Black Church is a shorthand reference to black churches in America. Black churches are comprised of a number of denominations: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Baptist Convention Incorporated, the National Baptist Convention Unincorporated, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the Church of God in Christ. An estimated 80 percent of African Americans attend these seven denominations. Black Church was formerly referenced as "Negro Church."
The Great Awakening of the 18th century promoted black conversion to Christianity. Baptist and Methodist churches gained a huge following of African Americans in southern states like Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky. Though African Americans took on the same basic religious structures as white Americans, they emphasized certain theological aspects of Christianity. Especially during their years of slavery, black churches focused on Old Testament depictions of God as a redeeming, interactive being and the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The term freedom took on great religious significance for African American communities. There was an overriding belief that freedom is a prerequisite for the ability to worship God. A well-known verse of the black religious service says: "Before I'll be a slave/I'll be buried in my grave/And go home to my Father/and be free." Slaves working on plantations incorporated many African elements into church practice, turning hymns into spirituals in their secret, underground churches. The Black Church was a place of refuge and rejuvenation for men and women oppressed by their slavery. After Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, the law required that a white minister be present at church gatherings. These ministers usually preached about the virtues of obedience, trying to stem any dispositions toward rebellion.
Free blacks in northern states began their own churches as a response to being segregated in white churches. After the emancipation, African Americans from the North sent teachers to administer to the basic educational needs of blacks in the South and ministers to preach to them. After the Civil War, communities in the North and South began to merge together, adopting each other's ideas and practices. The Black Church became the center of new, emerging black communities; the preacher was considered the leader of the congregation, and education became an important function of the church. Many ministers became active leaders in the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Bernard Lee and Ralph David Abernathy.
Upon visiting a black church, W.E.B. Du Bois, an early 20th-century sociologist, was moved by "the preacher, the music, and the frenzy." The congregants displayed great emotion and enthusiasm; some "got the spirit" and broke into bouts of shouting. Mass catharsis is the main goal of the black church experience, where the congregants are encouraged to participate and actively respond to the preacher. Congregants undergo personal conversions wherein they are "born again." Of the preacher, Du Bois wrote: "The preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil. A leader, a politician, an orator, a 'boss,' an intriguer, an idealist." Du Bois was particularly impressed by the black church's integration of music in its worship: "Sprung from the African forests, where its counterpart can still be heard, it was adapted, changed and intensified by the tragic soul-life of the slave, until, under the stress of law and whip, it became the one true expression of a people's sorrow, despair and hope."
The Black Church is a source of religious empowerment and cultural revival. E. Franklin Frazier saw the Black Church as "a nation within a nation" and "the chief means by which a structured or organized life came into existence among the Negro masses." Black churches are instrumental in establishing mutual aid societies, schools and parishes. Any politician hoping to gain the vote of the African-American community will visit a black church and may even use black rhetorical styles. Some theorize that the Black Church is a religious opiate to the masses, discouraging its congregants from engaging in politics. Others claim that the Black Church inspires its congregants to seek political righteousness. Fred Harris, a political scientist, claims that "Religion's psychological dimensions could potentially empower individuals with a sense of competence and resilience, inspiring them to believe in their own ability, with the assistance of an acknowledged sacred force, to influence or affect governmental affairs, thus--in some instances--to act politically." Though there has been a decline in church attendance among Americans, black churches have expanded tremendously in major metropolitan areas. Mega-churches seat 2,000 or more members and are active in the community and politically.