Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990

By Erskine Clarke | Go to book overview

14
The African American Reformed Community Between Two Worlds

A DISTINCT African American Reformed community, with roots in the colonial period, had evolved in the Carolina low country during the antebellum period. More than the aggregate of individual members of Reformed churches, the community had taken institutional shape as a "church within a church," and had developed its own tradition that was both African American and Reformed. This community emerged at the end of the Civil War to form the basis for the new, yet old, black Presbyterian and Congregational churches in the low country.

The traditions of the community, its world view and ethos, marked it as it sought to respond to its new social context following emancipation. The freed men and women of the South found themselves in 1865 in a situation others around the world would increasingly face: how were they to respond to the modern world, and, in particular, how were they to respond to the aggressive expansion of Western civilization with its raw power supported by a complex array of cultural skills? Non-Western peoples, living in cultures that had evolved in response to unique circumtances, would face the "World Revolution of Westernization" as a powerful cultural imperialism.1 How were they to live in the modern world if they did not abandon their cultures and adopt that of the West? Was it possible to have a modern society without adopting the culture of the West on which modernity was base?2

For the freed men and women of the South, this momentous question for the twentieth century would have its own distinct shape: how were they to respond, and what resources did they bring in response, to this "World Revolution of Westernization," that had come to them from the outside as a liberator? Put most simply, were the freed African Americans to join the "mainstream" of American life that had overwhelmed the white South and freed the slaves? Were African Americans, as they faced the continuing power of racism, to internalize the values and world view of their liberators--in particular, the ascetic self-discipline and sense of civic responsibility and cooperation that marked the

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