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New day begun African American churches and civic culture in post-civil rights America
By R. Drew Smith
Duke University Press
Chapter One REVISITING THE "ALL-COMPREHENDING INSTITUTION": HISTORICAL REFLECTIONS ON THE PUBLIC ROLES OF BLACK CHURCHES
Commentary concerning the involvement of the black church in public affairs and public policy issues reflects a range of tendencies. Some hold that the black church has always majored in an otherworldly outlook and compensatory hope, thus relegating public service and social welfare to either secondary status or no place at all. Others downplay the otherworldly-compensatory model, contending instead that the black church has always embraced a reformist-activist ethic aimed at the transformation of society and culture in the here and now. Still others point to the dual function of the black church, noting that that institution, throughout its history, has combined an emphasis on the rewards of heaven with an active participation in temporal affairs. This keen sense of the interrelationship between worldly and other-otherworldly concerns provides the best avenue for understanding both the nature and the extent of black church involvement in American public life.
This essay uses functional analysis to determine the various ways in which the church and religion have traditionally served the individual and collective needs of African Americans.Drawing on Carter G. Woodson's image of the black church as "all-comprehending institution," the general contention is that there has always been a tradition in the black church that encourages faith-based social action, social service, and involvement in public policy issues. This tradition is rooted in a social gospel that upholds Christianity's historic concern for the poor and oppressed and that encourages the involvement of the church in virtually every aspect of African American life.
A century before black churches originated and assumed various institutional forms, Africans in the American colonies approached their struggle for freedom and justice as a pressing moral and public policy issue. In 1661 an African petitioned the governmental authorities in the colony of New Netherlands (later New York) for freedom, suggesting that there was no necessary disjunction between being Christian and appealing to the political realm in the interest of the common good. Similar petitions were presented to the colonial governments of Virginia, North Carolina, and Massachusetts during the period from 1675 to the American Revolution, as enslaved Africans drew on the Christian ethic, Enlightenment principles, and democratic values in advancing their claims. Apparently, such actions were designed to shape public opinion and policy regarding slavery at a time when many colonists refused, on religious grounds, to challenge the fundamental structures and ethos of their society.
In any case, the black church was born into a culture that did not separate private devotion from public duty. Invariably, this meant that the church had to move beyond the strictly spiritual and ecclesiastical to promote positive change in vital areas of life-social, political, economic, intellectual, and otherwise. This became all the more important for Africans in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century America, many of whom claimed the church as the only visible institution that they owned and controlled on a wide scale. This is what Carter G. Woodson had in mind when referring to the black church as "an all-comprehending institution":
The Negro church touches almost every ramification of the life of the Negro. As stated elsewhere, the Negro church, in the absence of other agencies to assume such responsibilities, has had to do more than its duty in taking care of the general interests of the race. A definitive history of the Negro church, therefore, would leave practically no phase of the history of the Negro in America untouched. All efforts of the Negro in things economic, educational and political have branched out of or connected in some way with the rise and development of the Negro church. This image of the "all-comprehending institution" helps explain how black churches, from their origins, found a special or unique expression. First established during the late eighteenth century, as Americans resisted British colonial domination, black churches of various denominations became meetinghouses of faith and social action. This was especially the case with black churches in the North, where Africans had more freedom than those in the South to create institutions for their own liberation and uplift. The politico-prophetic role that these churches would consistently assume in public affairs had become clear by the early 1800s, as they pointed to the paradox of a new nation born in freedom while more than 700,000 Africans languished in bondage. Richard Allen's African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), James Varick's African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ), Peter Spencer's African Union Church, Thomas Paul's African Baptist Church, and other black churches were forced into the public arena by the very nature of the black condition, and their tendency to combine a strong African consciousness and spirituality with an emphasis on racial advancement proved that there were centrifugal forces at work inside them.
The pioneers in the black church embodied a sense of mission and a depth of vision and leadership that were virtually nonexistent even at the highest levels of the nation's political life. Knowing that society's institutional structures were racist and unjust, Allen, Varick, Spencer, Paul, the African Episcopal leader Absalom Jones, and countless others refused to reduce religion to matters of individual or personal ethics. They measured up to heroic standards of virtue while making the Christian faith relevant to the struggle for equal rights and social justice, and their voices remained uncompromising and undaunted in pursuit of the public good. Drawing on the Exodus, the crucifixion, and other stories, characters, and images from the Bible, they encouraged church-based activism while identifying their cause with the will of God. Moreover, their activities contributed to the rise of a host of benevolent societies and other ethnic associations to sustain their people's social, political, economic, educational, and cultural interests. Consequently, black churches assumed a significance that was not duplicated by other ethnic churches. Winthrop S. Hudson says as much and more as he describes black churches as the repositories of black identity, the prime institutional embodiment of folk values, and the treasuries of religious folk life:
Cut off from most areas of social and political life, the Negroes found in the church an opportunity for self-expression, recognition, and leadership. It was hardly a coincidence that until well into the twentieth century most of the outstanding Negro leaders had been ministers, for the ministry provided one of the few opportunities for leadership open to a Negro. Furthermore, the church was the primary agency of self-help, and it played an important role in maintaining group cohesion under difficult circumstances and in fostering the self-respect which is gained only through the exercise of independent responsibilities.
While the earliest black churches differed to some degree in terms of their denominational identities, systems of polity, doctrinal standards, and modes of discipline, this did not obscure their fundamental agreement concerning the need to challenge the status quo. They had a common understanding of the Christian faith and its implications for addressing human need and inequality. In other words, there was a consensus of beliefs, attitudes, values, and expectations that bound them together despite the incidentals that distinguished them from one another. Thus, they were able to establish a broad, interdenominational tradition of shared involvement in the struggle for a just and inclusive society, one that contributed enormously to the vitality of black churches as social institutions. This tradition was embodied to the fullest in the National Negro Convention Movement, which cultivated the spirit of self-reliance and uplift in black churches in the period between 1830 and 1860.
Slavery was the one issue that drew black churches into the public arena in ways not yet captured in the scholarship on the subject. Indeed, the abolition of slavery figured quite prominently among the mission priorities of black churches. At a time when many white Christians viewed slavery as a civil matter that justified the strict noninterference of the church, most black clergy and laypersons saw it as a great evil that had to be challenged and eliminated through the efforts of both ecclesiastical and governmental representatives. This explains why slavery was consistently under attack in the sermons of the AME Zion leader Peter Williams Jr., the African Baptist pastor Nathaniel Paul, the AME spokesman Daniel A. Payne, and numerous others. In keeping with his quest for "the economic and political betterment of black people," Richard Allen went beyond preaching antislavery sermons to the boycotting of slave-made goods. Moreover, both the AME and AME Zion churches barred slaveholders from membership. Such activities were geared in part toward shaping public opinion and policy in opposition to slavery. The efforts of churchmen such as Williams, Paul, Payne, and Allen were immensely important for African American churchpersons in the slave South, who were more limited in terms of movement, function, and opportunities of leadership, and who possessed fewer mechanisms to mold public opinion in favor of their cause.
There were more colorful figures in black churches that epitomized the African American component of abolitionist agitation. Inspired to some degree by the militant phase of abolitionism that followed the publication of David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), James Forten of the African Episcopal Church, Henry H. Garnet of the African Presbyterian Church, and Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth of the AME Zion Church were among those who agitated against slavery with a determination and intensity rarely witnessed in antebellum times. Forten and Douglass contributed substantially to abolitionist societies and to antislavery newspapers such as The Liberator, and they consistently challenged the view, advanced in both religious and political circles, that the alleged inferiority of Africans made their enslavement necessary. Garnet pursued the notion that slavery could be abolished through political action or the legislative process, Truth constantly raised her eloquent voice in defense of abolition, and Tubman became widely known as an operator on the Underground Railroad. Although black churches did little as a collectivity to influence legislation on the question of abolition, the antislavery efforts of these persons not only contributed in some measure to public discourse on the subject but also carried implications for social policy.
The Underground Railroad symbolized the lack of faith that many in the black church had in the efficacy of political action as a solution to the slavery problem. At a time when debates over slavery were occurring in the U.S. Congress, black churches from Virginia to parts of Pennsylvania and New York served as stations on the Underground Railroad, assisting untold numbers of escaped bondspersons to free territory. A towering symbol of the AME Zion Church's resistance to bondage, Harriet Tubman, as an Underground Railroad conductor, is said to have led more than two hundred to freedom. The Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia and the parsonage of Bishop Richard Allen were important stations on the Underground Railroad. The same occurred with Peter Spencer's African Union Church in Wilmington, Delaware. Its Big August Quarterly Festival, which began in 1813, was known for its unique mixture of revivals, abolition rallies, and escaped slaves. Describing the African Union Church as "a gateway to freedom," one source recalled in 1889 that:
As the years passed the church enlarged. The day grew in importance and the number of visitors increased from a few hundreds to many thousands. The desire for freedom grew stronger and stronger, and pilgrims did not always return to their masters, but found homes in the free states and in Canada. Thus, "Big Quarterly" came to be regarded with suspicion by slave owners. During the latter days of slavery, sheriffs, constables, and sometimes U.S. Marshals were busy watching for runaways. The old people now refer to these meetings as big excursions on the Underground Railroad, and smile at the remembrance of the tricks to which they resorted to hide and aid the fugitives.
A particularly vexing problem for black churches was the colonization movement, which dominated the politics of "the anti-slavery cause from its founding in 1816 to the end of the 1820s." Widely supported by white politicians and abolitionist leaders, and "motivated by Christian missionary zeal," this movement "maintained that emancipation of the slaves could best be brought about if accompanied by expatriation to Africa." Although this movement promoted the whole issue of black emigration to Africa, a political strategy extending back to the black church founder Paul Cuffee at the beginning of the 1800s, most black churchpersons rejected it because it "violated professed American principles" and encouraged "the perpetuation of human bondage" by "seeking to remove free blacks" from "their enslaved brethren." The very thought of renouncing American citizenship appeared absurd to free blacks like Richard Allen and Peter Spencer. Echoing the publicly expressed sentiments of Allen and James Forten, Spencer declared in 1831 that "we have our attachment to the soil, and we feel that we have rights in common with other Americans." Although the African Methodist leader Martin Delany was among the few who considered African emigration essential to the political destiny of his people, such a strategy was never seriously entertained by the vast majority of black churches. Indeed, it was never embraced by the National Negro Convention Movement, which considered a range of possible political options when confronting the slavery issue.
The National Negro Convention mobilized black churchpersons in an effort to address matters that went beyond abolitionist agitation. While competition between groups like the AMES and AMEZs sometimes occurred within its ranks, it considered issues ranging from education to economic empowerment to political strategies and the physical health of African Americans. Its advocacy of temperance, grounded in the belief that alcoholic beverages merely exacerbated problems for the oppressed, was as significant as its affirmation of black autonomy and its debate concerning violence as a means to ending oppression. The National Negro Convention Movement provided one avenue for black Christians to fulfill any political ambition or aspirations they may have had. In other words, the power they were denied in the secular politics of the larger culture was experienced to a great extent within the arena of church politics.
The pervasiveness of racism led black church leaders to conclude that economic power was perhaps the most significant ingredient in their people's efforts to establish themselves as a force in both their own communities and in the society as a whole. This is why economic values, along with the virtues of education, were highlighted even in the books of doctrine and discipline put forth by African Methodists. In conformity with the Protestant work ethic, black churchpersons were taught to be industrious, to avoid dealing in lotteries, to be prompt in paying debts, to be saving in their means, to deal fairly with one another, and to support each other in business ventures. Such teachings could not have been more important since slavery not only forced scores of African Americans into situations of dependency but also robbed them of the capacity to establish a strong economic base for themselves and their descendants. This sense of being powerless compelled black churches, along with mutual aid societies and Masonic orders, to take the lead in establishing "an economic ethos for the uplift of the race."
Excerpted from New day begun by R. Drew Smith Excerpted by permission.
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