African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness / Edition 2

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This widely-heralded collection of remarkable documents offers a view of African American religious history from Africa and early America through Reconstruction to the rise of black nationalism, civil rights, and black theology of today. The documents—many of them rare, out-of-print, or difficult to find—include personal narratives, sermons, letters, protest pamphlets, early denominational histories, journalistic accounts, and theological statements. In this volume Olaudah Equiano describes Ibo religion. Lemuel Haynes gives a black Puritan’s farewell. Nat Turner confesses. Jarena Lee becomes a female preacher among the African Methodists. Frederick Douglass discusses Christianity and slavery. Isaac Lane preaches among the freedmen. Nannie Helen Burroughs reports on the work of Baptist women. African Methodist bishops deliberate on the Great Migration. Bishop C. H. Mason tells of the Pentecostal experience. Mahalia Jackson recalls the glory of singing at the 1963 March on Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes from the Birmingham jail.
Originally published in 1985, this expanded second edition includes new sources on women, African missions, and the Great Migration. Milton C. Sernett provides a general introduction as well as historical context and comment for each document.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822324492
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/1999
  • Series: The C. Eric Lincoln Series on the Black Experience
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 608
  • Sales rank: 392,638
  • Product dimensions: 6.09 (w) x 9.19 (h) x 1.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Milton C. Sernett is Professor of African-American studies at Syracuse University. He is the author of several books, including Bound for the Promised Land, also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

African American Religious History

A Documentary Witness

By Milton C. Sernett

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9603-1



Traditional Ibo Religion and Culture

The lineage tree of African American religion is rooted in the cultures of traditional Africa. Africans were a religious people long before encountering European slavers and Christian missionaries. Olaudah Equiano's memoirs, published in 1789 in England and two years later in America, depict the integral relationship of religion to traditional culture. Kidnapped when eleven from his home in what is now eastern Nigeria, Olaudah Equiano (1745–1801) passed through several hands before being sold to the captain of an English trading vessel in Virginia. After many maritime adventures and experiences as a slave in Barbados, Philadelphia, and England, he purchased his freedom in 1766.

When first able to read the Bible, Equiano expressed amazement at seeing "the laws and rules of my own country written almost exactly." Baptized as Gustavus Vassa, after the Swedish Protestant monarch, Olaudah identified himself with the Christian abolitionists in England and wrote his autobiography to chronicle the evils of the slave trade. Some of the details are suspect in light of ethnographic research, but important aspects of Ibo religion, such as its diffused monotheism, intricate ritual, beliefs about ancestors, or the "living dead," and the influence of diviners and sorcerers, can be gleaned from the narrative. In 1786 English authorities appointed Equiano commissary of provisions and stores for the "Black Poor going to Sierra Leone." Dismissed from his post, he returned to vindicate his character, write his narrative, and speak throughout England against the barbarous slave traffic.

As to religion, the natives believe that there is one Creator of all things, and that he lives in the sun, and is girded round with a belt, that he may never eat or drink; but according to some, he smokes a pipe, which is our own favorite luxury. They believe he governs events, especially our deaths or captivity; but, as for the doctrine of eternity, I do not remember to have ever heard of it: some however believe in the transmigration of souls in a certain degree. Those spirits, which are not transmigrated, such as their dear friends or relations, they believe always attend them, and guard them from the bad spirits of their foes. For this reason, they always, before eating, as I have observed, put some small portion of the meat, and pour some of their drink, on the ground for them; and they often make oblations of the blood of beasts or fowls at their graves. I was very fond of my mother, and almost constantly with her. When she went to make these oblations at her mother's tomb, which was a kind of small solitary thatched house, I sometimes attended her. There she made her libations, and spent most of the night in cries and lamentation. I have been often extremely terrified on these occasions. The loneliness of the place, the darkness of the night, and the ceremony of libation, naturally awful and gloomy, were heightened by my mother's lamentations; and these concurring with the doleful cries of birds, by which these places were frequented, gave an inexpressible terror to the scene.

We compute the year from the day on which the sun crosses the line; and, on its setting that evening, there is a general shout throughout the land; at least, I can speak from my own knowledge, throughout our vicinity. The people at the same time made a great noise with rattles not unlike the basket rattles used by children here, though much larger, and hold up their hands to heaven for a blessing. It is then the greatest offerings are made; and those children whom our wise men foretell will be fortunate are then presented to different people. I remember many used to come to see me, and I was carried about to others for that purpose. They have many offerings, particularly at full moons, generally two at harvest, before the fruits are taken out of the ground; and, when any young animals are killed, sometimes they offer up part of them as a sacrifice. These offerings, when made by one of the heads of a family, serve for the whole. I remember we often had them at my father's and my uncle's, and their families have been present. Some of our offerings are eaten with bitter herbs. We had a saying among us to any one of a cross temper, "That if they were to be eaten, they should be eaten with bitter herbs."

We practised circumcision like the Jews, and made offerings and feasts on that occasion in the same manner as they did. Like them also our children were named from some event, some circumstance, or fancied foreboding, at the time of their birth. I was named Olaudah, which, in our language, signifies vicissitude, or fortune also; one favoured, and having a loud voice, and well spoken. I remember we never polluted the name of the object of our adoration; on the contrary, it was always mentioned with the greatest reverence; and we were totally unacquainted with swearing, and all those terms of abuse and reproach which find their way so readily and copiously into the language of more civilized people. The only expressions of that kind I remember were "May you rot, or may you swell, or may a beast take you."

I have before remarked, that the natives of this part of Africa are extremely cleanly. This necessary habit of decency was with us a part of religion, and therefore we had many purifications and washings; indeed almost as many, and used on the same occasions, if my recollection does not fail me, as the Jews. Those that touched the dead at any time were obliged to wash and purify themselves before they could enter a dwelling-house. Every woman too, at certain times, was forbidden to come into a dwelling-house, or touch any person, or anything we eat. I was so fond of my mother I could not keep from her, or avoid touching her at some of those periods, in consequence of which I was obliged to be kept out with her in a little house made for that purpose, till offering was made, and then we were purified.

Though we had no places of public worship, we had priests and magicians, or wise men. I do not remember whether they had different offices, or whether they were united in the same persons, but they were held in great reverence by the people. They calculated our time and foretold events, as their name imported, for we called them Ah-affoe-way-cah, which signifies calculators or yearly men, our year being called Ah-affoe. They wore their beards; and, when they died, they were succeeded by their sons. Most of their implements and things of value were interred along with them. Pipes and tobacco were also put into the grave with the corpse, which was always perfumed and ornamented; and animals were offered in sacrifice to them. None accompanied their funerals, but those of the same profession or tribe. These buried them after sunset, and always returned from the grave by a different way from that which they went.

These magicians were also our doctors or physicians. They practised bleeding by cupping; and were very successful in healing wounds and expelling poisons. They had likewise some extraordinary method of discovering jealousy, theft, and poisoning; the success of which no doubt they derived from the unbounded influence over the credulity and superstition of the people. I do not remember what those methods were, except that as to poisoning. I recollect an instance or two, which I hope it will not be deemed impertinent here to insert, as it may serve as a kind of specimen of the rest, and is still used by the negroes in the West Indies. A young woman had been poisoned, but it was not known by whom: the doctors ordered the corpse to be taken up by some persons, and carried to the grave. As soon as the bearers had raised it on their shoulders, they seemed seized with some sudden impulse, and ran to and fro, unable to stop themselves. At last, after having passed through a number of thorns and prickly bushes unhurt, the corpse fell from them close to a house, and defaced it in the fall; and the owner being taken up, he immediately confessed the poisoning.

The natives are extremely cautious about poison. When they buy any eatable, the seller kisses it all round before the buyer, to show him it is not poisoned; and the same is done when any meat or drink is presented, particularly to a stranger. We have serpents of different kinds, some of which are esteemed ominous when they appear in our houses, and these we never molest. I remember two of those ominous snakes, each of which was as thick as the calf of a man's leg, and in colour resembling a dolphin in the water, crept at different times into my mother's night-house, where I always lay with her, and coiled themselves into folds, and each time they crowed like a cock. I was desired by some of our wise men to touch these, that I might be interested in the good omens, which I did, for they are quite harmless, and would tamely suffer themselves to be handled; and then they were put into a large open earthen pan, and set on one side of the high-way. Some of our snakes, however, were poisonous. One of them crossed the road one day as I was standing on it, and passed between my feet, without offering to touch me, to the great surprise of many who saw it; and these incidents were accounted, by the wise men, and likewise by my mother and the rest of the people, as remarkable omens in my favour.

Such is the imperfect sketch my memory has furnished me with of the manners and customs of a people among whom I first drew my breath. And here I cannot forbear suggesting what has long struck me very forcibly, namely, the strong analogy which even by this sketch, imperfect as it is, appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen, and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs, while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis—an analogy which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other. Indeed this is the opinion of Dr. Gill, who, in his Commentary on Genesis, very ably deduces the pedigree of the Africans from Afer and Afra, the descendants of Abraham by Keturah his wife and concubine (for both these titles are applied to her). It is also conformable to the sentiments of Dr. John Clarke, formerly Dean of Sarum, in his Truth of the Christian Religion: Both these authors concur in ascribing to us this original. The reasonings of those gentlemen are still further confirmed by the Scripture Chronology of the Rev. Arthur Bedford; and, if any further corroboration were required, this resemblance in so many respects, is a strong evidence in support of the opinion. Like the Israelites in their primitive state, our government was conducted by our chiefs, our judges, our wise men, and elders; and the head of a family with us enjoyed a similar authority over his household with that which is ascribed to Abraham and the other patriarchs. The law of retaliation obtained almost universally with us as with them: and even their religion appeared to have shed upon us a ray of its glory, though broken and spent in its passage, or eclipsed by the cloud with which time, tradition, and ignorance, might have enveloped it: for we had our circumcision (a rule I believe peculiar to that people): we had also our sacrifices and burnt-offerings, our washings and purifications, on the same occasions as they had.

As to the difference of colour between the Eboan Africans and the modern Jews, I shall not presume to account for it. It is a subject which has engaged the pens of men of both genius and learning, and is far above my strength. The most able and Reverend Mr. T. Clarkson, however, in his much admired Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, has ascertained the cause in a manner that at once solves every objection on that account, and, on my mind at least, has produced the fullest conviction. I shall therefore refer to that performance for the theory, contenting myself with extracting a fact as related by Dr. Mitchel. "The Spaniards who have inhabited America, under the torrid zone, for any time, are become as dark coloured as our native Indians of Virginia, of which I myself have been a witness." There is also another instance of a Portuguese settlement at Mitomba, a river in Sierra Leona, where the inhabitants are bred from a mixture of the first Portuguese discoverers with the natives, and are now become, in their complexion, and in the wooly quality of their hair, perfect negroes, retaining, however, a smattering of the Portuguese language.

These instances, and a great many more which might be adduced, while they show how the complexions of the same persons vary in different climates, it is hoped may tend also to remove the prejudice that some conceive against the natives of Africa on account of their colour. Surely the minds of the Spaniards did not change with their complexions! Are there not causes enough to which the apparent inferiority of an African may be ascribed, without limiting the goodness of God, and supposing he forebore to stamp understanding on certainly his own image, because "carved in ebony"? Might it not naturally be ascribed to their situation? When they come among Europeans, they are ignorant of their language, religion, manners, and customs. Are any pains taken to teach them these? Are they treated as men? Does not slavery itself depress the mind, and extinguish all its fire, and every noble sentiment? But, above all, what advantages do not a refined people possess over those who are rude and uncultivated? Let the polished and haughty European recollect, that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons, and should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No. Let such reflections as these melt the pride of their superiority into sympathy for the wants and miseries of their sable brethren, and compel them to acknowledge, that understanding is not confined to feature or colour. If, when they look round the world, they feel exultation, let it be tempered with benevolence to others, and gratitude to God, "who hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth; and whose wisdom is not our wisdom, neither are our ways his ways."


Excerpted from African American Religious History by Milton C. Sernett. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition
Introduction 1
1 Traditional Ibo Religion and Culture 13
2 African Religions in Colonial Jamaica 20
3 Slave Conversion on the Carolina Frontier 25
4 "Address to the Negroes in the State of New York" 34
5 Letters from Pioneer Black Baptists 44
6 A Black Puritan's Farewell 52
7 Plantation Churches: Visible and Invisible 63
8 "Proud of that 'Ole Time' Religion" 69
9 Conjuration and Witchcraft 76
10 "Great Moral Dilemma" 81
11 Religion and Slave Insurrection 89
12 Slaveholding Religion and the Christianity of Christ 102
13 Slave Songs and Spirituals 112
14 "Life Experience and Gospel Labors" 139
15 Rise of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church 155
16 A Female Preacher among the African Methodists 164
17 African Baptists Celebrate Emancipation in New York State 185
18 "Our Wretchedness in Consequence of the Preachers of Religion" 193
19 "Mrs. Stewart's Farewell Address to Her Friends in the City of Boston" 202
20 "To the Citizens of New York" 211
21 Black Churches in New York City, 1840 218
22 Protesting the "Negro Pew" 224
23 "I Will Not Live a Slave" 228
24 "Welcome to the Ransomed" 232
25 From Slave to Preacher among the Freedmen 245
26 "The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church" 251
27 Black Religion in the Post-Reconstruction South 256
28 "Education in the A.M.E. Church" 261
29 The Travail of a Female Colored Evangelist 270
30 "The Regeneration of Africa" 282
31 Emigration to Africa 289
32 The First African American Catholic Congress, 1889 296
33 1899 Presidential Address to the National Baptist Convention 301
34 Bishop C. H. Mason, Church of God in Christ 314
35 "Of the Faith of the Fathers" 325
36 "The Race Problem in a Christian State, 1906" 337
37 "What Induced Me to Build a School in the Rural District" 347
38 Address on the Great Migration 359
39 "Dear Mary" and "My dear Sister" 364
40 Social Work at Olivet Baptist Church 368
41 Effects of Urbanization on Religious Life 372
42 Report of the Work of Baptist Women 376
43 Address to the Suehn Industrial Mission, Liberia 403
A Letter from the "Foreign Field" 410
44 "Things of the Spirit" 415
45 "The Genius of the Negro Church" 423
46 "The Churches of Bronzeville" 435
47 Garvey Tells His Own Story 453
48 "Organized Religion and the Cults" 464
49 Black Judaism in Harlem 473
50 "The Realness of God, to you-wards ..." 478
51 Elder Lucy Smith 487
52 "Self-Government in the New World" 499
53 "National Baptist Philosophy of Civil Rights" 511
54 "Letter from Birmingham Jail - April 16, 1963" 519
55 Singing of Good Tidings and Freedom 536
56 "The Anatomy of Segregation and Ground of Hope" 548
57 "Black Power" Statement, July 31, 1966, and "Black Theology" Statement, June 13, 1969 555
58 "Black Theology and the Black Church: Where Do We Go from Here?" 567
59 "The Black Churches: A New Agenda" 580
Index 589
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