The Perseverance of the Early Black Church

Photo: Reza/Getty Images

The black church is the greatest show of perseverance in Christ that we have seen in America. The very belief system that was twisted to prove their inferiority and command their submission to tyranny brought faith, hope, and love. The image of Christ displayed by slaveholders was cruel and unbiblical, turning black people into “beasts of the field” and scripture into a political device. How did the early black church come to be and how could the same scriptures used as a weapon against black people bring them hope?  

The History

They were taken from their homes in ships, packed into aisles like cargo. Ships built originally to store cargo were made to store humans like shipment. There were originally 350 of them on the San Juan Bautista: over 150 died, and over 50 of them were stolen1. The “20 and odd” Angolans that arrived at the shore had been taken by the Portuguese on a ship called the White Lion1. They were believed to be Kimbundu-speaking peoples from the kingdom of Ndongo, located in part of present-day Angola. Though free and enslaved Africans were present in North America during the 1500s, this was the beginning. The year was 1619 and the colonies’ first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. 

Slavery to this point in history was common, in fact, most every civilization has used slaves or forced labor in some form or fashion. The difference in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was justification for the enslavement of Africans was found in their race. In 1455, Pope Nicholas V issued the Romanus Pontifex which allowed Portugal to have exclusive control over states and territories it claimed along the West African coast. It gave the Portuguese the right “to invade, plunder and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery 1.” Spain, England, and many other countries would establish contracts that authorized the sale of captive Africans to colonies in the Americas 1

Black people could not escape the discrimination and hate given to them by white colonists. To them, their black skin was a mark of inferiority

In the colonies, Africans were viewed as capital and treated as such. Especially near the beginning of slavery, there were no chances for upward movement for Africans. “The use of enslaved laborers was affirmed — and its continual growth was promoted — through the creation of a Virginia law in 1662 that decreed that the status of the child followed the status of the mother, which meant that enslaved women gave birth to generations of children of African descent who were now seen as commodities 1.” Black people could not escape the discrimination and hate given to them by white colonists. To them, their black skin was a mark of inferiority.

Fast forwarding many years later, in Pennsylvania in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress. A common misconception is that from that point forward America was a Christian nation. This is not entirely true. In a treaty with the Barbary Pirates in 1797, President Adams tried to stop the incessant Muslim raids against Mediterranean shipping and sought to protect American sailors from African slavery. The treaty said, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion 3.” The founders of our country were most likely theistic rationalists. They kept pieces of religion that believed to be rational towards the building of a country and moved away from pieces that were not. This explains why their version of religion did not properly challenge the racist, destructive ideas that established the colonies’ early economy at the expense of Black people. 

Christianity and religion were used as a tool for the moral founding of our nation in 1776.  People were heavily influenced by ideas of the Great Awakening and this movement would motivate the colonists toward the Revolutionary War 3.  Not only that, but it would also lead to a kind of religious revolution on the plantations in America. 

The Great Awakening and the American Revolution - Journal of the American  Revolution
Painting of Jonathan Edwards preaching

The Great Awakening was the first period of religious revival in the 1730s. One of the most common themes of the Great Awakening was that every person could have a personal relationship with God and come to salvation. Not only were whites hearing this message, but also Natives and Black people. The concerted effort of both Methodists and Baptists led to many black people converting to Christianity. Despite this new found faith they were not allowed to meet, so they would meet in secret to worship. Before it was legal for slaves to meet, hush harbors were the common meeting place for community, worship, and meetings. They were secret meetings organized by slaves to worship in private 5. This would become one of the first ways slaves could begin to enter into faith and establish community. 

As Black people began to believe in Jesus, impactful Black Christians began the early work of forming churches. One of the earliest Black Christian leaders was Rebecca Protten. On the rugged roads of St. Thomas, a colony in the West Indies, black men and women would come to listen to her preaching. She was possibly the most unlikely to be speaking in place of authority at the time as she was a young black woman. Despite this, Rebecca Protten’s preaching, mentorship, and teaching would be so emphatic she would be called the “Mother of the Black Reformation 8.” She was born a slave in 1718 and kidnapped at an early age from the island of Antigua. At a young age, she felt led that her purpose in life was to serve God and share the Gospel especially to the enslaved on the Island 8. Protten would eventually gain her freedom and join a group of German missionaries from the Moravian Church in 1736 8. Protten did not just give her voice to the mission of God; she gave her life. Jon Sensbach notes in his book Rebecca’s Revival that she would trudge “daily along rugged roads through the hills in the sultry evenings after the slaves had returned from the fields 8.” She was “a prophet, determined to take what she regarded as the Bible’s liberating grace to people of African descent 8.”

The early voices of the Black Christians would begin to be heard, even if only in the Church. The contributions of a young Rebecca Protten and others would set the foundation for George Leile and Andrew Bryan. These two would form the establishment of The First African Baptist Church congregation in 1773 under Reverend Leile’s leadership. The 1773 organization date for the church makes it clear that FABC is older than the United States (1776)15.  It was organized on the Brampton Plantation in Savannah Georgia, even before Reverend Leile could legally preach. In May of 1775 Reverend Leile was ordained as the pastor and December of 1777 the church was constituted as a body of organized believers.  Four converts Reverend Andrew Bryan, his wife, Hannah Bryan, Kate Hogg, and Hagar Simpson would form a part of the nucleus of First African Baptist Church’s early membership15.

First African Baptist Church - Oldest Black Church in North America
The First African Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia

Reverend George Leile would baptize all the members of the church including Andrew Bryan. In the 1780s, Bryan began preaching to a small group of slaves in Savannah, Ga. He first commenced prayer meetings at Brampton, then he began teaching to congregations of both black and white people6. His master and other whites would actually encourage him to continue preaching as long as his influence did not encourage any rebellion. Despite this, other whites would have Bryan arrested and whipped for preaching. Though they continued to beat the bodies of Blacks, they could not take the hope they found in the Gospel. Andrew Bryan and Sampson Bryan were “inhumanly cut and their backs were so lacerated that their blood ran down to the earth as they, with uplifted hand, cried unto the Lord; but Bryan, in the midst of his torture, declared that he rejoiced not only to be whipped but would freely suffer for the cause of Jesus Christ6.”

Reverend George Leile would leave the church and continue his mission in Jamaica. Before leaving, he ordained Andrew Bryan as a Baptist minister with full authority to preach the Gospel in 1982. With the help of his brother Sampson, they would meet with other slaves in swamps and in the woods. After much harassment and beatings by whites, they were finally allowed by the courts to preach in daylight. This paved a way for the certification of the African Baptist Church on January 20, 1788 as an official Church. This predates the establishment of the first white Baptist Church14. Ultimately, these men trudged on with steady faith even amid horrible tyranny. They never stopped preaching the freedom found in Christ.  

The power of the Gospel message was found on other plantations as well. Richard Allen is the founder of African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was born a slave of Benjamin Chew of Philadelphia but would soon be sold to a planter near Delaware 6. He was converted in 1777 and began preaching three years later. He and his brother would soon purchase themselves for $2000 and look for any menial labor they could find. While doing this, he would continue to preach wherever. 

He preached with such power and fervor that traveling ministers Richard Watcoat and Bishop Asbury would give him assignments to preach in front of mostly white congregations. When he came to Philadelphia in 1786, he would be invited to the St. George Methodist Episcopal Church. The church, which included Absalom Jones, concluded that the increasing number of Blacks at the Church made it harder to have a mixed church 6. So, they left in body to seek a space where they could worship and commune away from the racism that had infiltrated the white church.

With the help of Absalom Jones, Richard Allen would organize the independent Free African Society. This society would provide mutual aid to Free Africans and was the first Black religious institution in the city of Philadelphia. This society paved the way for the establishment of the first independent Black Churches in the United States. Jones would go on to establish the African Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and Allen the African Methodist Episcopal Church. These Churches would be important as they fostered growth for other African churches across the U.S.. Historian Mary Sawyer notes that by 1810, there were 15 African churches representing four denominations in 10 cities from South Carolina to Massachusetts 5.

Though many times people see the black church as uniform in thought and doctrine, this is not true. Just like the “white” church, there are many denominations and with it a diversity of people, opinions, and biblical interpretations. If there is any denomination within the black church that exudes diversity of thought, it is the Pentecostal-Holiness Denomination. Namely, the Church of God in Christ. In 1897, the Church of God in Christ was founded by Bishop Charles Harrison Mason. Before the founding of the church, Elder Charles Harrison Mason would meet with other established preachers Elder C.P. Jones of Jackson, Elder J.E. Jeter and Elder W.S. Pleasant. They became close companions in 1896, and traveled to Jackson, Michigan, where large numbers of people were converted, sanctified, and healed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite the many people being saved, the teachings of Elder Mason on the doctrine of sanctification caused his expulsion from the Baptist denomination under the Mississippi State Convention14.

In 1897, when he and the other preachers returned to Jackson, Michigan, Pastor Mason delivered his first message from the steps of the local courthouse14. They had an overwhelming number of attendees which was too much for the steps of the courthouse. Thankfully, they were offered the use of an abandoned warehouse. After much toil and progress, the land was bought, and Elder Mason established a small church. Alongside Elder Jones, Elder Pleasant, and 60 charter members the Church of God in Christ was formed14.

Hope in Black Biblical Interpretation

One could go on into the immense history of the Black Church, but the Early Black Church provides a solid starting point into understanding black biblical interpretation. Especially during slavery and even after emancipation, white southerners sought to maintain control over African Americans’ worship as many Black Churches doubled as stations on the Underground Railroad 7. White southerners would twist scripture to make slaves subservient to their masters and content in their bondage. Their goal, to continue the sin of slave trade by convincing slaves of God’s conformity to racism. Slavery was seen as God’s means of protecting and providing for an inferior race (suffering the “curse of Ham” in Gen. 9:25 or even the punishment of Cain in Gen. 4:12) 11. Africans were not seen as members of the white churches they attended and faced discrimination in those same pews. Working-class Baptist and Methodist church services brought together African and European forms of religious expression to produce a unique version of worship 7. This worship reflected the anguish, pain, and occasional elation of nineteenth-century Black life in the United States 7.  

24 African American Church Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock
Antique Early American Engraving Depicting Social Issues, Circa 1850’s stock illustration

Many Black ministers would use poetry and drama in their sermons as well as vivid imagery in their biblical accounts conveying understanding of the rewards of righteousness and the wages of sin. They stirred their congregations to strive for a more profound faith and more righteous way of living in a world of adversity provided spiritual guidance for a people whose faith and capacity for forgiveness was tested daily 7. These Christians had met the “white man’s Jesus” before who preached a Gospel not of reconciliation or consummation, but of bondage and subjugation. The theology they adapted was unrecognizable from the blatant twisting of scripture by white preachers and slaveholders. As Dr. Yolanda Pierce said, “African Americans adopted Christianity, but they also adapted Christianity. They made it their own.”

Jesus chose to identify with the weak and disinherited, being born in Nazareth a place despised and looked down upon by many

The Early Black Church found in the scriptures not a God that was far off and separated from their oppression, but a God who loves every man and woman equally (Gen 1:27) and is deeply concerned about injustice (Psalm 146:7, Psalm 113:7, Leviticus 19:15-16, Proverbs 31:8-9, Proverbs 11:1).  Scripture was consistently used to justify slavery and reinforce racism towards black people as holiness.

Despite this, Black Christians found that the Word paints a different picture of what is true and holy. They saw that Jesus does not look at their skin and see imperfection. That Jesus does not join in the chorus of so-called Christians who use their power to abuse the marginalized. No, Jesus chose to identify with the weak and disinherited, being born in Nazareth a place despised and looked down upon by many (John 1:45-46, Isaiah 53:3). The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection was a message of liberation from their present pain into joy, holiness, love, and forgiveness. They found that forgiveness was an active discipline that brought freedom and was an active rebellion against the hatred of their white slaveholders. They understood that their oppressors could hurt their physical bodies, they could never take away the promise of eternity and future glory from God (Romans 8:18).

Black Christians were able to identify with the Word of God. In Exodus, God liberates the people of Israel from the Egyptians. He hears the cries of oppression and slavery that come from His beloved. God was not seen as a God who stands idly by amid tyranny and oppression, but who delivers His people from the hands of it. Slaveholders would try to bifurcate the spiritual from the social/political to silence the cries of injustice from Blacks. They did not see it that way. No, Black Christians knew that the economic, social, and political oppression of the people of God is nothing more than the physical manifestation of the spiritual sickness at the heart of the empire 13

The theology of the Black Church would permeate every part of their lives. Christianity gave Black Christians identity and dignity that has prevailed for centuries. They formed a community that was strengthened by their pain and fastened by steadfast love. The innumerous amount of early church pioneers would inspire the likes of Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, WEB Dubois and so many more. Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and David Walker would later arm themselves with the same truths the early Black Church leaned on to argue against slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. would as well by arguing for the Imago Dei: the image of God in man, a theology distant from the slaveholders’ religion. It’s just as Frederick Douglass said, “Of all the forms of negro hate in this world, save me from that one which clothes itself with the name of the loving Jesus.”

The Black Church remains possibly the most enduring institution of the African American Story 8. You could fill volumes with the vastness of history in the Black Church. The Black Church is extremely diverse in thought, rich in history, and evolving still today. The pain, murders, lynchings, torture, and enslavement of black people should have been enough to destroy their dignity and community. By the grace of God, it was not. The perseverance of Black Christians still abides in this age amid systemic injustice and is inspired by the beliefs of those strong, faithful Black men and women.

Sources:

  1. A Brief History of Slavery That You Didn’t Learn in School – The New York Times   (nytimes.com)
  2. First Enslaved Africans Arrive in Jamestown Colony – HISTORY
  3. Was America Founded As A Christian Nation? (forbes.com)
  4. The U.S. a Christian Nation? Not According to the Founders! | History News Network
  5. The Black Church | American Experience | Official Site | PBS
  6. History of the Negro Church by Carter G. Woodson
  7. “The Black Church in America,” a brief history – African American Registry (aaregistry.org)
  8. Why the Enslaved Adopted the Religion of Their Masters—and… | Christian History | Christianity Today
  9. Frederick Douglass – Narrative, Quotes & Facts – HISTORY
  10. How Christian Slaveholders Used the Bible to Justify Slavery | Time
  11. Why Did So Many Christians Support Slavery? | Christian History | Christianity Today
  12. Savannah’s History: First African Baptist Church
  13. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley
  14. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p30.html
  15. https://firstafricanbc.com/history.php
  16. CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST COGIC – Historic Protestant denomination (westa.org)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: