The History & Evolution Of The Black Church: Civil Rights to Present Day
By: Chantel McHenry March 4, 2021
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 the final episode in our series, I spoke with Rev. Kermit Moss, who currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Church United Methodist in Paterson, New Jersey. He is also working as the interim director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and provided his expertise of the origins of The Black Church from the Civil rights era of the 1960s to present day, explaining the many changes The Black Church has endured. He leads us through historical moments like the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the social justice victories throughout the decades.
The main topics that Pastor Moss covers in this enlightening podcast episode include:
- Impact of the Civil Rights Movement
- Parallels of Past and Present
- Achievements of The Black Church
1. Impact of the Civil Rights Movement
Almost a century after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the United States, African Americans were still fighting for equal rights and equity in their daily lives. The 1960s was a doorway era for political unrest, technological change, and social turbulence. This was the time period when the Cold War emerged and the media brought worldwide attention to the tension and struggles between American citizens. African American communities looked to The Black Church as a designated area for protection, worship, education, and fellowship. These buildings sheltered a safe haven for survival and brought empowerment to the lives of African Americans.
Young African Americans were at the forefront of this historical movement. Children that attended Sunday school at church were also participating in marches and advocating for equality amidst severe racial violence across the nation. This generation had spent the previous decade watching and learning from their older relatives, who actively fought for their freedom. Their role models and heroes found strength in The Black Church and utilized that fervor for necessary social progress.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the inspirational spokesman for the non-violent, civil rights crusade that encouraged African Americans to be vocal about their oppression. His influence was imperative for the movement and his passing led to one of the greatest waves of social unrest in the history of the United States. It was enraging and terrifying for especially African American communities when a man who preached on theology and nonviolent protests, who honorably represented all Americans, had been violently murdered.
This caused anger and despair throughout African American communities who were forced to continue fighting without their fearless leader. The assassination signaled a turning point in the movement, and spurred on many uprisings before eventually, entering a more peaceful time period. African American individuals continued to do good work and serve their communities as they persevered through their trauma. The Black Church began to look in a new direction as they focused on interiority, internal transformation that should be externally recognizable in the world. There was also still prevalent fear that the passage of civil rights laws would not be upheld and how that situation might negatively unfold. This spurred on numerous new theological questions in The Black Church, but it also unified the members of this community even more as they leaned on each other for understanding and support.
2. Parallels of the Past and Present
There are a number of notable parallels between the 1960s and events that have occurred in recent years. African Americans are still requesting the same equality that their family members fought for nearly 60 years ago. Similar to now, there was this demonization of African Americans leaders working towards racial equity. African American pastors were seen as instigating violence, instead of preaching the gospel to church members. Even today, there is violence against The Black Church because it is a physical edifice of Black space. Younger generations are participating in protests and publicly displaying their faith, despite backlash from society. There is also once again a cross-cultural intermingling of individuals across racial and ethnic lines working together for a more equitable world. Throughout both eras, The Black Church has continued serving, preaching, loving, helping all ages, and trying to remain faithful to God.
The Black Church has been viewed as a threat since it’s formation in the early 19th century. This is mostly likely because it is one of the only institutions exclusively controlled by African Americans. These churches have been misunderstood as places of insurrection, and viewed as problematic based on stereotypical perceptions of African American gatherings. Beliefs such as these are inaccurate and fuel conspiracy theories that result in more racial violence and turmoil. Typically, these misconceptions lead to fear of the idea that African Americans might rise up and potentially take action against other people in response to their mistreatment. While this has happened in the past with varying results, in reality, The Black Church gathers to focus mainly on spiritual growth, encouragement during hard times, relationship building and healing for its members and communities.
3. Achievements of The Black Church
In a country shadowed by the legacy of slavery and a culture that finds identity though class and race, The Black Church has obtained a great number of accomplishments. Within the last few decades alone, these churches have changed economies, politics, and even world climates. The Black Church has continued the tradition of caring for people’s souls, building communities, and doing great ministry work in areas where government aid has decreased. It has persevered through trials unknown to many other denominations, and provided tremendous hope for future churches. Another area The Black Church thrives in is theologically training younger generations of aspiring ministers and church leaders through engagement with The Church and practical experience in the world.
The past year has been filled with a multitude of challenges and the Covid-19 pandemic has affected The Black Church in surprising ways. These churches have been forced to innovate and these times of isolation have served as a reminder that actual church buildings aren’t nearly as important as the mission of the church. Members have been enabled to share the gospel through technology and create welcoming environments for virtual gatherings. The Black Church has remained fixated on its commitment to Christ, community building, and faithful servanthood.
The achievements of The Black Church are encouraging and the voices of African American Christians should not fall on deaf ears, especially from their brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s people are called to show Christ-like love and demonstrate his kindness to all which is inclusive, fulfilling, and transformative. Every human being, regardless of race, fits within the realm of God’s grace and can live eternally in the presence of Jesus.
The long-lasting effects of early United States culture have rippled through history, but these haunting events help us to better understand the spirit and purpose of The Black Church and its vital role in the lives of African Americans today. You can find more insights and expertise from Pastor Kermit Moss through the Princeton Theological Seminary and United Methodists of Greater New Jersey.
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 Pastor Moss and catch episode 1 through 4 of our History And Evolution Of The Black Church Series to learn about the events prior to The Civil Rights era.