The African-American Great Awakening
African-American Christianity is often understood according to important issues of freedom, racism, and civic arrangements. Religious faith, for instance, gave slaves hopes for freedom, black churches provided institutional resources for resisting racism, and African-American leaders carved out spaces for blacks to worship their own way. In other words, the story of African-American Christianity is often told according to the terms of the American nation.
But it is also a story about world Christianity. Replicating a centuries-old historical process in which the faith crossed cultural boundaries, Christianity swept over a people in the United States who held a historical consciousness grounded in Africa rather than European Christendom. This reality produced important consequences. Because the dynamics of race kept African ancestry before the eyes of both whites and blacks, African-American evangelicalism operated within a different historical framework from white Protestantism, which had been built on a Reformation conception of a people purifying a corrupt church within Christendom. White Protestants tended to see the “Christian civilization” of the United States as the latest and highest example of this Reformation, usually expressed in the terms of progress within Western culture. Most AfricanAmerican evangelicals, however, saw themselves as heirs of a different lineage. They saw themselves carving out a religious sphere amid a cruel society that refused to recognize its own racial sins. And in a similar manner to Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, African-American evangelicalism did not simply conform to lines dictated by whites. Growing in a mixed and shifting cultural soil, African-American evangelicalism blended elements of African culture with cultural materials found in the United States.
This is also a missionary story. As such, African-American Christianity emerged from the paradoxical dynamics of power and culture within evangelicalism. From the 1740s to the beginning of the twentieth century, white evangelicals sought to extend Christianity among blacks, and the faith grew steadily among the African-American population. In that process, though, AfricanAmerican Christianity emerged in ways that white American Christians did not anticipate and occasionally did not welcome. Black evangelicalism grew most