travel expenses). And while King is the centerpiece of this section, Gates nods toward the influence and importance of prophetic religious leaders such as Malcolm X who fell outside the realm of the Christian church. Put plainly by Reverend Calvin Butts, “Malcolm is as much a part of the Black religious experience as anybody else. He was a Muslim, but so what? He was a man empowered by God.”
The final section of The Black Church, appropriately titled “Crisis of Faith,” takes readers through the traumatic aftermath of King’s assassination and the uncertain political direction of the nation. Black Theology and Black Power (1969) by the theologian James Cone offered a new way to understand Black religion and Black political struggle, by centering the importance of Blackness. As Barbara Savage puts it:
Black theology is a new way of looking at the relationship between Black religion and Black political struggle and an embrace of the tenets of “Black is Beautiful” and a comfort with African-inflected practices.
Cornel West explains that Cone argued, “If God makes us in God’s image, as he does all human beings, then this must be something positive about Blackness. Blackness couldn’t be solely negative, given the white supremacists’ discourse. And Professor Cone hit that hard; he hit it strong.”
“Crisis of Faith” begins with the important connections of Black Power to the Black Church, highlighting the ways that the movement forced Black churches to engage in conversations about Black self-defense and Black self-respect. Gates writes:
Black churches found themselves at a crossroads. They could retreat from the front lines, or they could try to remain relevant by incorporating this flood of Black nationalist thinking into their theology.
In the following forty pages, The Black Church attempts to cover nearly half a century of history, quickly exploring topics such as the conservative Christian response to social issues such as gay rights, gender equality, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, hip-hop, the war on drugs, and the rise of mass incarceration. Readers are introduced to religious leaders like Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Bishop T.D. Jakes, and Reverend William Barber, as the narrative moves at warp speed to arrive at the election of Barack Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement. Gates writes:
As the crosses carried by the civil rights generation are passed on to the shoulders of the Black Lives Matter generation, churches and their leaders must evolve with the faithful and, in so doing, strengthen the bedrock foundation on which so much of our people’s freedom struggle has stood tall.
The Black Church is an ambitious book that offers an informative and important intellectual journey across the centuries. Gates offers no tidy conclusion but instead includes an epilogue that draws on his own personal experience with the Christian faith. Perhaps this is fitting. How does one write an ending for a narrative that still lives and breathes? The easiest answer is to acknowledge that there is ample space for deeper research and meditation. We don’t know what the future holds for Black Christianity, but we can look to the lyrics of the hymn written by Philadelphia’s Reverend Charles Albert Tindley in 1905:
By and by, when the morning comes,
When the saints of God are gathered home,
We’ll tell the story,
How we’ve overcome,
And we’ll understand it better by and by.
See Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford University Press, 1978). ↩
See Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (University of North Carolina Press, 1998). ↩
See Gates’s Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (Penguin, 2019) and the accompanying documentary series, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War; reviewed in these pages by James Oakes, December 5, 2019. ↩
See Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Harvard University Press, 1994). ↩