Evolution Of The Black Church: Enslavement Through Emancipation



February is Black History Month, and to continue learning about the establishment, evolution, and culture of The Black Church, we spoke with African American Christian leaders and educators to guide us through the history of the black church and the critical purpose it serves as part of the full Kingdom.

This series brings together top pastors, professors, and historians in the African American community to demonstrate the importance of the Black Church in American history and culture.  Our American history is rarely told from the perspective of African Americans because it can be an uncomfortable narrative for the majority population in our nation to hear and understand. We hope it will help listeners understand and appreciate the conception and development of the Black Church and its continuing role in shaping American culture. When we highlight one part of the church, it sheds more light on the whole church.

As part two in our series, I spoke with Dr. Anthea Butler, the Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s frequently involved in important discussions on religion, race, politics, and popular culture and provided an overview of the origins of The Black Church from the time Africans were enslaved and brought to the Americas up to Emancipation, painting a picture of the early defining moments of The Black Church. She walks us through historical moments like the Second Great Awakening, and The Black Church’s early identity.

The main topics that Dr. Butler covers in this enlightening podcast episode include:

  1. Enslavement of Africans in the Americas
  2. Establishment of The Black Church
  3. Emancipation of The Black Church

1. Enslavement of Africans in the Americas

The Age of Discovery occurred during the early modern period as European nations voyaged around the world in exploration. This era encompassed the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade which is responsible for the introduction of African enslavement in the Americas: the Caribbean, Mexico, and the United States. In 1619, the first Africans were sold in the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, beginning slavery in the colonies. 

Christianity was prominent in the colonies because many settlers arrived with beliefs they had learned about and developed through the Church of England. The exploitation of the enslaved Africans was deemed permissible by Christians because of their mindset about the Catholic faith. They believed that if Africans were not willing to convert to Catholicism, then they were not considered worthy of their humanity and freedom. Dr. Butler reminded us that slavery is a relevant part of Christian history and should not be disregarded or forgotten as we seek wisdom in decision-making moving forward. She shared there is no way to sugarcoat and look past how religion was used as justification to control people and treat them as unequal.

Africans were ripped from their home, their unique culture, and different faith backgrounds and sent to a life as an enslaved person with little tolerance about attending church or gathering for fellowship. They were not provided with religious materials because slave owners did not believe it would be beneficial for them to learn how to read. Yet, they formed a faith culture based on spoken language and memorization. This was the foundational structure of the African community coming together for Christian worship that eventually leads to the establishment of what we call The Black Church. This was a place where Africans could come together to have discussions about faith and give each other hope for a better future.

This beginning still influences The Black Church’s desire for deep interpersonal connection, a thread of hope through trial, and a community of support for spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. 

2. Establishment of The Black Church

A major impact on the formation of The Black Church took place during the early 19th century through the Second Great Awakening. This was a religious revival in America brought on by widespread preaching and many reform movements that unified citizens and significantly boosted church growth. The awakening was a comforting movement in the midst of the concerning socio-political changes going on, and it brought a number of converts to new Protestant denominations. Slaveholders and enslaved Africans in the South attended sermons during this time period, predominantly preached by Baptist and Methodist pastors. 

Richard Allen and Absalom Jones became influential authority figures for The Black Church when they organized the Free African Society of Philadelphia, which eventually split into two historical congregations, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These were some of the first physical churches designated for free and enslaved Africans. The congregations welcomed  Africans as members and pastors, and their attendance numbers steadily increased as they became more well-known. The success and popularity of Black churches in Philadelphia inspired a multitude of other locations to be constructed.

3. Emancipation of The Black Church

Once The Black Church became officially established in the United States, it began to craft its identity in numerous communities, but it was not entirely widespread and accepted for quite a long time. The invisible institution remained prevalent across the country in areas with no organized church option available, so they were quietly meeting in secluded places to share their experiences. They also discussed what they heard was happening in white churches, whether it be biblical stories, baptisms, or sermons by white preachers. These gatherings were equally as important to the formation of The Black Church because they set the precedent for how information would be circulated in future physical churches. It also set a culture of deep connection between attendees since these meetings were a private, small group of people deeply dedicated to growing their faith. This commitment to each other and seeking God is a theme still prevalent in The Black Church.

Although a lot of progress was transpiring, enslaved preachers were still common at this point in history. They would join the secretive meetings to preach and some would choose to recite specific scripture from the Holy Bible to reinforce and justify slavery. These enslaved preachers spoke about how slaves should be obedient to their masters and would frequently tell the liberation story of Moses freeing the Israelites because it was relatable and hopeful to their situation. The enslaved Africans were able to turn these bible stories into inspirational and hope-filled songs and begin to truly have faith in the gospel even though their perspective was drastically different from most white believers.

This was the backbone of Black life since education institutions were still not accessible to them. They used the church as a way to disseminate information and begin to have conversations about their freedom. The role of the Black Church today is similar in how it provides an opportunity for African Americans to connect and uplift each other, offer assistance, as well as ensure a safe place to feel validated in their experiences. The foundations built during this era have continued to live on as the backbone of The Black Church.

Because of the long-lasting effects that early United States culture played in the culture, spirit, and purpose of The Black Church, these historical events help us to better understand the vital role these churches played in those days and how that purpose lives on now. You can find more insights and expertise from Dr. Butler on topics ranging from African American religion to evangelicalism to global Christianity on her website.

At Vanderbloemen, we value constant improvement and invite you to walk alongside us as we learn more about how to better love and serve the whole church. Be sure to check out the full podcast episode with Dr. Butler and stay tuned for more episodes in our History And Evolution Of The Black Church series throughout the month of February.

Catch episode 1 in our History And Evolution Of The Black Church Series, Origins Of The Black Church: Pre-slavery—Missionaries In Africa With Dr. Eric Washington.