The Influence of the Black Church on Black Parenting

By Williams, Lawrence H. | Currents in Theology and Mission, February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Influence of the Black Church on Black Parenting


Williams, Lawrence H., Currents in Theology and Mission


In his "Address before the National Press Club," on July 19, 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented that the most segregated hour in the United States is 11:00 A.M. on Sunday morning, and this is still probable true today. (1) However, in retrospect, integration has not served the purpose for which it was intended. This means the reasons for this kind of segregation today are primarily self-imposed, based more on ethnic and cultural solidarity, and they yield psychological benefits. This paper considers the benefits of black church membership on black parenting.

To gain a better understanding of the contemporary black American family, it is first necessary to understand at least a couple of things in relation to the history of the white American family. According to Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame, in the 19th century the nature of the white American family was based more on myth than reality. This situation has made charting the black family difficult to do as well. (2)

The first myth to be debunked is that the 19th century white American family was a "close-knit patriarchal institution," that was in many ways "a carbon copy of the 17th century European family." Instead, this king of reasoning never considered "the differences in the democracy of America [versus] European life." The "shortage" of women on the American frontier caused their role to be extremely "dominant." This was regardless of laws enacted against women. Making a major contribution to the situation was the fact of the home, which increased the voice of women and children. By 1880, the American family was more democratic than patriarchal or matriarchal.

There were important changes in the American family that took place in the latter half of the 19th century. The changes were industrialization, improvements in transportation, weakening of religious bonds, birth control, increase in working women, premarital sex, and the downgraded economic importance of family. Likewise, there developed a lax attitude toward divorce. By the 1970s, one in every three marriages ended in divorce. A large number of whites were being accused of practicing serial polygamy--having a number of wives and husbands, one at a time.

For Berry and Blassingame, from the perspective of the black family, the most dangerous part of the myth was the Moynihan Report of 1965. Popularized by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the report argued that the black family had a "pathological weakness," that was capable of perpetuating itself without any assistance to the black family from the white world. However, in Berry's and Blassingame's analysis, "the weakness of the [contemporary] black family may be seen instead as a direct result of centuries of white oppression ... and not so inherent and immutable."

The push for morality among slaves caused white churches to insist that slave marriages be consummated. Beginning in the 1740s, Christian marital ceremonies were started, with white ministers marrying slave couples. Between 1800 and 1860, thousands of slaves were married, primarily by white church oversight. Monogamous family practices also were encouraged in the slave quarters, and adultery and fornication were scorned. Often excommunication was the punishment for abandoning mates, premarital pregnancies, and extramarital sex. Regardless, 30% of all slave marriages were broken by slave masters.

What about the formation of the American black family itself? For Berry and Blassingame, it grew out of a complex combination of African traditions, Christian beliefs, and adjustments made to slavery. In Africa the family was a strong communal institution, stressing the dominance of males, the importance of children, and extended kinship networks. African families generally forbade extramarital sex, yet regarded sexual intercourse as healthy, a natural act, unconnected with sin. The consequences of "enslavement" led to a change in family behavior in the slave quarters, where men were required to share authority with women. …

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