American Negro Churches

Removed from their African environment, slaves in colonial America were introduced to the Christian religion which helped them adjust to the social structures of a new civilization. At first there was little organized effort to evangelize them. Slaves ordinarily attended the church of their master or were provided minimal religious instruction by master, pastor, or missionary. After the Great Awakening* in the eighteenth century, aggressive evangelists, particularly Baptists and Methodists, reached them with a simple, personal, and emotional Gospel that injected new meaning and hope into their lives.

Except among free Negroes, the Negro church rarely emerged as an independent institution before the Civil War. Separate congregations existed, some under white and some under black leadership, but most Negro church members belonged to congregations where membership was shared with white members who were frequently in the minority. After the Revolutionary War there were numerous secessions by free Negroes from white churches.

The first known Negro church in America was a Baptist church founded at Silver Bluff, South Carolina, in 1775. Soon Baptist congregations were formed in Savannah (1788), Boston (1805), New York (1807), Philadelphia (1809), and subsequently in many other places. Several Methodist congregations were established at the end of the eighteenth century, but they were soon organized into Negro denominations. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in Philadelphia (1816) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City (1821).

After the Civil War, Negro church organizations grew rapidly as ex-slaves, withdrawing from white churches, were for the most part absorbed by the institutions begun by free Negroes before the war. In 1870 the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, originally part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was constituted a separate denomination. In 1886 the majority of Baptists were brought together in what was to become the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., from which the National Baptist Convention of America separated in 1916; these are the two largest Negro denominations in America. The Negro church-the one institution in which Negroes could find self-expression, develop leadership, and provide social services-became and still remains for many the most important agency for the achievement of a sense of community and status.

More than two-thirds of Negro church members are concentrated in five denominations: National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. with 5.5 million (1958); National Baptist Convention of America with 2.669 million (1956); African Methodist Episcopal Church with 1.66 million (1951); African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church with 940,000 (1970); and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church with 467,000 (1965). Negroes are also found in smaller denominations and in predominantly white denominations, though usually in black congregations. Of white Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church has the largest Negro membership. Since World War II, the Roman Catholic Church has become one of the leading religious bodies among Negroes, and its Negro membership is believed now to equal that in predominantly white Protestant denominations.

The migration to the cities after World War I contributed to the rise of “storefront” churches and numerous organized cults for Negroes who did not feel at home in more conventional churches. Typical of many groups that were hostile to traditional religious expressions are the Black Muslims, Black Jews, and Father Divine's Peace Mission.

Negro churches follow American religious patterns, reflecting in large measure the other churches of corresponding or parent denominations and of the same educational and economic level. Their theology is typically fundamentalist, pietist, and evangelical. The “otherworldly” emphasis of the “spirituals” is still prominent; the Church remains a refuge and a source of hope in a hostile world. As Negro education and economy improve, their theology and worship become more intellectual, sophisticated, and emotionally disciplined.

The Negro community is “overchurched,” with a higher ratio of ministers and churches than the general population. The minister has the historic role of leadership. Unfortunately, too few possess adequate formal education, and the supply does not appear to be increasing.

The Negro church is predominantly urban, with more and more of its members sharing the middle-class ideals and common secular attitudes. Increasing emphasis upon this world has induced many church leaders to head movements for civil rights, economic justice, and better educational opportunities. The expectation among Negroes is substantial and growing that churches should be involved in community improvement through cooperation with other organizations and through social and political action. The struggle for racial and social justice has created a crisis of role and identity for the church and its leaders.

The Negro church exists for the purposes of a yet deprived and troubled people. As long as Negroes are excluded from or are uncomfortable in white churches, the Negro church will remain an instrument for the expression of racial identity and a medium for shaping and expressing their aspirations.

W.E.B. Dubois, The Negro Church (1903); C.G. Woodson, History of the Negro Church (1921); B.E. Mays and J.W. Nicholson, The Negro's Church (1933); A.H. Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis (1944); H.V. Richardson, Dark Glory: A Picture of the Church among Negroes in the Rural South (1947); F.S. Loescher, The Protestant Church and the Negro (1948); R.F. Johnston, The Development of Negro Religion (1954); E.F. Frazier, The Negro Church in America (1964); J.R. Washington, Jr., Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity in the United States (1964); H.V. Richardson, “The Negro in American Religious Life,” in The American Reference Book (ed. J.P. Davis, 1966), pp. 396-413.