Black Baptists, African Missions, and Racial Identity, 1800-1915: A Case Study of African American Religion

By Martin, Sandy Dwayne | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Black Baptists, African Missions, and Racial Identity, 1800-1915: A Case Study of African American Religion


Martin, Sandy Dwayne, Baptist History and Heritage


The principal argument of this article is that African-American Baptists, representative of the wider community of black Christians during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in their embracing Christianity and pursuing of African missions, found powerful resources and tools in developing and maintaining a strong, positive sense of racial identity during an era of unrestrained racial stereotyping and prejudice. "Positive racial identity" includes a sense on the part of individuals and groups of African ancestry that they were fully human, equal in every respect to any other ethnic or racial group, including European Americans, that they constituted "one people" with a clear mission to make a huge impact on world affairs; and it comprises all the actions and efforts exercised by African Americans to effect a social and religious order reflecting acceptance of such ideals. In other words, I argue that Christianization, primarily, but also its product, African missions, was immensely helpful in promoting African-Americans' quest for full equality and empowerment. My reading of African-American and American general and religious history is that the African-American churches historically have often fallen far short of their potentials for securing African-American political and economic freedom. Nonetheless, the vast, overwhelming numbers of persons and groups who have successfully labored for racial liberty and justice were leaders and active in the Christian churches or persons who were strongly influenced by the teaching and practice of the black churches regarding freedom and equality. (1)

Some of the most prominent individuals and groups in the black freedom struggle certainly include Richard Allen, James Walker Hood, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Hiram Revels, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (2) Even those persons who eventually adopted theological stances that placed them at variance with many orthodox Christian doctrines or membership in a church, such as Du Bois and Washington, were, nevertheless, strongly influenced by the ethical and moral teachings of the Christian faith in the construction of their social, political, and economic philosophies and strategies for racial empowerment. (3)

While most of those reading these words are already convinced or stand willing to be persuaded by the claim of the central role of the Christian faith and church in African-American quests for equality, there are still those in and outside of academia, including many students of the African-American experience, who doubt the veracity of this claim--if they do not contest it outright. Successfully making the broader argument, regarding the indispensable and instrumental role of Christianity in the black freedom struggle, would require a book- length presentation. This article simply case studies black Baptists as a contribution to the development of that broader argument.

Africa, Religion, and the Slave Trade

It is important to realize that African Americans in this country and other places in the western hemisphere created and were the products of a process of Africanization that has largely eluded continental Africans to the present day. On the continent, one's primary identity was ethnic not racial. African peoples were foremost Yoruba, Akan, Ewe, Ibo, Ashanti, etc. The trading in African peoples as slaves, both with the Arabs and the Europeans, was possible largely because African peoples did not envision themselves as a single racial or ethnic identity commensurate with that of their trading partners, the Arabs in East, and the Europeans in West Africa. Europeans did not sell white slaves to Africans. Arabs did not sell other Arabs to African slaveholders. By the inauguration of the European age of expansion, colonization, and conquest, African peoples were the only ones selling great numbers of their racial kin to "outsiders. …

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