Looking at the History Between African-American Communities and Christianity

By Katy Shenk
Elm Staff Writer

On Monday, Nov. 7, the Institute of Religion, Politics, and Culture at Washington College hosted its second event for the African-American Church and American Ideals program.

The Rev. William T. Wallace, from the Union United Methodist Church in St. Michaels, discussed the history of the intersection between African-American communities and the Christian faith.

Wallace began his discussion with an important distinction: his substitution of the word “slave” for “enslaved persons.”

“’Slave’ dehumanizes an individual,” he said. “History has pointed out time and time again that referring to people as slaves opened the door for all kinds of atrocities to happen to people that were considered property.”

In Colonial America, although enslaved persons were forbidden to practice religion or express spirituality, they were permitted to attend white churches. According to Wallace, white pastors placed emphasis on Ephesians 5 and 6, which described the relationship between enslaved persons and masters.

“Obedience to masters was directly connected to obedience to Christ,” he said.

Also resonant with African-Americans was the message of Hebrew deliverance in the book of Exodus. This story of hope convinced enslaved persons that, one day, God would set them free, Wallace said.

The Rev. William T. Wallace, from Union United Methodist Church in St. Michaels, spoke about the history of African-Americans and the Christian faith.

The sharing of these Christian teachings among early African-American societies led to the development of the “Negro church,” a term first coined by W.E.B. Dubois. In 1787, Richard Allen founded Bethel Church in Philadelphia, a precursor to the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

African-American communities now had a platform to tackle the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

“In the years leading up to the Civil War, Frederick Douglass challenged Christians to confront any institution that violated the central tenants of the Christian faith,” he said.

Many African-American “protest churches” heeded Douglass’s call and championed the cause of abolition. Bethel Church, among others, was a key stop on the Underground Railroad. The journey to the “promised land” in the North contained a dual message of freedom and heaven for enslaved persons, according to Wallace.

Instrumental to the church’s influence was the role of powerful African-American preachers, both male and female. Activist Ida B. Wells often protested lynchings and other injustices from her pulpit.

“Black preachers were central figures that often defined and set the ministry’s priorities for the black church, as well as its social-political agenda,” Wallace said.

Historically, the best example of a liberal and social-minded African-American preacher is Martin Luther King Jr.

In response to criticism of African-American protests following the Emmett Till’s murder, King famously said, “We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we’re wrong, then the Supreme Court is wrong. If we’re wrong, then the Constitution is wrong. If we’re wrong, then God Almighty himself is wrong.”

King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in partnership with other African-American churches, were key to mobilizing the Civil Rights movement. Church basements became the meeting places for community planning and organization. Protest marches often took on the characteristics of church services, with group prayers and songs, Wallace said.

According to Wallace, African-American churches have been constantly scrutinized and criticized in the post-Civil Rights era. Despite this criticism, African-Americans are still more likely than any other ethnic group to report a religious affiliation.

“The black church is changing…all churches should be changing,” he said.

He urged the church not to lose its zeal for social change, and to be wary of wealthy, conservative telecasters and preachers that spread a message of suppression.

In the words of Francis Grimké, famous African-American preacher, “Justice may sleep, but it never dies,” he said.

Dr. Joseph Prud’homme, associate professor of Political Science and director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics, and Culture, hopes to continue to sponsor monthly programs through the African-American Church and American Ideals program. Events will include performances, lectures, workshops, and field trips.

“I am thrilled to see the program come to fruition,” he said.

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