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The Religious Dimension: Toward a Sociology of Black Churches
In this book we have attempted to provide a wide-ranging study of the churches and clergy that comprise the seven major historic black denominations: the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (A.M.E.Z.) Church; the Christian Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.) Church; the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Incorporated (NBC); the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated (NBCA); the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC); and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). We use the term "the Black Church" as do other scholars and much of the general public as a kind of sociological and theological shorthand reference to the pluralism of black Christian churches in the United States. Since the late 1960s "the Black Church" has replaced the older reference, "the Negro Church," which was used by scholars of a previous generation. In general usage any black Christian person is included in "the Black Church" if he or she is a member of a black congregation. In this study, however, while we recognized that there are predominantly black local churches in white denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Roman Catholic Church, among others, we chose to limit our operational definition of "the Black Church" to those independent, historic, and totally black controlled denominations, which were founded after the Free African Society of 1787 and which constituted the core of black Christians. Today the seven major black denominations with a scattering of smaller communions make up the body of the Black Church and it is estimated that more than 80 percent of all black Christians are in these seven denominations, with the smaller communions accounting for an additional 6 percent. Historical overviews of these seven major black denominations are provided in the chapters on the Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal communions.
Although the main intent of this study is one of social description, providing historical overviews as well as statistical data and analyses, we want to make clear in this chapter what our underlying assumptions are in regard to the study of black churches. Thus far, a general theory for the social analysis of black religious phenomena and a sociology of black churches has not yet appeared, but we want to contribute the following theoretical assumptions to the scholarly dialogue: (1), the religious dimension: the black sacred cosmos; (2), the Black Church as the central institutional sector and partial differentiation; and (3), the dialectical model of the Black Church.
1 The Religious Dimension: The Black Sacred Cosmos
In any attempt to gather statistics and other data about black religious phenomena, it is easy to forget about the experiential dimension which gave rise to the set of social institutions called "churches." Religion, or the religious dimension consists of the encounter of human beings with the "sacred" or "divine." Rudolf Otto has given a classical description of this encounter with the sacred as eliciting feelings of "mysterium, tremendum, et fascinans " (the mysterious, terrifying, and fascinating). While Otto's phenomenological description of the awesomeness and attractiveness of the sacred is useful as a generalized and universal description of the religious dimension, attention must also be given to the particular cultural and historical configuration in which that experience takes place. This investigation is addressed to the religious worldview of African Americans, which we have called the "black sacred cosmos." Above all, religion is, as Durkheim has made clear, a social phenomenon, a shared group experience that has shaped and influenced the cultural screens of human communication and interpretation.
The black sacred cosmos or the religious worldview of African Americans is related both to their African heritage, which envisaged the whole universe as sacred, and to their conversion to Christianity during slavery and its aftermath. It has been only in the past twenty years that scholars of African American history, culture, and religion have begun to recognize that black people created their own unique and distinctive forms of culture and worldviews as parallels rather than replications of the culture in which they were involuntary guests. As slaves on the farms and plantations, then as domestic servants in white households, black people were privy to some of the most intimate aspects of white life and culture, from worship to sexual behavior; but very few whites knew anything about black people or their culture, or cared to. In fact, some scholars have viewed aspects of black cultural creations as aberrational attempts to mimic mainstream white culture. Other scholars have claimed that, "The Negro is only an American and nothing else. He has no values and culture to guard and protect." Such arguments seem unwilling to grant to African Americans the minimum presuppositions all other hyphenated Americans are permitted to take for granted, which is to say that their origins were elsewhere, and that coming from elsewhere, if they have a viable history, they must also have an effective culture. That a large gulf separated the black world from the expectations of the white is undeniable, but hardly inexplicable. Culture is the sum of the options for creative survival. Two hundred and fifty years of slavery were followed by one hundred years of official and unofficial segregation in the South and the North. Even today the gulf still persists, bolstered in large measure by racial segregation in the place of residence, education, religion, and social life. However, the more limited the options for approved participation in the cultural mainstream, the more refined and satisfying become the alternatives to those excluded from the approved norms.
Depending upon the culture and history of a particular African-related religious tradition, different sacred object(s) or figure(s) will be at the center of the black sacred cosmos. For the more African-based syncretic religions of the Caribbean and Latin America like the Voudou of Haiti, the Obeia of Jamaica, the Santeria of Cuba, and the Candomble and Umbanda of Brazil, African deities and spiritual forces played a more prominent role in the rituals and worship of the people. For African American Christianity, the Christian God ultimately revealed in Jesus of Nazareth dominated the black sacred cosmos. While the structure of beliefs for black Christians were the same orthodox beliefs as that of white Christians, there were also different degrees of emphasis and valences given to certain particular theological views. For example, the Old Testament notion of God as an avenging, conquering, liberating paladin remains a formidable anchor of the faith in most black churches. The older the church or the more elderly its congregation, the more likely the demand for the exciting imagery and the personal involvement of God in history is likely to be. The direct relationship between the holocaust of slavery and the notion of divine rescue colored the theological perceptions of black laity and the themes of black preaching in a very decisive manner, particularly in those churches closest to the experience. Nonetheless, as Henry Mitchell, James Cone, and Gayraud Wilmore have all agreed, throughout black religious history the reality of Jesus as the Son of God made flesh finds a deep response in black faith and worship. The experience of oppression is more likely to find immediate resonance with the incarnational view of the suffering, humiliation, death, and eventual triumph of Jesus in the resurrection than with an abstract concept of an impersonal God. Another example of this difference in emphasis concerned the greater weight given to the biblical views of the importance of human personality and human equality implicit in "children of God." The trauma of being officially defined by the U.S. Constitution as "three-fifths" human, and treated in terms of that understanding, the struggle of the African American people to affirm and establish their humanity and their worth as persons has a long history. The black Christians who formed the historic black churches also knew implicitly that their understanding of Christianity, which was premised on the rock of antiracial discrimination, was more authentic than the Christianity practiced in white churches.
A major aspect of black Christian belief is found in the symbolic importance given to the word "freedom." Throughout black history the term "freedom" has found a deep religious resonance in the lives and hopes of African Americans. Depending upon the time and the context, the implications of freedom were derived from the nature of the exigency. During slavery it meant release from bondage; after emancipation it meant the right to be educated, to be employed, and to move about freely from place to place. In the twentieth century freedom means social, political, and economic justice. From the very beginning of the black experience in America, one critical denotation of freedom has remained constant: freedom has always meant the absence of any restraint which might compromise one's responsibility to God. The notion has persisted that if God calls you to discipleship, God calls you to freedom. And that God wants you free because God made you for Himself and in His image. Although generations of white preachers and exhorters developed an amazing complex of arguments aimed at avoiding so obvious a conclusion, it was a dictum securely anchored in the black man's faith and indelibly engraved on his psyche. A well-known black spiritual affirms that:
Before I'll be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Father
and be free....
Implicit is the notion that unfreedom puts at risk the promise of salvation. No person can serve two masters, and freedom as a condition of spiritual readiness was no less critical to the religious strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr., than to those of Richard Allen, Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Each person developed a modus vivendi consistent with their times and the resources at hand. Their objectives were the same: freedom to be as God had intended all men and women to be. Free to belong to God.
For whites freedom has bolstered the value of American individualism: to be free to pursue one's destiny without political or bureaucratic interference or restraint. But for African Americans freedom has always been communal in nature. In Africa the destiny of the individual was linked to that of the tribe or the community in an intensely interconnected security system. In America, black people have seldom been perceived or treated as individuals; they have usually been dealt with as "representatives" of their "race," an external projection. Hence, the communal sense of freedom has an internal African rootage curiously reinforced by hostile social convention imposed from outside on all African Americans as a caste. But Dr. Martin Luther King's jubilant cry of, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last," echoed the understanding black folk always had with the Almighty God whose impatience with unfreedom matched their own. In song, word, and deed, freedom has always been the superlative value of the black sacred cosmos. The message of the Invisible Church was, however articulated, God wants you free!
In describing the key religious elements of the black churches he visited in the South, W. E. B. Du Bois was particularly impressed with "the preacher, the music, and the frenzy." In later chapters we will examine more closely the situation of the black preacher and the development of music in black churches. For this examination of the black sacred cosmos, a deciphering of the frenzy is particularly important. Like most observers and visitors to black worship services, Du Bois was referring to the intense enthusiasm and the open display of emotions and feelings exhibited by the worshipers. Some worshipers "got the Spirit" and were propelled into a paroxysm of shouting. While others "fell out" and rolled on the floor in a shaking, trance-like state, possessed by the Holy Ghost. Some people stood up in the pews and waved their hands over their heads, while others clapped their hands in time with the music. Even in the midst of preaching, the worshipers carried on a dialogue with the preacher by shouting approval and agreement with ejaculations like "Amen!" or "Preach it!" or "Tell it like it is!" At other times they encouraged the preacher to work harder to reach that precipitating point of cathartic climax by calling out, "Well?" ... "Well?" The highlight of the service was to worship and glorify God by achieving the experience of mass catharsis; a purifying explosion of emotions that eclipses the harshness of reality for a season and leaves both the preacher and the congregation drained in a moment of spiritual ecstasy. Failure to achieve this experience often resulted in polite compliments of "good talk" or "good lecture," and not the ultimate, "You preached today!" being offered the preacher. The Black Church was the first theater in the black community. Like the Greek theater its functional goal was catharsis, but beyond the Greeks, the Black Church was in search of transcendence, not a mere emptying of the emotions, but an enduring fellowship with God in which the formal worship service provided the occasion for particular periods of intimacy.
Above all, the core experience of the black sacred cosmos was the personal conversion of the individual believer. The Christianity that was spread among slaves during the First and Second Awakenings was an evangelical Christianity that stressed personal conversion through a deep regenerating experience, being "born again." The spiritual journey began with an acknowledgment of personal sinfulness and unworthiness and ended in an emotional experience of salvation by God through the Holy Spirit. The rebirth meant a change, a fundamental reorientation in the approach to life. While white Christians also stressed personal conversion, the historical and narrative evidence indicate that the black conversion and visionary experience was of a qualitatively different level. As Mechal Sobel has argued in her analysis of the black Baptist's cosmos, "black religious experiences began to be singled out as particularly ecstatic by white Baptists, signifying consciousness of a difference." As time passed the black-white difference intensified. "Analysis of the black visionary experiences indicate," wrote Sobel, "that they were very different from the outset, and that their uniqueness was highlighted as the whites grew less concerned with spiritual journeys."
We can also extend Sobel's argument about the forging of a new cosmos from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries that "united African and Baptist elements in a new whole." What was really created was a black sacred cosmos that cut across denominational lines—largely Baptist and Methodist at first, but also Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and others in later years. Wherever black people were gathered in significant enough numbers, the distinct quality of a shared Afro-Christian religious worldview and faith was felt. Even in predominantly white denominations with a million or more black members like the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church, the surges and eruptions of the black sacred cosmos were constant and influential. A qualitatively different cultural form of expressing Christianity is found in most black churches, regardless of denomination, to this day.
Culture is the form of religion and religion is the heart of culture. Paul Tillich's insight about the relationship between religion and culture is important in a discussion of the black sacred cosmos. Religion is expressed in cultural forms like music and song, styles and content of preaching, and modes of worship, to give a few examples. But religion is also the heart of culture because it raises the core values of that culture to ultimate levels and legitimates them. The relationship between the black sacred cosmos and black culture in general is similar. The core values of black culture like freedom, justice, equality, an African heritage, and racial parity at all levels of human intercourse, are raised to ultimate levels and legitimated by the black sacred cosmos. Although this cosmos is largely Afro-Christian in nature due to its religious history, it has also erupted in other black militant, nationalistic, and non-Christian movements. The close relationship between the black sacred cosmos and black culture has often been missed by social analysts who impose sacred/secular distinctions too easily upon the phenomena of black culture. What is often overlooked is the fact that many aspects of black cultural practices and some major social institutions had religious origins; they were given birth and nurtured in the womb of the Black Church.
Excerpted from The Black Church in the African American Experience by C. Eric Lincoln, Lawrence H. Mamiya. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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