Black Church

The Redemptive Role of the Black Church

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Abstract (to be inserted when project is completed)

Table of Contents (preliminary)

The black church holds a special place in African-American culture that differs from the role of the predominantly white churches. Much of this is due to cultural traits that inspire closeness in African-American society. A shared history of struggle and a need to build meaningful communities amidst chaos had a profound affect on the formation of the black church that we know today. The following will explore the role of the black church that goes beyond the tenets of Jesus Christ and redemption for our sins. It will explore the black church as a symbol of the redemption of the African-American people as a race and culture that is proud of its heritage.


In order to understand the role of the black church and its rise to become a symbol of the redemption of the African-American people, one must first gain an understanding of the roots of the black church and its rapid rise during the Civil War. The first black congregations were meeting before 1800. They were organized by free blacks living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Petersburg, Virginia and Savannah, Georgia (Jeffries, 2008). The religious revival sparked by the American Revolution had a significant impact on African-Americans, both free and slave. The Revolutionary War changed the role of the church within the community.

It was during this time that three primary institutions began to arise within the African community. The Church, School, and Fraternal Order of blacks began to emerge. However, these activities were not separate and the church became not only the center of spirituality and worship, it became the center of all community activities, including, social, cultural, economic and political ventures (Jeffries, 2008). From this standpoint, it could be argued that the black church became one of the most important institutions in African-American life. It became the mortar that held black society together. It also becomes the institution that stands as a symbol of not only spiritual redemption, but of black social redemption as well.

Exclusion and the Black Church

The ideal of the church sprang from the white churches to which African-Americans were exposed and sometimes forced to attend in their early years in America. Stripped of their mother religion, they took on the tenets of the new world in which they lived. The early black church only had one type of institution after which to model itself, the white church. Although it might appear that the early black church and the black church that exist today are a replica of the white church model, when one looks inside, they will see that the two entities are quite different. The African church is much more of an embodiment of the soul of the community than the white church. Cultural and family ties are as much a part of the black church as the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The early church fulfilled the role of brining the community together and melding the three institutions that formed the core of early African-American society. The School was the center for the transmission of knowledge, instruction, training and the values of American society. The home was considered to be the source for the transmission of African-American values (Jeffries, 2008). Fraternal Brotherhood and Sisterhood Societies sprang up and became centers for leadership development and training. These fraternities were where the individual learns to become part of the community. They were instilled with the ideals of community accountability and the ideal of collective responsibility. Blacks have systematically been kept from participation in the political, economic, and cultural institutions of mainstream American society (Jeffries, 2008). This led to the development of two distinct American cultures: one that was white and one that was black.

By the 1860s, the black church was a well-established institution and the center of African-American life. After the end of the Civil War, blacks continued to establish their own churches that were separate from white churches. Blacks were prevented from or discouraged from worshiping in white congregations. These black churches became culturally distinct from their white counterparts. They merged African spiritual traditions and Christianity, creating their own creolized version that reflects black cultural values and attitudes. The black church remains a legacy of the past, but also represents hope for the future.

The African-American church remains a central source of African-American cultural values and social activities. They have taken on many roles since their early formation. They serve as refuges for the indigent, provide food for the poor, establish schools, orphanages, and associated ministries. Black churches still serve as the foundations of strong communities. Their dual role of providing spiritual and political leadership cannot be denied.

Conceptual Underpinnings for the Study

The foundation of the black church as central to black culture forms the key conceptual underpinning for the study. Much has been written about the historical role of the black church in the preservation and evolution of black culture and community involvement. Blank, Mahmood, & Fox et al. (2002) found that the faith in the black church is the key linkage between formal systems of care and the black community. Churches contribute substantially to the community through the provision of prevention and treatment-oriented programs. The authors found that the church contributed substantially to the mental and physical well-being of church members.

Black churches did not racially integrate as some of their white predecessors did. This is how they remained black throughout the centuries and retained their uniqueness as a cultural and political construct (Aldred, 2007). The unwillingness of whites to mix with the black church acted to preserve the black church and their own unique flavor of Christianity. Aldred (2007) poses the question as to whether the existence of black or black-led serves to unity or further segregate the Christian community. Even in black churches that are led by white organizations, the black pastor plays more of a community service role than the white pastor (Aldred, 2007).

In the past, the black church was regarded with many of the same prejudices as blacks themselves. The dominant culture saw blacks as ugly and important only as a tool for labor (Leo, 2004). Black churches were viewed much in the same way. They were considered to be inferior to their white counterparts. The failure of the black church to integrate with the white church played a key role in allowing the black church to serve a greater political and social role in the community.

The role of the black church continued to integrate politics and social services into the ministry. This role formed a solid foundation for the church and allowed it to become a key element in the provisions of services in black neighborhoods. The church now plays a vital role in preserving the cohesiveness of the community surrounding it. As the church continue to grow in its role within the community can become an important force in providing necessary services, it took the strain off of the surrounding community to helping to serve one particular community segment. The black community was able to become self sufficient to the institution of the church. Black church became the centre of community cohesiveness political power. In time, black church became a symbol of redemption of black society.

The black church had redemptive power in rebuilding the strength of black communities, that political power, and black pride. The church became a place for blacks to feel good about who they are and where they came from. They could be proud of what they had built through the use of the church as a central focal point for their efforts. This idea forms the central conceptual underpinning for the research study. The study will focus on power of the black church to serve as a redemptive force to help blacks overcome the pain and prejudice that had become part of their identity since long before America was founded. Redemptive power of the black church does not end with spiritual redemption, but it’s come to represent redemption of the black people in the face of America, both for themselves and in the eyes of the American public. This research will explore the redemptive power of the church as both spiritual redemption and redemption of a proud people.

Statement of the Problem

The history of the black church cannot be separated from the history of the black people themselves. The church has served as a unifying force since it’s very early beginnings during the Revolutionary War. Through good times and bad, the black church has served to give the black community hope and provided cohesiveness to help them get through problems that they’re faced. This research will investigate the problem of understanding how the church served as a redemptive force and allowed black communities to gain a sense of pride to retain their identity as a culture. It will explore the dual role of the church in spiritual redemption and redemption of black society.

Purpose of the Study

Purpose of the study is to examine the church in all of its roles throughout history. It will use historical evidence to examine the role of the church is a spiritual entity. It will examine the role of the church as a political entity throughout changing political landscapes. It will explore the role of the church as a social service provider with regards to the importance of this role in helping black people to redeem themselves in light of historical cultural atrocities that they have faced.

Research Questions

In order to examine that topics of interest un this research study the following research questions be addressed.

1. How has the black church served as redemptive force in helping the black people to heal?

2. What factors served as a redemptive force in helping the image of black people in the black church to improve?

3. How has a black church helped black communities to regain and maintain their self-sufficiency?

4. How has the black church served as a means to identify common cultural constructs and as a means to preserve them?

5. Has the role of the black church changed since the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties?

6. What role could the black church expect fulfill on the future?


The research questions will help to support following hypotheses.

H1: Historical evidence will demonstrate that the black church has served as redemptive force in the eyes of the dominant culture.

H2: Historical evidence will demonstrate the black church has served as a redemptive force in the healing of black communities.

H3: Historical evidence will demonstrate that the role of black church has changed significantly since the nineteen sixties.

Limitations, Assumptions, and Design Controls

This study will take a historical view of the role of the black church as redemptive force within black communities. This type of study does not lend itself to quantitative research methods. Therefore, this study will use qualitative methods using historical evidence of as its key research methods. This method has several limitations that may affect the outcome of the research study.

The first limitation of the study is that relying on historical evidence to demonstrate a principle is subjective. The author might have a tendency to analyze the data in a way that is favorable to the outcome the study. In order to prevent this from happening, the researcher must be careful in to attempt to find evidence that is contrary to their hypothesis and taken into consideration. Maintaining an awareness of this possibility is the best defense against it.

This study will use historical data and evidence to draw its conclusions. Any study that uses historical evidence upon which to base its conclusions runs the risk of taking information out of context. However, the evidence found will be from primarily secondary source and discussions. It will also use an interpretive approach to the evidence. This is not a historical research paper. It is an interpretive look at the role of the black church and its importance in building the social roles of the black church, as we know them today.


Black church has played an important role in the black communities that surround it. Historically, the church was a central part of black community. It served as a religious institution as well as a political and community asset. In more recent times, the black church has become not only an asset to the black community, but to the white community as well. This study will examine the redemptive qualities of the black church in relation to its role within the community.

The dissertation will use a literature review and collection of data from various academic sources to examine the role of the black church from a historical perspective. Chapter 2 will contain the literature review. The methodology for the selection and analysis of materials will be presented in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 will discuss the findings of the study. Chapter 5 will summarize the key points of the study. It will state the conclusions of the research study and will take a futuristic look into the potential role of the black church in the future.

Chapter 2: Literature Review


In order to understand how the role of the black church has changed through the years the research will examine literature on the topic. Distortion of the research will attempt to identify the patterns and gaps in the current body of literature. The matter to be researched its highly subjective and it is expected that a variety of viewpoints will be found. Literature will be divided courting to the research questions that it addresses.

The literature review will be divided to several sections. It will address current body of literature regarding the role of the black church of the community and within black society. The first section of the literature review will explore the development of the role of the black church from a historical perspective. It would be difficult to understand the redemptive purpose of the black church without this time analysis.

After a historical review the history of the black church, the literature review will then begin to address each of the research questions. The hypothesis will be analyzed in light of the information obtained in the literature review. The literature review will use both primary and secondary sources to achieve its goals. The literature will not only address the redemptive role of the black church from a spiritual perspective, but it will also address the redemptive role of the church from a political, communal, and social role.

Historical Role of the Black Church as a symbol of Power

In the background section of this report we addressed briefly the historical role black church since Revolutionary War times. In this analysis it appears that the black church was a centre of the black community and held it together to many difficult times. The church became the fabric that held the black community together. The earlier analysis only briefly touched on the role of the black church the civil rights movement. From this analysis would appear that the role of the church changed little since its early inception. Let us now embark on a more thorough examination of the historical role of the black church.

First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia began its life in 1777 as the First Colored Baptist Church (Brooks, 2004). However, there are reports of Negro Baptists in providence Rhode Island as early as 1774 (Brooks, 2004). These early churches spawned others movement quickly in the movement grew rapidly. Another such church began its life is the First Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina (Reaves, 1998). Black Baptist movement began to take root and church congregations continued to grow.

Many of these churches came into being when blacks requested permission to have separate afternoon meetings from whites. As congregations grew whites became concerned that black churches were gaining too much power and posed a threat (Reaves, 1998). Many of them, such as the First Baptist Church in North Carolina, passed regulations that would not allow blacks to serve in positions of power. Many times, they had a white pastor and were prohibited from doing culturally relevant worship services. Congregations continued to grow and by the 1960s they had gained permission to split off and become their own entities.

This was a major step in gaining independence not only for the black churches, but for the black people themselves. Like their white counterparts, they were likely to suffer from internal struggles and pressures from outside influences. There were disagreements and splits in the congregation, but the splits only helped to allow the black church to continue to grow. Every time there was a split it in a new congregation could be grown into a formidable church Body. This is how a black church grew into a political force by the 1860s.

Black ministers were often seen as agitators or troublemakers by their white counterparts. They had to prove themselves and the sincerity of their got the intentions (Reaves, 1998). Often black churches had to bear the name “colored” to distinguish them from white congregations of the same denomination. These names for later changed, that does not mean that the churches war in the more inclusive or desegregated than they were from their very beginnings.

During the Civil War in shortly after black churches were the targets of arson and other attempts to destroy the building. For example, First Baptist Church in Wilmington North Carolina was the target of such an attempt. Fortunately, nearby shop owner saw the fire in time to save the building (Reaves, 1998). These attempts to destroy the church one not attempts to lash out at the black church as a religious institution, but rather to lash out at black people in general. By that time the church had become a symbol and central focal point of the black community. Attempts to destroy the church or attempts just for the fabric of the black community and the power that the church represented.

The church represents one of the earliest attempts to bring literacy to the black community in general. The illiterate black was considered less of a threat than one who could read. When the church became the centre of black educational attempts and a key force in teaching blacks to read and write, this too was seen as a threat to white power. The educated black was seen as a threat as they would no longer be willing to be a slave. Reading and writing gave them the power to create their own destiny, both as individuals and as a group. Therefore, the church’s efforts to teach blacks to read and write was also seen as a way in which the church was attempting to organize and promote the rise of black power.

The Church allowed many former slaves to rise in the ranks and enter into the ministry, where they would find respect among their people. One of these slaves is the Reverend Peter Randolph. His story demonstrates how the power to read and write allowed the slave to break their bonds and rise up. He begins, “I WAS born a slave, and owned, with eighty- one others, by a man named Edloe, and among them all, only myself learned to either read or write” (Randolph, p. 9). The power to read and write was what set him apart from the other 81 slaves.

The slaves were often in dire situations and were told to look to Jesus for solace and hope as the following demonstrates,

“When I was a child, my mother used to tell me to look to Jesus, and that He who protected the widow and fatherless would take care of me also. At that time, my ideas of Jesus were the same as those of the other slaves. I thought he would talk with me, if I

wished it, and give me what I asked for. Being very sickly, my greatest wish was to live with Christ in heaven, and so I used to go into the woods and lie upon my back, and pray that he would come and take me to himself — really expecting to see Him with my bodily eyes” (Randolph, p. 9).

To the child slave, Jesus was a very real source of hope in a desperate life. When Randolph gave himself up to the Lord and began to see Jesus with his mind’s eye, his outlook changed from one of dismal desperation to one of happiness and hope. He says,

“Now, instead of looking with my real eyes to see my Saviour, I felt him in me, and I was happy. The eyes of my mind were open, and I saw things as I never did before. With my mind’s eye, I could see my Redeemer hanging upon the cross for me.

I wanted all the other slaves to see him thus, and feel as happy as I did. I used to talk to others, and tell them of the friend they would have in Jesus, and show them by my experience how I was brought to Christ, and felt his love within my heart,– and love it was, in God’s adapting himself to my capacity” (Randolph, p. 10).

This is not just the story of one man’s salvation. It is the story of giving hope to those who are hopeless. This passage makes it easy to see how the ability to read tied in with the rise to power in the church. Shortly after this passage, Randolph begins teaching to other slaves in order to allow them to find the same happiness that he had found. Reading the Bible became paramount to the ability to preach. Those who could preach had the power to help deliver others through the light of Christ. In this way, the ability to read became connected with power and the ability to break free from the bonds. This was a key reason why white slave owners saw the church as a threat.

In the story of Reverend Peter Randolph eighty-one slaves could not read, but the one who could was able to rise up and help others to rise up too. In this was, the church had the power to allow the slave to rise up from darkness and to receive redemption, both spiritually and in the way of hope for the future. The church was central to the ability to escape from the spiritual and physical bonds.

The first book that Randolph learned to read was the Bible. He would listen to the white preacher and then go home and read the passages himself. He taught himself to write too. This alone allowed him considerable ability to choose his own destiny. For instance, he could write himself a pass and visit another plantation, but he had to keep his abilities quite, lest he trigger the suspicion of the plantation owner (Randolph, p. 11). If this were found out, it would not only endanger Randolph, but would endanger all of the slaves, because it was known that slaves who could read would be more independent and were to be feared by the whites. The ability to read was closely tied to the church, both of which had power that threatened white power. Whites saw it as an all or none proposition and one could not have a powerful slave and remain in power.

Reading slave narratives gives one a sense of what slaves had to endure. They had to endure many losses, cruelty, and hardships. However, the church gave them hope. In heaven, “where slaveholders could not come with their purchase-money” (Randolph, p. 15), the slave knew that there would be peace. The church, spirituals, and words of hope from the Gospel soothed the slave and their sorrows. At times, it was all that they had to cling to as they went on with their daily lives. When times were tough, they prayed (Randolph, p. 16).

The slaves clung to the Bible for emotional uplift and strength. This played a key role in the rise of the church to become a prominent place in the community. It was a place where hope abounded. African-Americans today, still cling to the church in times of sorrow and need, just as their ancestors did so long ago. In this respect, the church holds much of the same meaning as it did in the days of slavery.

Evidence the Redemptive Power of the Church from Slave Narratives

The narratives of slaves can tell us much about the role of the church on the plantation. This is an important concept in the exploration of the black church and its redemptive role. The narratives of the slaves confirm the role of the church and the power that the church gave to the slave. Let us examine examples from slave narratives that support our supposition that the black church was a symbol of power that white slavers feared.

In the narrative of Henry Box Brown we find the following. Brown states,

” on this plantation, the slaves were never allowed to attend church, but managed their religious affairs in their own way. An old slave, whom they called Uncle John, decided upon their piety, and would baptize them during the silent watches of the night, while their master was “taking his rest in sleep.” Thus is the slave under the necessity of even

“saving his soul” in the hours when the eye of his master, who usurps the place of God

over him, is turned from him…” (Brown and Stearn, 1849, p. 23-24).

This passage tells us two important things about the black church and the power struggle between the white masters and the spirituality of the slave. First, the master would not tolerate competition and did not see that the two could exist together. The master felt the need to prevent the slave from attending church, thus denying them this basic right. This verse also demonstrates the act of baptism and its importance in the establishment of the black spiritual community.

Baptism was a right of passage for the slave for many reasons. First, it publicly acknowledged their commitment to Christian life and to leading a life that was moral and just. These rights were often performed under threats of hostility from the slavers. They had to steal away at night, under the threat of whippings from their masters. This group action was a form of rebellion. They were denied the basic right of religion and spirituality. To take part in one of these secret baptisms was to affirm that one was a part of the community.

The church became a secret-society for blacks. It was something that was forbidden by their masters, but it also became a rallying point through shared experience for the slave. Those who worshipped secretly did so at risk of being caught and punished for their activities. Masters would often whip slaves who were caught worshipping together, but that did not stop them and they would often steal away into the night and hide their prayer meetings. They shared a common danger and a common purpose. Holding secret prayer meetings gave them a shared happiness that the master’s whip could not mar. Here is the story of one of those prayer meetings and the bonds that it created.

“No, my child; if old marster heard us singing and praying he would come out and make us stop. One time, I remember, we all were having a prayer-meeting in my cabin, and marster came up to the door and hollered out, ‘You, Charlotte, what’s all that fuss in there?’ We all had to hush up for that night. I was so afraid old marster would see Aunt

Jane. I knew Aunt Jane would have to suffer if her white people knew she was off at night. Marster used to say God was tired of us all hollering to him at night.”

“Did any of the black people on his place believe in the teachings of their master?”

“No, my child; none of us listened to him about singing and praying. I tell you we used to have some good times together praying and singing. He did not want us to pray, but we would have our little prayer-meeting anyhow. Sometimes when we met to hold our meetings we would put a big wash-tub full of water in the middle of the floor to catch the sound of our voices when we sung. When we all sung we would march around and shake each other’s hands, and we would sing easy and low, so marster could not hear us. O, how happy I used to be in those meetings, although I was a slave!” (Albert, 1853).

This theme of shared danger and shared joy resonates throughout slave narratives and demonstrates the determination of the slaves to preserve important relationships. It would appear that the benefits that the slaves gained from these secret prayer meetings far outweighed any punishment that they may receive for them. The threat of the whip was very real, yet the slaves continued to take that risk and meet secretly when their masters were not near. Redemption has a transformative power. Redemption is the ability to move from a place of hopelessness and despair to one of hope and a will to live. These secret prayer meetings were uplifting and had redemptive power in the power to transform an intolerable situation into something that could be withstood.

During this time, formal black congregations did exist. They were more prevalent in the north than in the south. However, not all blacks had the privilege of attending these meetings. This was particularly the case in the South were slaves were prohibited from attending formal services. For those who could not attend formal services, these informal secret prayer meetings had the same meaning, perhaps even greater meaning for those on plantations. They demonstrated a will to succeed and a bond that could not be broken by the white slave masters. These meetings served as tangible symbols of the ideal that the master could hold their bodies and do as he wished, but he could not break their spirits. These secret meetings had a redemptive power for the plantation slave, as they allowed them to move beyond the world of hopelessness that existed on earth into the hope of the eternal.

Literacy and Redemption

As one examines the narratives of the slaves, the redemptive power of the church during this time begins to take place. One of the key areas that highlights the redemptive power of the black church is the connection between the church and literacy. This topic has already been touched upon briefly, but is one of the most important factors that influenced the slave’s ability to both receive spiritual redemption and freedom from their masters.

White slavers knew that a literate black man was a dangerous black man. The ability to read would give them the ability to become exposed to new ideas. The most dangerous idea to which they might become exposed were the radical views of the north that called for the abolishment of slavery and freedom for all men. The system of slavery was built upon oppression. Those who had no hope were not as likely to rebel as those who had some hope of a better life. Therefore, literacy was something to be squashed at every instance. It was a key tool used by Southern slavers to keep their slaves in check.

Literacy was the key to the cell door for the slave. If they could read, they could gain knowledge, they could read the Bible and read it to others. The ability to read was important and the ability to write was equally important.

“I often heard the white people say that they did not want the negro to learn to read and write. Then I felt satisfied that there was something more than learning to read and write that they did not want the negro to know” (Adams, 1872, p. 6 ).

Reading allowed them to receive information. Writing allowed them to send information out and gain even greater amounts of knowledge. Many black children took the initiative to learn to read themselves. They understood the importance of reading and devised many creative ways to learn to do so. Ministers were often separated from their congregation only by the fact that they could read and write. They used he church as a means to convey the word of God and to use every opportunity to teach others to read as well.

“Then brother Robert would say, “who wants some nice apples?” They would come and say, “I do.” “Well if you hear me say my lesson I will give you this.” “All right.” They

would hear him from time to time, and that is the way he learned to read in the South”

(Adams, 1872, p. 9-10 ).

This theme of the importance of the ability to read and write serves as a central theme in the slave narratives. Children would take great risks and go to great lengths to learn to read and write. The ideal that the ability to read was impressed upon them by their parents and other adults, but they also seemed to have an innate sense of its importance as well.

“Very early in life I took up the idea that I wanted to learn to read and write. I was convinced that there would be something for me to do in the future that I could not accomplish by remaining in ignorance. I had heard so much about freedom, and of the colored people running off and going to Canada, that my mind was busy with this subject even in my young days. I sought the aid of the white boys, who did all they could in teaching me. They did not know that it was dangerous for a slave to read and write. I

availed myself of every opportunity, daily I carried my book in my pocket, and every chance that offered would be learning my a, B, C’s. Soon I learned to read, (Marrs, 1940,

p. 11-12).

This passage brings up several points about the lives of slaves. First, it highlights the danger of learning to read and write. This theme is echoed through the slave narratives. It demonstrates the importance of preventing the slaves from reading to white power. Literacy appears as a main theme in many of the slave narratives examined. Literacy then becomes a tipping point in the power struggle between whites and black slaves. The ability to read takes away many of the advantages that allowed white slavers to remain in control. The theme of “knowledge as power” reiterates itself consistently throughout the slave narratives.

This passage also brings to light another element of literacy among Southern slaves that is not found in other narratives. White slave owners were secretive about their measures to prevent blacks from reading. This seems to be something that white children did not know. The black slaves took every advantage of this kink in the white power system, taking every opportunity to learn to read from white children. This too had to be done in secrecy. If a slave was caught exploiting this loophole, they would be the ones on the whipping post, not the white children.

It appears that the methods and means of controlling slaves represented as much of a right of passage to white children and baptism was to black children. This passing on of the knowledge by white slave owners served many of the same purposes as the right of baptism to the slave. Once the little boy gains knowledge of the doctrine of ignorance and control, they are no longer a little boy, but a man in white eyes. Black children on the other hand, became adults through the maturation of their spiritual lives. The right of baptism was an important moment in the lives of slaves. Both of these rights were necessary for the passage of the torch to the next generation.

Black children learned at an early age that learning to read and write was what separated them from white children (O’Neal, 1896, p. 14). They knew that literacy was the key to a better life and they went to drastic measuring and took great risks to learn to read and write. Many blacks taught themselves to read and write. Formal schools did not exist for the black child. They worked the fields while their white counterparts went to school. It was no real leap for them to see the importance of school for a better life.

In the beginning of the literature review, we found that the church served several key functions in black society. One of these roles was that of educators. This role was more important in the early days of the church than it is today. In today’s society, the church is relegated to religious education, but that was not the case in the days of the slave. From the early days of the black church, through the time when public education became available to blacks, the church served as the institution for providing education, an intimate connection existed between the church and the family. The narratives of the slaves tell the story of this intimate connection.

The fact that literacy is power was the one concept that was shared between whites and blacks in the South. Whites worked very hard to prevent black from learning to read and write. However, as an examination of black narratives reveal, black slaves worked even harder to learn this valuable skill. Ignorance played a key role in maintaining control. In this, one cannot forget the economic importance of the slave to the agricultural power of the South. Without the slave, the plantation owner did not have sufficient workforce to work the cotton and sugar plantations. They depended on the slave, or they would soon fall into economic poverty.

The slave was not just a nice addition to the slave owner’s wealth, they were essential and meant the life and death of the plantation. The stakes were high on both sides. For the slave owner, the question of literacy among slaves meant their economic survival. However, for the slave, the stakes were much higher. The narratives tell us that they were willing to risk their very lives to learn to read. For the slave, literacy was the key to their freedom and the key to the lives of future generations. The weight of risk for the slave was much greater than for the slave owner. In many cases, the ability to read may mean their survival or the survival of their loved ones. The ability to read could mean life or death to the slave who lived or died at the hand of their master.

It is not difficult to see that literacy was one of the most important issues in the ability of the whites to control their black slaves and the ability of blacks to gain their freedom. There was no compromise. The freedom of the slave meant the downfall of the plantation. At this point, it may appear that the literature review may have strayed from the key topic of this dissertation. However, this is not the case. Understanding the role of literacy in the attainment of freedom for the slave is paramount to understanding the role of the black church and its connection to achieving this goal.

The Black Church under White Control

Even when blacks were allowed to attend church, they were often conducted by white pastors who used the message to instill the service of slavery referenced in the Bible / for instance, the message delivered by at the Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia focused on Abraham’s servants and the injunction of Hagar (Lewis, 1936, p. 17). The white masters had control of the slave’s body, but they had not control over their mind. Spirituality was the one place where the master could have no control. They may have only been able to hear certain messages, but the master could not control their prayers or their feeling of connection to the Holy Spirit. All slaves shared this bond. They all had something in common in terms of using spirituality as their one true escape. In this way, the oppression of the white slavers had an effect on the ability of the slaves to bond with one another on a much deeper level. Baptism was the right of passage that openly served to express that bond.

“The first commandment impressed upon our minds was to obey our masters, and the second was like unto it, namely, to do as much work when they or the overseers were not watching us as when they were. But connected with these instructions there was more or less that was truly excellent; though mixed up with much that would sound strangely in the ears of freedom. There was one very kind hearted Episcopal minister whom I often used to hear; he was very popular with the colored people. But after he had preached a sermon to us in which he argued from the Bible that it was the will of heaven from all eternity we should be slaves, and our masters be our owners,” (Lunsford, 1842, p. 20).

Black children were taught their morals and spirituality by their parents. This message was quite different from the ones that were taught to them in church services led by the whites. The slavers cared little for the spirituality or happiness of the slave. They only cared for the labor of their hands. Spirituality created a place where the slave could have freedom from the restrictive actions of their master. As the mothers and fathers of their slave children pursued spiritual studies and moral teachings, they grew in their bond with each other and with other slaves. Spirituality became a singular place where they could escape their troubles and bond with one another.

The following excerpts demonstrate how spirituality served as a bond and central point around which to build and maintain family bonds.

“Both he and my mother were pious members of a Baptist church, and from their godly example, I formed a determination” (Davis, 1803, p. 9).

Throughout the narratives, one can find examples of pious parents and the values that they instilled in their slave children. They may not be able to be with their children throughout their life, but their teachings would stay with them for the rest of their children’s lives. Spirituality was the one gift that slave parents could give their children. Therefore, the church became associated with the preservation and the ability to sustain family ties. Regardless of were the children went in the future, they always had the teachings of their parents and the spirituality upon which to build a new foundation.

The importance of spirituality and the teachings of the Bible were an important part of the bonding process for slaves and for those who experienced the shared sorrows of slavery. It is not surprising that the church and spirituality played such an important role in the black community. This shared experience through religion provided the grounds for the role of the black church in black communities. It provided the foundation for the role of the black church in today’s black communities.

Christianity and the practice of faith held the slaves together and created a bond among them that was stronger than the white man’s whip. However, the same cannot be said for the whites. Slavery was an issue that tore at the very soul of white Christian churches. It was called the ultimate sin in some churches and by some evangelicals. (Aaron, 1845, p. 16). In the north, churches preached against slavery and the sin of human bondage. In the South, this was hardly every mentioned. Aaron speaks of the hypocrisy of the double standards that existed.

Ministers from the north would speak against the sinfulness of slavery and then go south and become slaveholders themselves (Aaron, 1845, p. 17). This type of double standard demonstrates that the church and spirituality did not have the same binding power that it did for blacks. This is an important historical context to understand, as one begins to explore the redemptive power of the black church. For the white churches, slavery was a source of division and sent some plunging into the depths of sins. While for the slave, the church provided a source of hope for the future, even if this hope was in the after life. This form of redemption was what gave the slaves hope to carry on and hope for the future of their children.

Three Types of Black Churches

At this point, we have discovered that the white slaver had two main goals in order to retain their power. They had to squash the ability to achieve literacy and they had to squash the redemptive power of the black church for the slave. To keep the slave hopeless and illiterate were the key mechanisms that allowed the white slaver in control and able to maintain their economic power. The discussion about literacy and power in the South may appear to be off-topic, but it is not. The ability of slaves to read was intimately tied to the church.

Thus far, we have seen that the church and spirituality can take many forms for blacks. In the period from roughly 1770 through the end of the Civil War black churches took on many forms. We found that formal black churches did exist in several forms. They were often under the control of the whites, but sometimes, they split off into their own form of spirituality that was uniquely black in nature. We discovered earlier that these churches were primarily found in the North, but at few found their way into the South. These formal churches were often the target of violence and destruction. The destruction and black churches in the South reiterates their importance in the power of the South. They stood as a formal symbol to the slaver that they were losing the battle to keep their wealth. Only a few privileged blacks could attend these formal churches, yet as we discovered, the numbers of attendees continued to grow despite the hardships.

During the slave years, black churches can be divided into three forms. These three forms have been discussed in the literature review, but not in terms of their similarities and differences. All of them have the power or redemption and transformation. All of them play a role in the ability of the blacks to maintain spiritual bonds with one another that went beyond the futile life of the plantation. Black churches during this time period can be divided into informal black churches, formal black churches, and black churches under white control.

The first type of church is the one that has received the weight of discussion thus far. The informal black church refers to the informal gathering of slaves, held in secret, away from earshot of the master. By today’s standards, many would not consider these informal prayer meetings held in the still of the night to be a form of church. Many times, there was no formal leader, no prescribed liturgy, no offering plate, no scripture readings and many of the other trappings that we associate with a church service of today. However, these were church services no the less and had a redemptive power for the slave.

It was through these informal church services held in secret that the heart and soul of the slave found solace and joy. It gave them something to look forward to and the laughter and camaraderie that they were denied during the daytime. As the narratives point out, these gatherings were not dismal places where the slaves shared their sorrows. Everyone of them had too many sorrows to count. This was fact that need not be spoken among them. Instead these gatherings served as places where they could leave their desperation and sorrows behind. They could experience joy and the company of one another, even if it placed them all at risk.

Both the risk and joy that slaves faced in these informal gatherings helped to add to the redemptive power of the informal church that existed during the days of slavery. Redemption in these informal churches came in the form of freedom from shared misery and hope. Strength was in numbers and nothing brought this home more than secret prayer meetings held in the dead of night. These prayer meetings demonstrate that the need for formal trappings is not a necessary element for the redemption of the black people. Redemption goes deeper than the building or the church pews. Redemption comes from the hope for a better future and the promise of an afterlife.

The importance of the informal black church that existed during the years of slavery cannot be undermined by the desire of the church to organize. Blacks viewed Christianity as the door to freedom. It was the driving force that gave them the hope and strength to keep the dream of freedom alive, even against incredible odds. It also made them realize the importance of literacy in their struggle for freedom. Let us now examine the other primary form of church that existed during the time of slavery.

Many plantation owners saw the existence of the church, particularly informal ones as a threat to their goals. Informal churches and the joyous gatherings of the slaves undermined everything that they felt was essential to maintaining control. Therefore, as we saw in previous narratives, the strategy of the slave owner was often to deal with the issue through punishment and coercion. Informal churches represented a form of resistance to the control of slave owners. The happened despite the best efforts of the slave owners to stop them. They were a reminder to the slave owner that their control was not complete, and that they only had control over the body, but not the mind. Consider the following narrative,

“On this trip Rosa accompanied the Master, and his wife was left on the farm to attend to matters there. His wife was a devout Catholic, and while Master was gone she used to gather the slaves remaining, each morning in her dining room and teach them prayers and some of the younger ones she taught to read. When the Master returned in the spring and learned what she had been doing he was very angry. He had always told his slaves that he was their Lord and Master, and now informed them his wife should not have told them of any other Lord.

From Rosa we learned that he lectured his wife for her conduct about as follows: “If you teach them to pray and read they may think they are human beings and we will not be able to keep them as slaves; the more ignorant we keep them about such things the better slaves they are. The worst slaves we have are those who know the most, they are the ones we have to punish to keep them down. We have here from twenty to two hundred slaves each year, and if they should know as much as we do, where would we be? They would murder us in spite of the law. After this, my dear wife, you must never teach a negro the Lord’s prayer, or any other prayer.” (Johnson, 1901, 24-25).

This lecture of the master to his wife summarizes white attitudes towards slavery and the ability to keep slaves in the South. It was the reasoning of slave holders to stop the church and any formal gathering at all costs. The attitudes expressed in this narrative embody the prevalent attitudes of slave owners in the South. It is easy to see how informal gatherings of slaves was viewed as a direct threat to the slave owner.

However, these invisible religious gatherings can be found in numerous slave narratives. Over 15 can be found in the North American Slave Narratives by Grendler, Leiter, & Sexton (2004). The use of informal gatherings as the fuel for a resistance is well documented in slave narratives. Nine narratives document the use of informal religious gatherings as a form of slave resistance can be found in the collections at the University of North Carolina (Grendler, Leiter, & Sexton, 2004). The white slavers were not incorrect in their assumption that the slaves would use their faith as the basis for efforts to form a resistance. This resistance existed long before the underground railroad. It had its roots in the redemptive power of the informal plantation gatherings.

We have now examined one reaction of white slavers to the informal gatherings of slaves. Efforts to squash these gatherings with violence and threats only served to fuel them in many cases. Slaves saw the value in keeping up hope and in the need for organization. Therefore, some slavers decided to take a different route. They decided to organize church services intended for black congregations. These formal gatherings took place in designated buildings for church services. They were often led by white preachers, who delivered a message to the black congregation.

This allowed the slave owner considerably more control over the religious content of the church gatherings of the black communities. It also allowed them to have a formal platform for instilling the values that they wished to impart on their servants. Formal black churches under white control delivered a message that was quite different from the message of freedom and hope that was the focal point of informal prayer meetings.

An examination of the slave narratives demonstrates that the content being delivered to the black congregations by white preachers was essentially the same. They spoke of the Biblical nature of the need for a servant to be faithful in the deliverance of their tasks. These meetings were often compulsory and slaves had to attend (Brown, 1849, p. 35). In cases where services were led by black preachers, whites were always present to make certain that the black preacher did not step out of line (Bruce, 1902, p. 72). In the eyes of the white slaveholder, this form of church service would allow them to satisfy the needs of the slaves for some form of religious interaction, thus preventing the need to engage in subversive religious meetings. They could allow their black charges to satisfy their needs, yet still retain control.

The messages of white controlled black church services often provided Biblical “justification” for the duties of the slaves and the actions of the whites. One of the most popular sermons revolved around the justification for beatings. The preachers said,

“Servants be obedient to your masters; — and he that knoweth his masters will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes– means that God will send them to hell, if they disobey their masters.” (Bibb, 1849, p. 24).

However, according to Bibb’s narrative, these efforts to quell the resistance only served to fuel it. Often these messages angered black congregations and drove them to action, such as running away, or lashing out against their masters in various manners. One such method of resistance involved the use of witchcraft or “conjuring” against their masters. Bibb recounts this form of lashing out in his narrative.

“There is much superstition among the slaves. Many of them believe in what they call

“conjuration,” tricking, and witchcraft; and some of them pretend to understand the art, and say that by it they can prevent their masters from exercising their will over their slaves. Such are often applied to by others, to give them power to prevent their masters from flogging them. The remedy is most generally some kind of bitter root; they are directed to chew it and spit towards their masters when they are angry with their slaves.

At other times they prepare certain kinds of powders, to sprinkle about their masters dwellings. This is all done for the purpose of defending themselves in some Peaceable

manner…”(Bibb, 1849, p. 25-26).

The threat of the whip was enough to quell any direct objection to white control, but it could not quench the underlying anger that festered and boiled within the heart of the slaves. They found creative ways to express their anger that would not lead to the whipping post.

The message of white preachers was not well received. Bibb calls the class of white, “ignorant, intemperate, licentious, and profane,” (Bibb, 1849, p. 24). With this being he prevalent attitude of the blacks, it is not likely that the message had the desired affect at all. Quite the contrary, it appeared that their message invoked quite the opposite response from slaves. It made them wish for freedom even more. The library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill contains 26 narratives that document this type of service. Many are in agreement as to the effects that these services had on the slave population.

In our examination of the informal black church services, it was easy to see how these secret meetings had the redemptive power of transforming hopelessness to hope. However, it may be more difficult to see the redemptive power of these formal white-controlled meetings designed to undermine the resistance that was slowly building these meetings fueled anger rather than hope.

However, anger can have a redemptive power as well. Anger is the source of redemption through fire. As the slaves listened to the canned messages of white preachers, anger began to boil inside of them. Anger is often the catalyst that changes an ideal into an action. Angry people are more likely to act than passive people. The informal church gatherings discussed at length earlier in this review represent a passive resistance. However, the anger that was fueled by these forced formal meetings spurred slaved into action. They began to actively resist the control of their masters. Casting spells and “conjuring” against their white owners was a form of active resistance, but it still had an element of secretiveness and a fear of being caught. As the Civil War swung into full play, many blacks felt compelled to take direct action against their masters and the principle of slavery in general. They joined the forces and fought to end their oppression. The message of the white controlled churches had sunk in and the anger spurred many slaves to take direct action on their own behalf. This is the redemptive power of the white-controlled black churches.

Black churches under white control fall into two categories. We have discussed the formals churches that were used to attempt to further control slaves. We found that these attempts to further control blacks only led to a loss of control for white slave owners. This was one type of white-controlled black church that existed during the slavery years. However, another type of black church also existed. These churches were the result of black churches who were allowed to formally break off from traditional denominations, such as Baptist, Methodist or Episcopal. They often had their own preachers, but were not allowed to make their own decisions or to determine their own destiny.

Many of these black churches were the result of divinely inspired free blacks who desired to have a church where blacks could retain a portion of their cultural heritage. Many stories abound of the struggles of these early churches to organize and become their own entity. One such story is that of the African Church of Philadelphia. The story of the formation of this church is typical of the struggles that many of these early churches faced.

The African Church of Philadelphia was the ideal of Allen and Absolom Jones. It was established through the Free African Society. This fraternal society provided the funding for the formation of the church. Formal plans to form the church were drawn up in July of 1791. The next step was to begin funding efforts for the church. The FAS began soliciting funds. Their efforts met some resistance from white church leaders in the area. These same leaders were often supportive of the black community, but they were not supportive of the formation of a separate black church. Despite this resistance, the FAS was still able to raise sufficient funds and the new church was erected one block from the state house (PBS Online, Africans in America, 1998).

Although blacks in the North experienced many more freedoms than those in the South, there was still a cultural resistance to the ideal of a separate black church. For instance, blacks were expected to sit in prescribed areas of the church. Although, they were not beaten for breeches of these rules, they were still made aware that this was not acceptable (PBS Online, Africans in America, 1998). Construction of a new church began in 1793. Both white and black crews helped to construct the new church. The role of the FAS was paramount to the success of the project. The FAS was nondenominational, but a majority of the members were Episcopal. During the late 1790s, many churches were established that were separate from white churches (PBS Online, Africans in America, 1998).

Formal, separate black churches represent a different type of redemption. The informal and formal churches of the South represent both physical redemption from slavery and spiritual redemption of the slave. The formal separate black church represents something different. This type of black church represents a different type of redemption. It represent cultural redemption for the black community. It represents their right to exist as a separate, yet integral part of American culture. This break from the confines of white culture came with the support of whites, both financially, and in labor. However, even though the black leaders who had built these churches achieved a major triumph in establishing the black identity in America, subtle signs still existed that the struggle was not over.

In the Southern states the spiritual and the chanted sermons of the black preachers became the embodiment of the black church. The church served as both an institution and as a psychological refuge (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). Blacks saw the messages of compulsory churches as a mockery of Christian ideals. Churches were an organizing mechanism for rebellion. The churches of the North served many of the same redemptive functions, but as they were free from the physical limitations of the Southern churches, they were able to focus on the spiritual needs of the community. This was the nature of the three types of black churches that existed during the years of slavery.

The Black Church in the Antebellum Period

The end of the Civil War in 1863 meant many changes for the black church, particularly in the South. There was no longer a need for the secret prayer meetings that kept hope together, or the forced white-controlled churches that spurred anger. However, these years had a profound effect on the place of the church in the stability of black communities. The church was a central focus of the black community and would remain that way until present time.

In the years shortly following the formal emancipation of slaves, blacks struggled to get their footing. They need to organize their communities, reunite families, find jobs and define their roles as citizens of the United States (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). Once again, the church would play a central role in their ability to do this. Throughout the slavery years, northern and southern black churches served different functions. As a result they had developed different traditions and did not resemble each other to any significant degree.

At this point, northern black churches were already considerably better organized than those in the South. Northern churches wanted to reach out to their recently freed brethren. They rushed to establish churches in the South, but they were met with tremendous logistical challenges. Southern black churches had developed in an environment of geographic isolation and were segregated in terms of theology and ritual (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). Northern churches had developed with a greater sense of homogeneity. Bringing these factions together represented one of the greatest challenges of the church in the antebellum period.

In the years to come, many black churches would develop in the South, but some newly freed blacks would join the churches established in the North (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). There were not many more choices than there in the past. The number of churches continued to grow, eventually leading to the development large organizations centered around the church, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Black Convention and many others that are still in existence today (Maffly-Kipp, 2001).

These organizations began to gain considerable political power as their numbers continued to grow. The missionary effort began to take the forefront of the black church. Continuing to recognize the importance of literacy to the success of the black race, the new churches built schools. The net result of their efforts was an increase in black literacy from 5% in 1870 to 70% by 1900 (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). This gave the black churches a boost in their ability to become influential in politics, economic development, and in education. Many black politicians began it expand beyond the church and become involved in mainstream politics (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). The days of suppression were gone and it appeared that black history had been redeemed. Blacks continued to gain increasing social and political power and the church was at the forefront of this new found success.

The antebellum period through the turn of the 20th century were marked by greater organization and continued growth of the church, both as an organization and to serve as a rallying point for black cooperation and growth. During this time, the redemptive role of the black church focused on providing opportunities for individuals and communities that never existed in the past. Individuals now had many of the same opportunities as whites. Education was a key element of these new opportunities. This new world was not as perfect as it would at first appear.

These new opportunities presented many new opportunities, but they still presented many struggles. As the number of denominations grew, so did the differences. Many of these differences developed into power struggles for control. These churches existed in an atmosphere that was still haunted by the old attitudes of the South. Jim Crow laws reminded them that they were still not equal to whites in the eyes of many. They were still socially prohibited from achieving their goals of unity and political influence.

Classes began to develop in black society. During the slavery years, blacks fell into two essential classes. The first were slaves and the poor. The upper class consisted of well-educated blacks in the free North. The antebellum period brought the ability to in factories and new businesses. This meant the emergence of middle class black society (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). With the rise of the middle class, it raised the issue of women’s participation in the church. Women were no longer busied by the tasks of survival. They had more free time and wished to expand their lived beyond the confines of their daily chores.

In time, it is not surprising that women began to seek ordination in the churches. However, their efforts were quickly quenched by the male dominated church organizations. Women began to define a new role for themselves within the church. It is during this period that women began to form missionary societies to address the needs of African-Americans in America and those in their mother Africa.

The purpose of these women’s groups played a key role in the establishment of the black church as a social organization. Together, these women worked to help resolve many of the issues that urban blacks faced. They established schools, reading groups, and worked to improve living conditions for the black communities (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). These missionary groups wrote periodicals that promoted traditional Victorian ideals, respectability, and the uplift of their race (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). They accomplished these tasks while remaining under negative social opposition to the inclusion of blacks in mainstream society. These missionary societies were an asset to the black church and the communities that they served. They helped to expand the role of the black church to one with a global focus.

One of the most important contributions of early church leaders is that they still had access to a generation that was not yet lost. They gave voice to the slaves and others who had survived the years of slavery. It was during the antebellum period that many of the slave narratives were written down and preserved.

The churches of the antebellum period were important to the establishment of stability and the provision of organization to the church body as a whole. They helped black society to become an even greater asset to society than their labors of the slavery years. These fraternal organizations contributed to the educational role of the church, the political role of the church and the role of the church as a community asset. The following will explore the role of these fraternal organizations in greater detail.

The Black Church and Fraternity

By the turn of the century, many fraternities had sprung up surrounding the church. These fraternities offered social activities for men and women. Secondary sources often mention these fraternities, but provide few details as to their purpose or organization. They appear to have been an important part of the black community and an important connection with the church. The following will explore the meeting minutes of these organizations in an attempt to uncover their role in the redemptive value of the black church.

The first meeting that we will examine it the Minutes of the Seventh Annual Convention of the Woman’s Mite Missionary Society Held in Allen Temple, a.M.E. Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. The first thing that we will notice is that these meetings are almost always held in a church. However, the real question is if the church were actually an integral part of the meeting agenda, or whether it was simply the gathering place.

At first glance, it would appear that this fraternity is similar to any other organization. It has a Constitution and code of ethics by which members must abide. Committee reports were made and evenings seem to involve the singing of hymns and addresses by important society members. Scripture lessons were also a large part of the convention. Reports centered on missionary work in Cuba and other humanitarian causes (Woman’s Mite Missionary Society, 1903). The meeting centered around the Church and the work to be done. It was more than a social meeting and the church was an integral part of and key purpose for the meeting. The society was not exclusive to any particular group, as long as they paid their dues and agreed to abide by the moral code.

The Christian Endeavor Movement was established in Portland, Maine for the purpose of training young converts for the duties of church membership (Coppin, 1899, p. 677). The strength of this movement is in its numbers. It was established in 1881 and by 1897 it has 3,109,.806 members located in many other countries around the world (Coppin, 1899, p. 678). The society did more than to simply increase their numbers. They addressed the needs of many groups of new Christians and helped them to build a strong foundation based on Christina principles, regardless of where they were in life before they converted.

The Christian Endeavor Movement and other movements like it recognized that the new Christian would not be as likely to be able to embrace Christian values if they did not have the support of the community to help them stay on track. These organizations highlighted the two way relationship between and individual’s Christian life and their need for the church and the church’s need for the individual. By the early 1900s, these movements had become a vital part of the black church. They drove the church to be more than a place to meet on Sunday morning. They defined and typified the role of the church as a part of the larger community.

Aside from serving as a means to steer the church in direction that made it have social valuable, these organizations also provided accountability for its members. For instance, the Lookout Committee of the Christian Endeavor Movement had the duty of noting who was absent from the meetings and to inquire as to the reason. They were also responsible for making certain that members were behaving properly as well (Coppin, 1899, p. 685).

As one can see, the fraternal organizations that centered around the church served many purposes at the same time. They provided direction and organization to the church as an entity. They served as a means to provide accountability for members. They served to transform the church into an organization that was focused on larger issues than those of their individual membership. The fraternal organizations that sprang from the black church served to unite the congregations in such as way that they could serve a larger purpose.

These women’s fraternal organizations helped to promote a positive public image of the church. Their efforts were outward signals to the community that the black church was not an exclusive, closed organization that needed to be regarded with caution. These organizations allowed the black church to be seen in terms of their philanthropic endeavors and their concern for matters outside of their individual organizations.

The fraternal organizations also performed the role of providing funding for the formation of new churches and for the expansion of missionary work. The Free African Society was one of the first fraternal organizations to perform the funding function in the formation of new churches. This tradition continues into the fraternal organizations of today. The fraternal organizations connected with the church cannot be separated from the church body itself and the deeds of the fraternal organizations are a reflection on the church body.

The fraternal organizations of the black church have a redemptive quality through transforming the image of the black church, both inside and outside of the church organization. The fraternal organizations within the church serve to energize the church and give it a higher purpose beyond Sunday morning worship. The fraternal organizations that sprang up around the turn of the 20th century give the church a global perspective. This allows them to move beyond their differences and to be able to focus on common goals and achievements. Fraternal organizations give the church a body to work through, as they go about continuing the work of Christ.

One can compare this larger role to that of the early slave gatherings. The focus of the informal secretive gatherings of the slaves was on the individual. It was to increase the faith and strength of the individual so that they would not lose hope. It was difficult for blacks in the South to organize into a body that could serve the greater good. The lot of the slave was such that they could be torn from their communities and those that they loved at any given moment. They lacked the ability to build stable communities and long-term relationships. Their plight was precarious at best. This type of atmosphere was not conducive to the ability to build an organized, strong church body.

The ability of the fraternal organizations to build a body that could present a unified front for purposes that went beyond selfish concerns had a redeeming quality in light of the inability of slaves to accomplish a similar task. The fraternal organizations of the church represented a powerful force and the ability to overcome the oppression that had been the embodiment of the church for close to one-hundred years.

The Road to Redemption and the Black Church

Our examination of the purpose of the church began with the spirituality and importance of the church to the slaves. We found that the church and the Bible were a source of strength when they faced hardship. They turned to the church as an escape from the horrors that they faced. They turned to spirituality and the church for individual comfort. The need for this comfort inspired some to take up the road to teach others and become ministers.

In this portion of the exploration, the church was not well organized. Although churches had existed since the 1770s, there were many on plantations who could not attend. The churches were more readily accessible to those who were free. It was through the need for the ministers to read and right that the power of literacy became apparent. It was through the ministry that many learned to read and write. This gave them the power to transform the spiritually of individuals into a unified force. Reading became associated with the church and with the ability to gain freedom.

The power to read and write allowed ministers to provide the scripture to others, thus allowing them the knowledge that they needed to rise up from their bondage. The church became a symbol of the power of the black man to rise up and break out of their chains. As the church began to center around the organization of slaves, white society began to fear the potential social power of the black church. At this point, the church still existed for individuals, rather than groups. It became a formal means for them to express their grief and find hope.

By the turn of the century, the black church had changed. It still served the needs of the individuals, but the focus was on the community and the ability of the church to serve the greater good. Individuals were expected to serve the needs of the church and to promote its principles to the greater part of society. The church still served individuals and took care of their emotional needs, but it had become a goal-driven institution that used its numbers to serve the larger community. The church had evolved from one way service to individuals into a service organizations itself. This was a key component of the redemptive value of the black church. It allowed those who had received spiritual support from the church to give back to their community.

The service role of the church helped to defray the effects of the old south and their fear of the power of the black church. The black church had become a powerful force that stood apart from white churches. The black churches had a unity and purpose that white churches were still trying to build. The black church had moved beyond liturgy and had become a unified force with sights set to make a difference in the world. The fraternal organizations were the vehicle that allowed the church to accomplish these goals and to serve the greater good.

The 1906 Census tells the tale of growth of black churches in America. (U.S. CESUS, 1906). The following table uses data from the 1906 Census to illustrate the growth in church membership as compared to 1890 figures.

Table 1.


Colored1 Organizations — Communicants or Members.

Organizations reporting communicants or members: 1906.

Number of communicants or members reported.

Per cent distribution.

Increase from 1890 to 1906.

Rank in 1906.

Average per organization reporting.








Per cent.










Baptists — National Convention (Colored)












African Methodist Episcopal Church













Methodist Episcopal Church (part)













African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church












Colored Methodist Episcopal Church













Roman Catholic Church (part)











Colored Primitive Baptists in America3












Baptists — Northern Convention (part)










Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (part)











Protestant Episcopal Church (part)











Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church











United American Freewill Baptists (Colored)








Congregationalists (part)











Disciples or Christians (part)4










Free Baptists (part)











All other bodies (26)









This coincides with growth in church assets as well. The next table summarized the growth of church assets during the same time period.

Table 2.



Organizations reporting seating capacity of church edifices: 1906.

Seating capacity of church edifices reported.


Per cent distribution.

Increase from 1890 to 1906.

Average per organization reporting.


Per cent of total reporting church edifices.




Per cent.








Baptists — National Convention (Colored)









African Methodist Episcopal Church









Methodist Episcopal Church (part)









African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church









Colored Methodist Episcopal Church









Roman Catholic Church (part)









Colored Primitive Baptists in America3








Baptists — Northern Convention (part)








Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (part)







Protestant Episcopal Church (part)







Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church








United American Freewill Baptists (Colored)












Disciples or Christians (part)5







Free Baptists (part)







All other bodies (26)







These tables illustrate the growth of the black church from 1890 to 1906. Fraternal organizations played a key role in these growth patterns. For a church that as held back through the many years of oppression and slavery, these numbers reflect the redemptive role of the church in healing the black communities that they served. The role of the church changed throughout these years of internal growth. They continued to serve the spiritual needs of individual church members, but they were able to focus on the greater good. These numbers demonstrate the force that black churches represented in the early 20th century.

We have established that renewal is a form of redemption. It means shaking the problems of the past and moving forward into a new light. The growth of the black church during this time reflects a time of renewal. The church still faced many challenges and lived in a world where Jim Crow laws reminded them of their past. However, as the generation of slaves faded into memory, the new black church was experiencing a type of revival that it had never experienced in the past.

The revival of the church and numbers equated strength. From the women’s fraternal organizations to the enormous formal organizations that now existed, the church represented a resurgence of black pride. They continued to blend into industrial age society, amidst discrimination in the factories, in the sections of housing that they were assigned, and in their general treatment. However, times had been worse, and as they did in the past, blacks took every opportunity to take advantage of the chances that they were given.

This new resurgence in the black church fueled black politics and fights to provide even greater opportunities in the future. The fraternity and sense of larger purpose gave blacks confidence in their ability to accomplish great things as a people. They had already proven that they could make tremendous strides in improving literacy among their own. They had proven that they could resolve many of the problems of the past through working together and the cooperation that they learned while living on the plantation.

The growth and the power of the church at the beginning of the 20th century is a reflection of the very near past of blacks. The plantation years taught blacks many things that they carried into their new life. The generation that existed at the turn of the century was not the same one that existed during the years of enslavement. They were the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of that generation. One remnant of the traditions of their African ancestors remained. They passed on their knowledge to their children, who would then in turn pass it on to their children.

As their grandparents faded into the past, the children of the slaves carried on the traditions and gifts. As the church grew, a few key concepts drove them to accomplish great things. First, they knew that strength was in numbers and by working together they could achieve greatness as a people. They also knew that the church was to be a central part of the community. The church would provide a spiritual refuge when times were tough and a place for rejoicing when times were good. The growing numbers in these churches of the early 20th century demonstrate that belief in the church as an institution would continue well into the future.

By the early 20th century, the black church was on solid ground. Through collective efforts churches had managed to amass tremendous amounts of assets. Once again, this made them a force to be reckoned with and brought the eyes of the whites upon them. Black churches were a powerful force and could not escape notice. They were becoming a perceived threat to white supremacy. As their political power grew along with their ability to institute change, they continued increasingly to become victims of violence for the purpose of stopping them in their rise in power.

Understanding Redemption

The purpose of this study is to examine the redemptive role of the black church. As of yet, were have not established a formal definition of redemption. For the most part, one would expect to find this definition at the beginning of the dissertation. However, in order to develop a proper definition of redemption as it applies to the church, it is necessary to understand the role of the black church as it applies to the history of the African-Americans in general.

In order to understand the redemptive role of the black church, one must first understand the various roles that church life played in the lives of blacks throughout various times in history. This literature review focused on church life and spiritual life after the formation of the first formal black church’s in the United States. We found that three different general types of churches existed. Each of them had a specific role according the needs of the community that surrounded them. This is the essence of the role of the black church. It responds to the needs of the community around it.

The existence of informal churches on plantations illustrate how the needs of the church address the specific needs of the community surrounding them. The small informal prayer meetings served the purpose of transforming a dismal life into one of hope by giving the slaves something to hold onto.

The formal churches that were ran by the white slavers served another transformative role. They transformed pacifist inaction into passion and action against bondage. They served to transform the black people of the South in a manner that made them respond to the continued servitude of the whites in a way the eventually brought them out of bondage.

Thus far, we have established that redemption involves some type of change. When we talk about redemption and the Bible, we typically talk about redemption of our sins and misgivings. Redemption means deliverance from sins. In terms of how this relates to the black church, this simple definition would seem inadequate, particularly in light of how we have seen the function of the church change within black society. It is not enough to say that redemption refers to the redemption of the individual blacks for their sins. An exploration of the role of the church within black society implies that the definition of redemption goes much deeper.

Our exploration of the role of the church in slave societies and in the growth period at the turn of the century hint that the term redemption means that some type of change has taken place. Typically redemption does not refer to a negative change, but by its nature, implies a positive change. Now, we know that we are looking for some type of positive change to take place.

Throughout our exploration of the role of the black church, we have found many types of positive change as a result of the role of the church. Therefore, one could say that the church as a redemptive role in black society. However, our definition of redemption goes father then simply a positive change. We have discovered that many types of positive change can take place within a society. Changes can occur on many different levels. This would suggest that redemption can occur on many different levels as well. Let us now examine some of these types of positive change that can occur as a part of the redemptive process as supported by the literature examined thus far.

Changes in the Individual. Based on our observations thus far, we have found that changes can occur in the individual. The greatest evidence of this was found in the narratives of the slaves. They found individual redemption through the transformation of hopelessness into hope through faith. Faith was the catalyst an the secret prayer meeting were the vehicle that allowed the change to take place.

Changes in the Organization. The best example of redemption at an organizational level examined thus far occurred in the antebellum period. On the basis that redemption equates change, one could argue that the transition from the secret prayer meeting to white-controlled compulsory services were also a form of redemption. However, this can be argued on the basis that this change led to greater anger in the slaves and that this anger eventually led to violence. This violence led to freedom and the ability of churches to organize formally. Therefore, it can be argued as to whether this transition represented true redemption.

The changes that occurred during the antebellum period represent true redemption for the organization of the church. It is during this time that the final form of the church began to take place. The church was redeemed and transformed from chaos into a form that could better serve black society. Therefore, redemption can occur on an organizational level as well as on an individual level.

Changes in the Community. Changes in the organization of the church led to redemption of the church as an organization. This redemption led to the direct redemption and transformation of the communities served by these churches. Communities began to feel the political power of the churches. The churches gave the community a voice, while continuing to serve the individual needs of the followers. Fraternal organizations first began to appear on a community level. They served the needs of the local community and provided a positive image of the black church. They transformed the black church into a community asset where like-minded people could come together for the greater good of all. The image of the black church was redeemed in the community by these fraternal organizations.

Changes in the Nation. Changes on a community level led to changes on a national level. As community level fraternities and churches grew, they became entrenched in the fabric of America. They formed networks and larger organizations that could minister to greater numbers of people over a larger geographic area. Redemption of the image of black churches on a national level was a direct result of redemption in the individual communities.

As the political power of the churches increased, so did their ability to exert influence on a greater scale. The black church became a formidable power on the political scene. This rise in the economic and political ranks could be viewed as redemption for the years of hardship and need that their people had to endure while in slavery. The rise of the black church in political and economic power represents another form of redemption.

Changes in the world. The fraternal organizations within the church began to extend their reach beyond the boundaries of America. This effect was a direct result of the ability to organize to achieve larger growth. In the way the redemptive power of the black church extended to the rest of the world.

Now we have established that redemption involves some type of positive change. The types of changes observed in the black church have occurred on many different levels. The question that all of this raises is if these changes must occur in order. Must they progress from the individual to the world, or can changes on a global level have a change on the redemption of the individual. Up until this point, the changes had to first occur on an individual level. They then progressed through the various levels.

It would appear that from this discussion, the redemptive role of the church must progress form the individual to the world. However, as we will discover, it may be possible for the redemptive role of the church to progress from the organizational level to the individual level. Our next portion of the literature review will explore the modern history of the black church. It will explore the transformative power of the organization through leaders such as Martin Luther King and its redemption of the individual during the Civil Rights Movement. It will also explore the role of the church today as a key service provider. This discussion will provide further insight into the redemptive role of the black church.


Primary Sources

Aaron. (1845), the Light and Truth of Slavery. Aaron’s History: Electronic Edition. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Adams, John Quincy. (1872). Narrative of the Life of John Quincy Adams. Retrieved June 19,

2010 from

Albert, Octavia V. Rogers (1890) the House of Bondage. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Bibb, H. (1849). Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave,

Written by Himself: Electronic Edition. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Brown, Henry Box, and Charles Stearn, (1849). Narrative of Henry Box Brown. Retrieved June

19, 2010 from

Brown, William Wells, Narrative of William W. Brown (1849), Retrieved June 19, 2010

Bruce, Henry Clay (1895). The New Man (1895), Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Coppin, L. (1899). Christian Endeavor Movement. African Methodist Episcopal Church Review.

15 (3): 677-688. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Davis, N. (1803). A Narrative of the Life of Rev. Noah Davis, a Colored Man.

Written by Himself, at the Age of Fifty-Four: Electronic Edition. Retrieved June 19,

2010 from

Johnson, Isaac, Slavery Days in Old Kentucky (1901), 24-25 p. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Lewis, J. (1836). Twenty-Eight Years a Slave, or the Story of My Life in Three Continents:

Electronic Edition. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Lane, Lunsford, the Narrative of Lunsford Lane (1842), 20 p Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Marrs, Elijah P., Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs (1885), 11-12 p. Retrieved June 19,

2010 from

O’Neal, William, Life and History of William O’Neal (1896), or, the Man Who Sold His Wife:

Electronic Edition. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Randolph, P. (1893, 2000) From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit; the Autobiography of Rev. Peter

Randolph: The Southern Question Illustrated and Sketches of Slave Life. The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph. Electronic Edition. Boston: James H. Earle,

Publisher. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Stearn, C. (1816). Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery. Retrieved June

19, 2010 from

Woman’s Mite Missionary Society. 1903. Minutes of the Seventh Annual Convention,

Cincinnati, 1903. July 2nd to July 5th 1903. The African-American Experience in Ohio.

Retrieved June 21, 2010 from

Secondary Sources

PBS Online. (1998). Africans in America. Brotherly Love. Retrieved June 20, 2010 from

Aldred, J. (2007). Black Churches: Contributing to cohesion or polarizing Christians and other faith groups. Retrieved June 20, 2010 from

Contributing+to+cohesion+or+polarizing+Christians+and+other+faith+groups.&cd=1&h l=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=pub-8451664467457009

Barnes, S. (2004). Priestly and Prophetic Influences on Black Church Social Services. Social Problems. 51 (2): 202-221. Retrieved June 19, 2010 from

Bibb, Henry (1849) Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb. Retrieved June 19,

2010 from

Blank, M., Mahmood, M., Fox., J. And Guterbock, T. (2002). Alternative Mental Health

Services: The Role of the Black Church in the South. Am J. Public Health. 92(10): 1668-

1972. Retrieved June 15, 2010 from

Brooks, W. (2004). A History of Negro Baptist Churches in America (Washington, D.C.: Press

of R.L. Pendelton, 1910) © 2004 University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Online July 22, 2005, Retrieved June 19, 2010 from .

Grendler, M., Leiter, a. & Sexton, J. (2004). North American Slave Narratives. Documenting the American South. The Retrieved June 19, 2010 from University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill. Retrieved June 10, 2010 from

Jeffries, L. (2008). The African-Americans Search for Truth and Knowledge. Part Twenty:

African-American Church in the Revolutionary Era. Retrieved June 10, 2010 from Last Updated December 28, 2008.

Leo, E. (2004). Cornel West: The Politics of Redemption/Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion/Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights.

Theology Today. July 2004. Retrieved June 20, 2010 from

Maffly-Kipp, L. (2001). An Introduction to the Church in the Southern Black Community.

Documenting the American South. The University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill.

Retrieved June 10, 2010 from

Reaves, W. 1998. Strength Through Struggle.Wilmington NC., Thomson-Shore, Inc.

US Census Bureau. (1906). Religious Bodies, 1906: [Excerpts Relating to African-American

Religious Bodies]:Electronic Edition. United States. Bureau of the Census. Retrieved June 21, 2010 from

Miscellaneou Notes and Resources for the rest of the dissertation

Future Chapters

Continued discussion of the redemptive role of the black church in modern times. (20-25 more pages of literature review)

Chapter 3: Methodology (5-10 pages) it will focus on the qualitative nature of the study and why it is appropriate for this subject. It will explore various elements of the sources used. It will discuss validity issues with the study.

Chapter 4: Findings (10 pages). Summarize and discuss key findings of the study

Chapter 5: Conclusions and Implications . Relate conclusions to original research questions and hypotheses. It will discuss the future of the redemptive role of the black church and the implications of these findings.

A key source is:

Don’t forget about the church and MLK

Role of the Black Church today

In a study conducted by Barnes (2004), it was found that in a majority of black churches today programs are focused on youth rather than political or civic duties. However, this was not always the case in the past. Early churches differed in their role as religious centers in the community by the mount of emphasis that they placed on religious as oppose social and political functions. In some churches, little emphasis was placed on the religious aspects of church life. Charts tended to follow along the spectrum train placing emphasis on religion in the placing emphasis on other functions (Barnes, 2004).


The role of the black church changes throughout hiuspory. The church continued to be a source of educational, political, communuiyt and economic activity. Howevet, the importantce of each of these roles changes through hisotyr. In the eadrly days the role of educator was emphasize, giving slaves the means to break free of their bonds. As the public educational system became available to blacks, the role of the church chanrged. The fraternal movements of the early 1900s gave the church the role od serving as a source of communyt and economic activity., Much of the activity of the fraternities centered on economic and social activities. They had a sense of purpose and used the church as a means to pool resources for the common good.

During the 1950s and 60s, the role of the black church changed to one of politicial nature. The church porivded political unity and a voice to be heard.

Now the role of the church emphasizes the social role, feeding the poort, running food bacnks, etc.

The difference between white and black churches goes beyond litufey and flavor or worship practices.

Redemption is a form of renewal.

will take in terms of purpose, scope, and sequence/organization. The introduction of this chapter should include the titles of the main headings you have in this chapter. Remember that in this chapter you are reporting on what other researchers, experts, theorists, etc. have already said about the subject. Therefore, for the most part, the verbs in this chapter are past tense. It is a skill on the part of graduate students to report on the literature in such a way that the student also compares, contrasts, and in so doing analyzes what is found in the literature.

7. How has the black church served as redemptive force in helping the black people to heal?

8. What factors served as a redemptive force in helping the image of black people in the black church to improve?

9. How has a black church helped black communities to regain and maintain their self sufficiency?

10. How has the black church served as a means to identify common cultural constructs and as a means to preserve them?

11. Has the role of the black church changed since the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties?

12. What role could the black church expect fulfill on the future?

What aobut separation of church and stare in terms of politicis in the balck church.

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