It is an honor to dedicate this essay to the memory of my longtime friend and colleague, the late Lowell Livezey. His novel project, "Ecologies of Learning," is arguably the most significant contribution to theological education in the past several decades. Our hope is that seminaries and religious organizations will do all they can to guarantee the continuation of this collaborative model of teaching, research, and action by teachers, students, and religious leaders thinking and acting together.
African Americans outside the southern region of the United States have lived in the nation's largest cities for most of the twentieth century. Consequently, their religious associations have been shaped largely by that urban context. Most important, historians, sociologists, ethnographers, and other scholars have centered their studies on this urban phenomenon which, for many decades was hindered by the structural constraints of racism. Yet, they were not totally immobilized by those limitations. Rather, from the days of their enslavement up to the present they have struggled to overcome the many and varied societal obstacles by envisioning new possibilities for the well-being of their people. Although much good was accomplished, many new challenges confront them in our day--challenges that need critical assessment and deliberative action. This essay comprises a primer concerning the history, development, and ongoing challenges of that institutional phenomenon.
It is important to state at the beginning that African American religion is not a unified phenomenon but, rather, a very diverse reality in organizational, historical, sociological, theological, and liturgical forms. In fact, its breath includes Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, and countless forms of hybrid messianic groups. Admittedly, this vast diversity reflects the influence of massive demographic shifts in the African American population from the rural south to southern, western and northern cities between the first and second World Wars.
From the late eighteenth century onward, however, the vast majority of African Americans have adhered to their own modified forms of independent Protestantism, the rapid growth of which evidenced their collective response to the racist thought and practices of the Euro-American churches. Consequently, one cannot overestimate the historical importance of African-American religion in the public life of this nation. Even prior to their admission to full citizenship during two and a half centuries of slavery followed by another century of racial discrimination and segregation, African peoples in America struggled tirelessly for the eventual realization of freedom. They were denied the right of full citizenship by the constitution of the nascent republic and, despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th constitutional amendments, that right was denied them twice by the U.S. Supreme Court: first in the 1846 Dred Scott decision and second, in the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision. The latter remained the law of the land until it was overthrown by the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision. The long journey of African Americans to citizenship was finally accomplished with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then and then alone did African Americans rightfully gain full citizenship rights. It is ironic that a people formerly known as Africans in America and subsequently degraded by such racial designations as colored and Negro, now proudly embrace their self-proclaimed hybrid name, African American. This practice did not become generally accepted until the 1980s.
Although African slaves could only assemble in clandestine ways during slavery, they succeeded even under the conditions of bondage to organize their own public realm within the context of what E. Franklin Frazier called the "invisible church" and what I call the "concealed church" because it had been invisible only to whites. There, in the sacred places of the so-called hush-arbors, they expressed their humanity by establishing a surrogate world firmly rooted in a religio-social vision of how humans should live together. In those places they worshipped their God by synthesizing African and Christian understandings and practices; developed the lyrics and music for what were later called the spirituals; provided mutual support systems that helped them "bear one another's burdens."
The habitual exercise of the above practices gradually resulted in the development of a slave community that exhibited a strong sense of social cohesion and communal belonging reminiscent of their respective tribal communities in Africa. United by the common experience of racial oppression and the gradual loss of their specific tribal and familial identities in the African homeland, their religious communities soon became for them primary sources of personal strength and encouragement as well as communal sources for socioeconomic development, self-respect, and racial pride.
A decade before the turn of the eighteenth century, in the city of Philadelphia, freed slaves founded the first independent black church. In fact, the 1792 exodus of Richard Allen and others from St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia marked the crucial turning point in the history of African American religious and cultural development. That "walkout" signaled the beginning of a major religious movement among freed African Americans that eventually resulted in the formation of the various African American denominations. Although a number of African churches had existed prior to that time in the slave-holding states, they were invariably subject to the supervision of their white overseers.
Thus, under the conditions of freedom first in northern cities, the natural human desire to form communities expressed itself as an act of protest against the discriminatory and segregationist practices of white racism. Thereafter, the African Methodist Episcopal Church became the standard bearer for a specific form of racial nationalism which, incidentally, was in no way a racist activity. Rather, Africans universally condemned the use of race as a principle of exclusion and subordination. In fact, their deliberate act of separating from their Euro-American parent churches constituted a necessary means by which they could manifest their rejection of any form of complicity with the racist practices of the Euro-American churches.
Convinced that compliance with racism compromised their understanding of the Christian faith by denying the parenthood of God and the kinship of all peoples, (1) Africans in America felt obligated theologically and morally not to comply with what they viewed as the blasphemous racist practices of their oppressors. Thus, whenever possible, they followed the lead of Richard Allen and removed themselves from such environs and formed alternative religious institutions. By so doing, they institutionalized a non-racist principle grounded in their …