William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
The Churches

Philadelphia's historic importance as a center of Afro-American life rests in large part on its role as site of the nation's first black churches. During the late 19th century, hard work and sheer population growth multiplied the number of these churches, while shifting the earlier denominational configuration among them. But nothing could make them more important to the community than they already were. The church in Philadelphia as elsewhere helped to shape identity in terms of race and class, was both an expense and a source of professional employment, and served as a forum for discussion and the focus of much social, intellectual, and recreational life.

It is paradoxically easier to describe the secular role of these black churches than the purely spiritual. Journalists obeyed an unwritten rule by stopping outside the doors of mainstream churches on Sundays, printing only authorized versions or excerpts from sermons. They described the actual conduct of worship or worshippers only at camp meetings, or more rarely among marginal congregations, mostly as folk behavior or as foolishness. Established ministers, while willing to discuss doctrine and belief, provide little insight into the ways in which religion affected the lives of their followers. And W. E. B. Du Bois, less conventionally respectful than the journalists, had his own strict standards of morality and progress that made him unsympathetic in discussing the conduct of the major churches and especially hostile to traces of "primitive" worship or behavior among the others.

But within this limit it is still possible to trace the histories of the city's major black churches as they struggled with the two kinds of tension, within and without, that generally marked black history in the period. First they had to define their relationship with the surrounding world of white Christianity, balancing the felt need for independence against their own poverty, and the advantages of financial and other support. Second, within the black group they

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