50 Years of Blacks in Religion

By Payne, Wardell J. | Ebony, November 1995 | Go to article overview

50 Years of Blacks in Religion


Payne, Wardell J., Ebony


As we reflect on the progress of the African-American Church in the last 50 years, we should be encouraged and challenged by the very things that have made this cherished institution the enduring, vital and vibrant bulwark of the African-American community. In the last 50 years we have seen the emergence of many innovations in religious life. Although religion is an institution that changes slowly, the transitions of modem life have made some serious impacts on the organization, structure and direction of African-American religious life.

One of the most salient aspects of the transitions the last 50 years is that African-Americans can no longer be defined exclusively in terms of any singular religious tradition. American-Americans have embraced and enhanced variant forms of spiritual enlightenment, ranging from the Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Pan-African traditions to new wave fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Although a large majority of African-Americans continue to worship through the traditions that emerged from our history, growing numbers of African-Americans are embracing faith orientations that further emphasize liberation and womanist theologies, Pan-African syncretisms, and new wave and metaphysical thought African-Americas are integrally in evangelical movements that focus issues confronting and shaping contemporary American religious life.

Although the African-American religious legacy is extremely rich and diverse, certain aspects of our religious traditions have remained constant even from our early slave religious experiences m America. These traditions provide us with the universal themes of African-American spirituality, community and unity. The African-American Church, tested by institutional racism and elitism has forged a religious legacy that has serve to unite a people and to build a community.

The African-American Church is no longer a church composed exclusively of Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal. Since African-American religious attributes are extremely varied, it can no longer be defined exclusively in terms of the church. Many of our houses of worship are now referred to as faith centers, temples, mosques, sanctuaries, halls and meeting houses. These distinctions denote a multiplicity of religious traditions and practices. This proliferation of religious experiences has resulted in a greater awareness of the need for the Black Church to be ecumenical in its activities. In fact, African-Americans are more tolerant of religious differences and strive to understand how their religious differences contribute to building communities.

Even though the 11 o'clock Sunday morning worship service may still remain a time when persons of different racial backgrounds are segregated from each other, we are no longer as segregated in our worship experiences. Nor is the leadership of the majority church exclusively White. African-American have emerged as leaders of numerous predominantly Mute ecumenical organizations and religious bodies throughout the United States. The African American Church has transformed itself into the pre-eminent leader and catalyst in the Black community. Yet monolithic conceptualizations of the type of Black Church is no longer tenable. Africa-Americans are definitely American in their worship practices. Many continue to volitionally worship in exclusively African-American faith houses, but even these traditions are generally have a connection with the larger community. No longer is the african-American Church ignored as a part of the dominant community. It is a vital entity in the social empowerment of African-Americans and American society.

In the early 1950s, the African-American religious community experienced a major change with the growth of a social justice movement spearheaded by the Black Church. Although many might have forgotten the role that the Church played in exposing the institutional visages of racism, sexism and classism, the Black Church became the fulcrum for confronting the social inequalities of American society. …

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