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The Black Church: Meeting the Needs of Their People

All throughout history, humanity has been attached to the idea of spirituality and religion. From the Ancient Egyptians, to the Nordic Vikings, to the evangelical conservatives, religion has been a major factor in many human’s lives. African American’s are no different. Religion and the church have been a major contribution and epicenter for African Americans since the days of slavery. Church, music, and art have been an expression of black folks’ own struggles, hopes, dreams, and fears. Within the context of a congregation, there was found much safety and acceptance for African Americans for many decades following emancipation. One could attend church, and find themselves surrounded primarily by other African Americans, for as Martin Luther King Jr. has been quoted, “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.”[1] While King certainly felt by 1960 that the natural segregation that occurred overtime within the church was a tragedy, and perhaps he is right in some ways, many other African Americans felt much more comfortable and at ease surrounded by others who had the same skin color, experiences, and fears that they themselves had had. The American black church became a great force because freed people had become tired of white abuse and the church provided a means of safety for expression and learning as well as having helped the African American community amidst their most challenging struggles.

Before slavery was abolished, white led churches were the most common attended for black worshippers within the south, yet blacks were not treated as equals even within the walls of a sanctuary. White people controlled the buildings, the services, and everything that went into it. Often the sermons might have been geared toward a “slaves, obey your masters” message where pastors and church leadership cherry picked scriptures that would support such convictions. Ministers even discouraged the message of being created in God’s image for the sake of deterring blacks from believing themselves to be equal to whites or their creator.[2] Christianity by nature is self-sacrificial, so it was not hard for masters to manipulate the Word of God to fit their own agendas. Primarily, slaves were not permitted to lead and attend organized religious services for fear that such institutions would undermine and challenge their enslavement. Yet the majority of white Christian slave owners wished for their slaves to become evangelized, partly in hopes of keeping them docile and accepting of their subservient roles. For those that lived and worked plantations far from churches, attendance was uncommon. Some white clergy and missionaries therefore went to great lengths to admonish plantation masters to bring the gospel to their slaves by plantation missionaries who would visit the plantations and attempt to lead services there.[3]

In some northern states such as Massachusetts where slavery was the minority and race relations were far less tense, black led churches became increasingly prominent throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.[4] These early establishments of separate places of worship might be a part of what instilled and supported the natural, church racial segregation that has lasted for centuries in America. Although there are some instances of black preachers rising up and even leading a congregation in the southern states, such as founder of the Black Baptist Church, reverend Andrew Bryan of Savannah, Georgia during the 1780s and 90s, who despite great abuse and opposition was able to grow a church, this was absolutely the exception.[5] As abolitionists became more outspoken and increased in numbers, what few black ministers there were used their pulpits to exclaim how evil slavery was and that it should no longer be accepted as one’s fate.[6] This is an example of how the black church was able to unite and give voice to their people in facing an extreme and terrible challenge together. It wasn’t until after the Civil War though that black churches in the south truly began to build. By then, black people generally preferred their ministers and preachers to be from their own race. Part of this was for a lack of trust, given the history that white church goers had created for black worshippers. Often, they also felt as though white preachers just could not fit the emotional and spiritual need that former slaves and freed people had.[7]

There is no doubt that religion was a major contribution to the survival of black folks during slavery. Despite it being heavily supplied and regulated by white people, religion and faith gave slaves something to hold onto, something that was personal, individual, and hopeful even in a world where the vast majority had little control and peace in their lives. Yet after slavery, there were many more injustices and painful times for African Americans, thus religion was just as important, but in a much more free, tangible, and obvious way. Furthermore, gospel music, which is a term accepted to mean the traditional music used and implemented during black church services, is a major piece of African American Christianity. With its heavy use of instruments, soothing and compelling croons, physical body language, and at times emotional lyrics, gospel music truly embodies the black church of the twentieth century and beyond. Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, explained it like this: “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing them, you are delivered of your burden,”.[8]

When it comes to the great migration of black folks moving to the northern urban cities from the deep south in the early twentieth century, the church was more than just a center for worship. Olivet Baptist Church of Chicago led by Reverend Lacey K. Williams is a great example of what more the church was during these transitional times. Reverend Williams went to great lengths to preach about and demonstrate how a church could help migraters adjust to their new lives.[9] Many other churches provided practical resources as well such as education, information, and even food or shelter in some instances. [10] One such example is the Peace Mission Movement, led by Father Major Jealous Divine, whom some might argue was more of a philanthropist than an actual clergyman. Father Divine caused many scenes and scandals with his outlandish and at time provocative language and methods, but he helped many African American people learn how to seek and instill better economic opportunities. He even opened up his own personal home to many where he sheltered them and provided meals.[11] Father Divine helped many impoverished and needy black people find secure jobs and improve their conditions, and despite some of his strange methods and language he had a substantial following for quite some time.

The black church played a pivotal role in the recent Civil Rights Movement, although not all churches were willing to get involved in such a formal way.[12] It is appropriate when investigating the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement to start with Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Being raised in church and a leader of his very own, he often filled positions within his organizations and built relationships around him with other church leaders. He recognized the Christian values he respected such as freedom, justice, and equality as key examples of how he should lead his followers and secure rights. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which King was the founder of, was made up of initially over 60 men, most of whom belonged to black churches across the south.[13] One supporter of King and the SCLC was Pastor Leon Sullivan, leader of the Zion Baptist church in Philadelphia. Pastor Sullivan birthed several economic initiatives out of his church in support of the Civil Rights Movement.[14] Another way that black churches contributed was by supporting and housing voter registration drives in order to ensure black enfranchisement. This came with great backlash within the south, but churches stood firm in their ventures despite white opposition. The black church was key in many other ways to the Movement. It provided a safe and free place for people to learn qualities they might not be able to learn other places such as leadership, and activism, and also provided a trustworthy institution to give financial resources for Civil Rights.[15]

It is clear that church and faith were huge contributors to the black community in America since the days of slavery. Not only did the church allow for a place of worship and security to be oneself, albeit facing occasional opposition, but it provided practical, artistic, and civil rights needs as well. In his essay, “The Black Church, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Future,”, Leonard Gadzekpo sums it up nicely by explaining that the value of freedom was and is central to many black Christian believers, and that this value is interpreted vastly different than a white believer. He professes that many black believers associated freedom with a “release from bondage; after emancipation, it meant education, employment, and freedom of movement to the ‘Negro’; and for the past forty years, it has meant social, political, and economic justice to African Americans,”.[16] These are very real and powerful associations and it is no wonder that the church has been a place of freedom and stability for African Americans in a very real and powerful way. The black church has been a major, if not the primary, institution of black culture and community in America and despite the sad reality of the many years of segregation in the church, it has flourished and stood as the pillar of freedom, justice, and equality.


Boles, Richard J. 2013. “Documents Relating to African American Experiences of White Congregational Churches in Massachusetts, 1773-1832.” The New England Quarterly 86, no. 2. 310-23. Accessed March 3, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43284993.

Butler, Anthea and Jonathan Walton. October 11, 2010. “The Black Church”. God in America. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/godinamerica-black-church/

Charles, Allan D. 1988. “Black-White Relations in an Antebellum Church in the Carolina Upcountry.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 89, no. 4. 218-26. Accessed March 3, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27568057.

Gadzekpo, Leonard. 1997. “The Black Church, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Future.” Journal of Religious Thought 53/54 (2/1). https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=1857238&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Hine, Darlene. Hine, William C. and Harold, Stanley. 2018. The African American Odyssey, Volume Two. New York. Pearson Education.

King Jr., Martin Luther. April 17, 1960. Interview on “Meet the Press”. NBCNA-NNNBC, National Broadcasting Company News Archives, National Broadcasting Company, Inc., General Library, New York, N.Y. Accessed March 3, 2020, http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol05Scans/17Apr1960_InterviewonMeetthePress.pdf

Lutz, Norma Jean. 1998. “Chapter 4: The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Church.” In History of the Black Church, 52. US: Facts on File. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=9163104&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Salley, Columbus and Ronald Behm. 1981. What Color is Your God?Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Trinkaus, John, Alvin Puryear, and Joseph A. Giacalone. 2000. “Father Divine and the Development of African American Small Business.” Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship 5 (3). https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bsu&AN=4101716&site=eds-live&scope=site.


[1] Martin Luther King Jr., Interview on “Meet the Press,”, NBCNA-NNNBC, (1960).  http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol05Scans/17Apr1960_InterviewonMeetthePress.pdf

[2] Columbus Salley and Ronald Behm, What Color is Your God?, (1981): 32.)

[3] Anthea Butler and Jonathan Walton, “The Black Church,”, God in America (2010).  https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/godinamerica-black-church/

[4] Richard J. Boles, “Documents Relating to African American Experiences of White Congregational Churches in Massachusetts, 1773-1832,”, The New England Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2013). http://www.jstor.org/stable/43284993.

[5] Butler and Walton, “The Black Church,”.

[6] Butler and Walton.

[7] Darlene Hine, William C. Hine and Harold, Stanley, The African American Odyssey, Volume Two, (2018): 320.

[8] Hine, The African American Odyssey, Volume Two, 566.

[9] Butler and Walton.

[10] Hine, 575.

[11] John Trinkaus, Alvin Puryear and Joseph A. Giacalone, “Father Divine and the Development of African American Small Business,”, Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship, 5, 3 (2000): 221. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bsu&AN=4101716&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[12] Butler and Walton.

[13] Norma Jean Lutz, “Chapter 4: The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Church,”, In History of the Black Church, (1998): 52. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=9163104&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[14] Lutz, “Chapter 4: The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Church,”, 52.

[15] Leonard Gadzekpo, “The Black Church, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Future,”, Journal of Religious Thought 53/54 (1997): 103. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=1857238&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[16] Gadzekpo, “The Black Church, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Future,”, 98.

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