No pillar of the African American community has been more central to its history, identity, and social justice vision than the “Black Church.”* To be sure, there is no single Black Church, just as there is no single Black religion, but the traditions and faiths that fall under the umbrella of African American religion, particularly Christianity, constitute two stories: one of a people defining themselves in the presence of a higher power and the other of their journey for freedom and equality in a land where power itself—and even humanity—for so long was (and still is) denied them. Collectively, these churches make up the old‑ est institution created and controlled by African Americans, and they are more than simply places of worship. In the centuries since its birth in the time of slavery, the Black Church has stood as the foundation of Black religious, political, economic, and social life.
For a people systematically brutalized and debased by the in‑ humane system of human slavery, followed by a century of Jim Crow racism, the church provided a refuge: a place of racial and
* Although there is no monolithic “Black Church,” just as there is no monolithic “Black vote” or “Black perspective,” for clarity throughout this book, I will use the phrase the “Black Church” as a way to acknowledge the importance of institutions of organized religion to African Americans over time.
Individual self‑affirmation, of teaching and learning, of psychological and spiritual sustenance, of prophetic faith; a symbolic space where Black people, enslaved and free, could nurture the hope for a better today and a much better tomorrow. For a community disenfranchised and underserved by religious institutions established by and catering to the needs of white people, it served both secular and spiritual needs. Its music and linguistic traditions have permeated popular culture, and its scriptural devotion to ideas of liberation, equality, redemption, and love have challenged and remade the nation again and again, calling America to its higher self in times of testing and trial.
The Black Church has influenced nearly every chapter of the African American story, and it continues to animate Black identity today, both for believers and nonbelievers. In that sense, the Black Church functions on several levels, as a spiritual center—a place of worship—and as a social center and a cultural repository as well, a living treasure trove of African American sacred cultural history and practice: literally the place where “the faith of the fathers and mothers” is summoned and preserved, modified and reinvented each Sunday, in a dynamic process of cultural retrieval and trans‑ formation, all at the same time.
Call‑and‑response exchanges between congregation and pastor; at its best, the seamless interplay between the rhythms of the sermon and the harmonies of song, both reflecting the pastor’s biblical exegesis of “the text for today”; modes of prayer, both for‑ mal and informal; and possession by the omnipresent Holy Spirit: all are really links in a chain of cultural continuity that connects Africa to Black America. They are repetitions with brilliantly improvised differences within a received “frame,” a discursive frame, a sacred cultural “language” in which worshippers are so thoroughly fluent and literate that they can riff within that frame freely and creatively. They are echoes of sermonic and musical for‑ mations of the past fashioned by our ancestors over successive generations of creation, repetition, revision, and, most importantly, improvisation, quite probably since the first hundred years of American slavery.
We see it in jazz, with musicians riffing upon standards in the jazz tradition and in popular culture. John Coltrane did it with “My Favorite Things,” and Louis Armstrong did it with “La Vie en Rose,” to take just two of countless examples. We see it in the work of performers today, this living chain of Black cultural signifiers imbibed and internalized, respectfully acknowledged yet sublimely transformed. Daring and defiant artists, ranging from Thomas A. Dorsey, with his experiments in gospel, to Kirk Franklin, with his fresh fusions of hymns with hip‑hop, risked the opprobrium of the more conservative keepers of the tradition by daring to alter and infuse the sacred with borrowed techniques from the scandalously secular: that long and controversial tradition of Saturday night sneaking into the church on Sunday morning.
With a language all its own, symbols all its own, the Black Church offered a reprieve from the racist world, a place for African Americans to come together in community to advance their aspirations and to sing out, pray out, and shout out their frustrations. It was the saving grace of both enslaved Black people and of the 10 percent or so of the Black community that, at any given time before the Civil War, were ostensibly free; the site of possibility for the liminal space between slavery and freedom, object and subject, slave and citizen, in which free Black people were trapped. The church fueled slave rebellions, nurtured and sustained the Underground Railroad, and was the training ground for the orators of the abolitionist movement, and for ministers such as Richard Harvey Cain who emerged as powerful and effective political leaders during Reconstruction. It powered antilynching campaigns and economic boycotts, and formed the backbone of and meeting place for the civil rights movement. Rooted in the fundamental belief in equality between Black and white, human dignity, earthly and heavenly freedom, and sisterly and brotherly love, the Black Church and the religion practiced within its embrace acted as the engine driving social transformation in America, from the antebellum abolitionist movement through the various phases of the fight against Jim Crow, and now, in our current century, to Black Lives Matter.
The Black Church, in a society in which the color line was strictly policed, amounted to a world within a world, providing practical physical and social outlets and economic resources for local African American communities. Even in the antebellum period, the Black Church was the proving ground for the nourishment and training of a class of leaders; it fostered community bonds and established the first local, regional, and then national Black social networks. It was under the roofs of these churches that African Americans, in the heyday of Reconstruction—especially in that magical summer of 1867, when Black men in the former Confederacy got the right to vote—also learned of the opportuni‑ ties and obligations of citizenship and the sanctity of the franchise. (It is a shocking fact and disgrace of American history that even free Black men—with the exception of those living in five of the six New England states plus New York, if they satisfied an onerous property requirement—could not vote until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.) The story of religion in African American culture carries us into almost every corner of the African American experience. As the Reverend Al Sharpton puts it, “The Black Church was more than just a spiritual home. It was the epicenter of Black life.”
The church also bred distinct forms of expression, maybe most obviously its own forms of music. Black sacred music, commencing with the sacred songs the enslaved created and blossoming into the spirituals (which W. E. B. Du Bois aptly dubbed the “Sorrow Songs”), Black versions of Protestant hymns, gospel music, and freedom songs, emerging from within the depths of Black belief and molded in repetitions and variations in weekly choir prac‑ tice and Sunday worship services, would eventually captivate a broad, nonsectarian audience and influence almost every genre of twentieth‑century popular music. The blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul and R&B, folk, rock, and even hip‑hop bear the imprint of Black sacred music. It is evident in the sound of such a wide array of legendary artists that it is difficult to limit a list, but there are some names that simply cannot go unspoken: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington; Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, and James Brown; Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye; Donny Hathaway and Teddy Pendergrass; Curtis Mayfield and Jerry But‑ ler; Tina Turner; Whitney Houston; Patti LaBelle; practically all of Motown, all the way to Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, and Kirk Franklin, whose talents were nurtured in church pews and choirs. Mahalia Jackson, Dr. King’s sacred soul mate and private muse, is, of course, in a class of her own, stubbornly resist‑ ing the extremely lucrative financial lure of “going secular” but nevertheless influencing the styles of a plethora of Black singers ranging over a host of genres. “The church is our foundation,” Hudson says. “Somehow to me it relates to our culture. I noticed when I was in Africa how the music wasn’t just music; it was a mes‑ sage. Well, it’s the same in the church. When you’re singing a song, it’s not just a song; it’s your testimony. It’s your story. You’re singing with purpose and to God.”
One can also hear the music of the church in its range of preaching styles and their emanations in the broader public square, constructed out of the magical poetic diction of the English of the King James Bible, the silent second text of both African American sacred culture and the African American literary tradition. Its ca‑ dences, rhythms, and allusions ring most familiarly through the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King’s spellbinding, iconic calls for civil rights and economic justice, but also in the riveting ora‑ tory of his Muslim brother, Malcolm X. Dr. King, of course, was drawing on a very long tradition of resonant masters of the pulpit, tracing all the way back to the published sermons of formerly enslaved preachers, such as John Jasper’s canonical “De Sun Do Move,” first published in 1882, and including the great Black preachers whose sermons he actually heard, starting with his grandfather and father but including Howard Thurman, Benjamin E. Mays, Vernon Johns, and Gardner C. Taylor especially.
Dr. King’s indelible, supremely inspirational delivery, as powerful as I always find it, was part of a truly awesome, perhaps unparalleled tradition of artistry and master craftsmanship that characterizes Black sermonizing in the Christian tradition. The oratorial genius of Black women and men—in the pulpit and out of it—is, without a doubt, one of the principal and most abundant legacies of the Black Church. For my PBS film and for this book, I interviewed an amazing cohort of pastors who are themselves ben‑ eficiaries of and contributors to this powerful tradition: Dwight Andrews; William J. Barber II; Traci Blackmon; Charles Blake; James Bryson, Jr.; Calvin O. Butts III; Michael Curry; Kelly Brown Douglas; Michael Eric Dyson; Yvette Flunder; Cheryl Townsend Gilkes; Victor J. Grigsby; T. D. Jakes; Vashti Murphy McKenzie; Otis Moss, Jr.; Otis Moss III; Brianna Parker; Yolanda Pierce; R. Janae Pitts‑Murdock; Stephen G. Ray; Eugene F. Rivers III; Cheryl J. Sanders; Al Sharpton; Martha Simmons; Thurmond N. Tillman; Eboni Marshall Turman; Jonathan L. Walton; Raphael
G. Warnock; Jeremiah Wright; and Andrew Young.
In the canonical works in the African American literary tradi‑ tion, no text is more resonantly foundational, more unmistakable, than the King James Bible. We need only think of the speeches and writings of Frederick Douglass, both before and after the Civil War, or of the Harlem Renaissance classic God’s Trombones by James Weldon Johnson, among many other examples. But this tradition reaches its zenith in the prose of James Baldwin, espe‑ cially in his essays, which we might think of as truly “Jamesian,” reflecting the twin influences of the King James Bible and Henry James. Baldwin’s literary legacy, in fiction, reached its most sublime extension in Toni Morrison’s mythopoeic fictional universes. But even in these written works, we “hear” the printed word striving to imitate the power of the spoken word, just as Zora Neale Hur‑ ston’s fictions mimic secular Black vernacular forms and Langston Hughes’s and Sterling A. Brown’s poetry sought to make a formal poetic diction out of jazz and the blues.
But the grand legacy of the spoken‑word tradition, starting in slavery, without a doubt reached its crescendo in the Black Church, where it continues to this day. In Black music, the past is ever pres‑ ent. “Even if they aren’t singing the old Negro spirituals,” says the Episcopal bishop the Most Reverend Michael Curry, “you hear the idioms of those spirituals. It’s where when you begin to speak in a certain way, or better yet, when somebody starts singing in a certain way, folk inside, they start reacting and responding, and eventually there may be some shouts and there may be silence. Something is moving. That’s where the Black Church is found. It’s in those heartbeats.” Bishop T. D. Jakes, himself a master orator, speaks to this history: “The singing on the wounded soul goes all the way back to the soils of Africa. We have always been people that have sang out into the wind and exhaled what hurt us.” Jakes is describing the “music” and rhythms inherent in the language of the Black spoken sacred word, but it’s in the Black Church where the language of music and the music of language meet to create one grand, inimitable, irresistibly powerful form.
The power generated by the sound and feeling of the music during a service is so astounding as to be virtually indescribable. As the gospel singer Yolanda Adams puts it, “It sets the tone for how you will feel when the word comes forth.” Its importance has traveled down through generations. “It’s such a distinct flavor of music,” says the musician John Legend. “It is its own thing. It’s a very American thing. It’s a very Black American thing.” “We tell our story with music,” Bishop Yvette Flunder of the City of Ref‑ uge, United Church of Christ, says. “We forget sermons, but we can remember songs.” The genius of Black sacred music was prob‑ ably the very first cultural attribute that even racist slave owners could, if begrudgingly, attribute to Americans of African descent. The popularization of the “slave songs” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers following the war led to Antonin Dvorak’s claim, published in 1893, that not only was Black sacred music America’s sole original contribution to world culture, but that the only truly “classical” American music must be constructed on its foundation. Du Bois would echo this claim a decade later in The Souls of Black Folk.
Always, the Black Church has included a spectrum of beliefs and voices. The simplified idea of the “Black Church” tradi‑ tionally refers to a group of seven major historical Black denomi‑ nations in the Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal traditions: the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the African Meth‑ odist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion), the National Baptist Convention, USA (NBC), the National Baptist Convention of America (NBCA), the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). A Pew Research Center study lists the following as the ten most popular religious denom‑ inations:
Other Baptist (historically Black Protestant tradition) 15%
National Baptist Convention 12%
Church of God in Christ 4%
Southern Baptist Convention (evangelical tradition) 3%
Missionary Baptist (historically Black Protestant tradition) 3%
Other Pentecostal (historically Black Protestant tradition) 3%
Nondenominational (historically Black Protestant tradition) 3%
Nonspecific Protestant family (historically Black Protestant tradition) 3%
These denominations, of course, do not represent the totality of Black religious affiliation or experience. They barely constitute a majority; indeed, a third of respondents claimed no religious af‑ filiation at all.1 There have always been, and are increasingly, Black members of a wide variety of denominations, including but by no means limited to Seventh‑day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, Mormons and Muslims, Bud‑ dhists and Jews, Baha’i and Jains. Sometimes the facts defy precon‑ ceived notions about Black Church membership: for example, there are more African American Roman Catholics than there are Black Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses combined, and more Roman Catholics than members of the Church of God in Christ. There are African Americans who practice Hoodoo, Obeah, Vodou, Ifa, Santeria, Candomblé, and other religions born from and nurtured by African people in the Caribbean, in South America, and through‑ out the American South. Today, many African American Protes‑ tants attend services in interracial congregations or belong to Black congregations that are part of otherwise predominantly white de‑ nominations.
Like the “Black experience” itself, the Black Church is diverse and contested. Tensions that showed from its birth and the de‑ nominational splintering that soon followed—surrounding doctri‑ nal matters, personality clashes, “proper” modes of worship during church services, respectability politics, activism, integration, Black nationalism—speak to broader fault lines in Black thought and identity.
Today, African Americans, like all Americans, are increasingly moving away from organized religion. Yet in nationwide surveys, roughly 80 percent of African Americans—more than any other group—report that religion is very important in their lives. This is hardly surprising when we understand just how central faith insti‑ tutions have been in the history of Africans and African Americans and their cultures and social institutions in this country. For centu‑ ries, these religions—primarily but not only many denominations of Christianity—have served as a lifeline for African Americans. Whether that lifeline will remain as vigorous and vital in the twenty‑first century is an open question. At a moment when the Black community and the nation overall seem to be at a cross‑ roads in the future of race relations, it is more important than ever to illuminate the Black Church’s past and present, both to appreci‑ ate what Black religion has contributed to the larger American story and to speculate about the role it will play as race relations trans‑ form in this society.
Andrew Young, the civil rights icon, former mayor of Atlanta, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Jimmy Carter administration, understands that faith and a sense of iden‑ tity go hand in hand. “Your personhood didn’t depend on the gov‑ ernment or the social order,” he says. “It depended on God and your own spiritual bloodlines.” Another civil rights activist, Ver‑ non Jordan, uses a vivid example to illustrate the point: “If you’re working downtown in Atlanta in 1942, white boys called you ‘boy.’ And you did not have the best kind of job nor a job consistent with your capabilities, and you were looked down upon and frowned upon. But you put on your Sunday go‑to‑meeting clothes, and you walked in the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, you not only were somebody, you felt like you were somebody.” Otis Moss, Jr., a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his father, echoes this sentiment: “In that Black worship experience, some‑ body called you sister, brother, mother, Mr., a whole community of dignity and recognition and somebody‑ness.” Oprah Winfrey sums it up succinctly. The church, she says, “gave people a sense of value and of belonging and worthiness. I don’t know how we couldhave survived as a people without it.”
Worthiness. Personhood. Somebodyness. Religion has fed genera‑ tions of African American souls in this country, through the brutal trials of slavery to a new hope within a new nation, through the struggle for liberation, economic freedom, education, and the fight for full citizenship in the country we helped build. “We had to have some individual and institutional armor,” says Cornel West, “in order to preserve our sanity.”
I’ve spent my career exploring stories about Black life, but there’s one story I’ve never told on its own. Especially as our soci‑ ety experiences what some have called the twin pandemics of a life‑threatening virus whose mortality rates have been colorized and the obscene and revolting racism exemplified in the murder of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, it might be the most timely and, hence, the most important one of all. It’s the re‑ markable history of the Black Church, the story of the world of belief that enslaved people of African descent created in the face of their enslavement and its concomitant, unrelenting, and morph‑ ing white supremacy. Systemic racism may be a new concept to many, but it has deep roots.
This book is my attempt to share the reflections of believers, nonbelievers, musical artists, pastoral leaders in the church, and scholars of the church who so graciously allowed me to interview them over the past two years. The book ends with a confession of sorts, of my own first encounter with the Black Church, and a deal, a bargain, that at the age of twelve I made with Jesus in a desperate attempt to save my mother’s life.