The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America/Chapter 9

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How the fine sweet spirit of black folk, despite superstition and passion has breathed the soul of humility and forgiveness into the formalism and cant of American religion.

Above and beyond all that we have mentioned, perhaps least tangible but just as true, is the peculiar spiritual quality which the Negro has injected into American life and civilization. It is hard to define or characterize it—a certain spiritual joyousness; a sensuous, tropical love of life, in vivid contrast to the cool and cautious New England reason; a slow and dreamful conception of the universe, a drawling and slurring of speech, an intense sensitiveness to spiritual values—all these things and others like to them, tell of the imprint of Africa on Europe in America. There is no gainsaying or explaining away this tremendous influence of the contact of the north and south, of black and white, of Anglo Saxon and Negro.

One way this influence has been brought to bear is through the actual mingling of blood. But this is the smaller cause of Negro influence. Heredity is always stronger through the influence of acts and deeds and imitations than through actual blood descent; and the presence of the Negro in the United States quite apart from the mingling of blood has always strongly influenced the land. We have spoken of its influence in politics, literature and art, but we have yet to speak of that potent influence in another sphere of the world’s spiritual activities: religion.

America early became a refuge for religion—a place of mighty spaces and glorious physical and mental freedom where silent men might sit and think quietly of God and his world. Hither out of the blood and dust of war-wrecked Europe with its jealousies, blows, persecutions and fear of words and thought, came Puritans, Anabaptists, Catholics, Quakers, Moravians, Methodists—all sorts of men and “isms” and sects searching for God and Truth in the lonely bitter wilderness.

Hither too came the Negro. From the first he was the concrete test of that search for Truth, of the strife toward a God, of that body of belief which is the essence of true religion. His presence rent and tore and tried the souls of men. “Away with the slave!” some cried—but where away and why? Was not his body there for work and his soul-—what of his soul? Bring hither the slaves of all Africa and let us convert their souls, this is God’s good reason for slavery. But convert them to what? to freedom? to emancipation? to being white men? Impossible. Convert them, yes. But let them still be slaves for their own good and ours. This was quibbling and good men felt it, but at least here was a practical path, follow it.

Thus arose the great mission movements to the blacks. The Catholic Church began it and not only were there Negro proselytes but black priests and an order of black monks in Spanish America early in the 16th century. In the middle of the 17th century a Negro freedman and charcoal burner lived to see his son, Francisco Xavier de Luna Victoria, raised to head the Bishopric of Panama where he reigned eight years as the first native Catholic Bishop in America.

In Spanish America and in French America the history of Negro religion is bound up with the history of the Catholic Church. On the other hand in the present territory of the United States with the exception of Maryland and Louisiana organized religion was practically and almost exclusively Protestant and Catholics indeed were often bracketed with Negroes for persecution. They could not marry Protestants at one time in colonial South Carolina; Catholics and Negroes could not appear in court as witnesses in Virginia by the law of 1705; Negroes and Catholics were held to be the cause of the “Negro plot” in New York in 1741.

The work then of the Catholic Church among Negroes began in the United States well into the 19th century and by Negroes themselves. In Baltimore, for instance, in 1829, colored refugees from the French West Indies established a sisterhood and academy and gave an initial endowment of furniture, real estate and some $50,000 in money. In 1842 in New Orleans, four free Negro women gave their wealth to form the Sisters of the Holy Family and this work expanded and grew especially after 1893 when a mulatto, Thorny Lafon, endowed the work with over three quarters of a million dollars, his life savings. Later, in 1896, a colored man, Colonel John McKee of Philadelphia, left a million dollars in real estate to the Catholic Church for colored and white orphans.

Outside of these colored sisterhoods and colored philanthropists, the church hesitated long before it began any systematic proselyting among Negroes. This was because of the comparative weakness of the church in early days and later when the Irish migration strengthened it the new Catholics were thrown into violent economic competition with slaves and free Negroes, and their fight to escape slave competition easily resolved itself into a serious anti-Negro hatred which was back of much of the rioting in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and New York. It was not then until the 20th century that the church began active work by establishing a special mission for Negroes and engaging in it nearly two hundred white priests. This new impetus was caused by the benevolence of Katherine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Notwithstanding all this and since the beginning of the 18th century only six Negroes have been ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

The main question of the conversion of the Negro to Christianity in the United States was therefore the task of the Protestant Church and it was, if the truth must be told, a task which it did not at all relish. The whole situation was fraught with perplexing contradictions; Could Christians be slaves? Could slaves be Christians? Was the object of slavery the Christianizing of the black man, and when the black man was Christianized was the mission of slavery done and ended? Was it possible to make modern Christians of these persons whom the new slavery began to paint as brutes? The English Episcopal Church finally began the work in 1701 through the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. It had notable officials, the Archbishop of Canterbury being its first president; it worked in America 82 years, accomplishing something but after all not very much, on account of the persistent objection of the masters. The Moravians were more eager and sent missionaries to the Negroes, converting large numbers in the West Indies and some in the United States in the 18th century. Into the new Methodist Church which came to America in 1766, large numbers of Negroes poured from the first, and finally the Baptists in the 18th century had at least one fourth of their membership composed of Negroes, so that in 1800 there were 14,000 black Methodists and some 20,000 black Baptists.[1]

It must not be assumed that this missionary work acted on raw material. Rather it reacted and was itself influenced by a very definite and important body of thought and belief on the part of the Negroes. Religion in the United States was not simply brought to the Negro by the missionaries. To treat it in that way is to miss the essence of the Negro action and reaction upon American religion. We must think of the transplanting of the Negro as transplanting to the United States a certain spiritual entity, and an unbreakable set of world-old beliefs, manners, morals, superstitions and religious observances. The religion of Africa is the universal animism or fetishism of primitive peoples, rising to polytheism and approaching monotheism chiefly, but not wholly, as a result of Christian and Islamic missions. Of fetishism there is much misapprehension. It is not mere senseless degradation. It is a philosophy of life. Among primitive Negroes there can be, as Miss Kingsley reminds us, no such divorce of religion from practical life as is common in civilized lands. Religion is life, and fetish an expression of the practical recognition of dominant forces in which the Negro lives. To him all the world is spirit. Miss Kingsley says: “It is this power of being able logically to account for everything that is, I believe, at the back of the tremendous permanency of fetish in Africa, and the cause of many of the relapses into it by Africans converted to other religions; it is also the explanation of the fact that white men who live in the districts where death and danger are everyday affairs, under a grim pall of boredom, are liable to believe in fetish, though ashamed of so doing. For the African, whose mind has been soaked in fetish during his early and most impres sionable years, the voice of fetish is almost irresistible when affliction comes to him.”[2]

At first sight it would seem that slavery completely destroyed every vestige of spontaneous social movement among the Negroes; the home had deteriorated; political authority and economic initiative was in the hands of the masters; property, as a social institution, did not exist on the plantation; and, indeed, it is usually assumed by historians and sociologists that every vestige of internal development disappeared, leaving the slaves no means of expression for their common life, thought, and striving. This is not strictly true; the vast power of the priest in the African state still survived; his realm alone—the province of religion and medicine—remained largely unaffected by the plantation system in many important particulars. The Negro priest, therefore, early became an important figure on the plantation and found his function as the interpreter of the supernatural, the comforter of the sorrowing, and as the one who expressed, rudely, but picturesquely, the longing and disappointment and resentment of a stolen people. From such beginnings arose and spread with marvellous rapidity the Negro church, the first distinctively Negro American social institution. It was not at first by any means a Christian Church, but a mere adaptation of those heathen rites which we roughly designate by the term Obe Worship or “Voodooism.” Association and missionary effort soon gave these rites a veneer of Christianity, and gradually, after two centuries, the Church became Christian, with a simple Calvinistic creed, but with many of the old customs still clinging to the services. It is this historic fact that the Negro Church today bases itself upon the sole surviving social institution of the African fatherland, that accounts for its extraordinary growth and vitality. We easily forget that in the United States today there is a Church organization for every sixty Negro families. This institution, therefore, naturally assumed many functions which the other harshly suppressed social organs had to surrender; the Church became the center of amusements, of what little spontaneous economic activity remained, of education, and of all social intercourse, of music and art.[3]

For these reasons the tendency of the Negro worshippers from the very first was to integrate into their own organizations. As early as 1775 distinct Negro congregations with Negro ministers began to appear here and there in the United States. They multiplied, were swept away, effort was made to absorb them in the white church, but they kept on growing until they established national bodies with Episcopal control or democratic federation and these organizations today form the strongest, most inclusive and most vital of the Negro organizations. They count in the United States four million members and their churches seat these four million and six million other guests. They are houses in 40,000 centers, worth $60,000,000 and have some 200,000 leaders.

On the part of the white church this tendency among the Negroes met with alternate encouragement and objection: encouragement because they did not want Negroes in their churches even when they occupied the back seats or in the gallery; objection when the church became, as it so often did, a center of intelligent Negro life and even of plotting against slavery. There arose out of the church the first leaders of the Negro group; and in the first rank among these stands Richard Allen.[4]

Richard Allen was born in 1760 as a slave in Philadelphia and was licensed to preach in 1782. He was ordained deacon by Bishop Asbury and he led the Negroes in their secession from St. George’s Church in Philadelphia when they tried to stop black folk from praying on the main floor. He formed first the Free African Society and finally established Bethel Church.

As this church grew and multiplied it became the African Methodist Episcopal Church which now boasts three quarters of a million members. Allen was its first bishop. With Allen was associated Absalom Jones, born a slave in Delaware in 1746. He became the first Negro priest in the Episcopal Church. John Gloucester became the pioneer Negro minister among colored Presbyterians and gave that church his four sons as ministers. George Leile became a missionary of the American Negroes to the Negroes of Jamaica and began missionary work on that island while Lott Carey in a similar way became a missionary to Africa. Then came Nat Turner, the preacher revolutionist. James Varick, a free negro of New York who was the first bishop of the black Zion Methodist revolt, and afterward there followed the stream of Negro leaders who have built and led the organization of colored churches. But this is only part of the story.

It will be seen that the development of the Negro church was not separate from the white. Black preachers led white congregations, white preachers addressed blacks. In many other ways Negroes influenced white religion continuously and tremendously. There was the “Shout,” com bining the trance and demoniac possession as old as the world, and revivified and made wide-spread by the Negro religious devotees in America. Methodist and Baptist ways of worship, songs and religious dances absorbed much from the Negroes and whatever there is in American religion today of stirring and wild enthusiasm, of loud conversions and every day belief in an anthropomorphic God owes its origin in a no small measure to the black man.

Of course most of the influence of the Negro preachers was thrown into their own churches and to their own people and it was from the Negro church as an organization that Negro religious influence spread most widely to white people. Many would say that this influence had little that was uplifting and was a detriment rather than an advantage in that it held back and holds back the South particularly in its religious development. There is no doubt that influences of a primitive sort and customs that belong to the unlettered childhood of the race rather than to the thinking adult life of civilization crept in with the religious influence of the slave. Much of superstition, even going so far as witchcraft, conjury and blood sacrifice for a long time marked Negro religion here and there in the swamps and islands. But on the other hand it is just as true that the cold formalism of upper class England and New England needed the wilder spiritual emotionalism of the black man to weld out of both a rational human religion based on kindliness and social uplift; and whether the influence of Negro religion was on the whole good or bad, the fact remains that it was potent in the white South and still is.

Several black leaders of white churches are worth remembering.[5] Lemuel Hayes was born in Connecticut in 1753 of a black father and white mother. Lie received his Master of Arts from Middlebury College in 1804, was a soldier in the Revolution and pastored various churches in New England. “He was the embodiment of piety and honesty.” Harry Hosier, the black servant and companion of Bishop Asbury, was called by Dr. Benjamin Rush, the greatest orator in America. He travelled north and south and preached to white and black between 1784 and his death in 1810.

John Chavis was a full-blooded Negro, born in Granville county, N. C., near Oxford, in 1753. He was born free and was sent to Princeton, and studied privately under Dr. Witherspoon, where he did well. He went to Virginia to preach to Negroes. In 1802, in the county court, his freedom and character were certified to and it was declared that he had passed “through a regular course of academic studies’’ at what is now Washington and Lee University. In 1805 he returned to North Carolina, where he, in 1809 was made a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church and preached. His English was remarkably pure, his manner impressive, his explanations clear and concise. For a long time he taught school and had the best whites as pupils—a United States senator, the sons of a chief justice of North Carolina, a governor of the state and many others. Some of his pupils boarded in his family, and his school was regarded as the best in the State. “All accounts agree that John Chavis was a gentleman” and he was received socially among the best whites and asked to table. In 1830 he was stopped from preaching by the law. Afterward he taught school for free Negroes in Raleigh.

Henry Evans was a full-blooded Virgina free Negro, and was the pioneer of Methodism in Fayetteville, N. C. He found the Negroes there, about 1800, without religious instruction. He began preaching and the town council ordered him away; he continued and whites came to hear him. Finally the white auditors outnumbered the black, and sheds were erected for Negroes at the side of the church. The gathering became a regular Methodist Church, with a white and Negro membership, but Evans continued to preach. He exhibited “rare self-control before the most wretched of castes! Henry Evans did much good, but he would have done more good had his spirit been untrammelled by this sense of inferiority.”[6]

His dying words uttered as he stood, aged and bent beside his pulpit, are of singular pathos:

“I have come to say my last word to you. It is this: None but Christ. Three times I have had my life in jeopardy for preaching the gospel to you. Three times I have broken ice on the edge of the water and swam across the Cape Fear to preach the gospel to you; and, if in my last hour I could trust to that, or anything but Christ crucified, for my salvation, all should be lost and my soul perish forever.”

Early in the nineteenth century, Ralph Freeman was a slave in Anson county, N. C. He was a full-blooded Negro, and was ordained and became an able Baptist preacher. He baptised and administered communion, and was greatly respected. When the Baptists split on the question of missions he sided with the anti-mission side. Finally the law forbade him to preach.

The story of Jack of Virginia is best told in the words of a Southern writer: “Probably the most interesting case in the whole South is that of an African preacher of Nottoway county, popularly known as ‘Uncle Jack,’ whose services to white and black were so valuable that a distinguished minister of the Southern Presbyterian Church felt called upon to memorize his work in a biography.

“Kidnapped from his idolatrous parents in Africa, he was brought over in one of the last cargoes of slaves admitted to Virginia and sold to a remote and obscure planter in Nottoway county, a region at that time in the backwoods and destitute particularly as to religious life and instruction. He was converted under the occasional preaching of Rev. Dr. John Blair Smith, President of Hampden-Sidney College, and of Dr. William Hill and Dr. Archibald Alexander of Princeton, then young theologues, and by hearing the scriptures read. Taught by his master’s children to read, he became so full of the spirit and knowledge of the Bible that he was recognized among the whites as a powerful expounder of Christian doctrine, was licensed to preach by the Baptist Church, and preached from plantation to plantation within a radius of thirty miles, as he was invited by overseers or masters. His freedom was purchased by a subscription of whites, and he was given a home and a tract of land for his support. He organized a large and orderly Negro church, and exercised such a wonderful controlling influence over the private morals of his flock that masters, instead of punishing their slaves, often referred them to the discipline of their pastor, which they dreaded far more.

“He stopped a heresy among the Negro Christians of Southern Virginia, defeating in open argument a famous fanatical Negro preacher named Campbell, who advocated noise and ‘the spirit’ against the Bible, winning over Campbell’s adherents in a body. For over forty years and until he was nearly a hundred years of age, he labored successfully in public and private among black and whites, voluntarily giving up his preaching in obedience to the law of 1832, the result of ‘Old Nat’s war.’ . . .

“The most refined and aristocratic people paid tribute to him, and he was instrumental in the conversion of many whites. Says his biographer, Rev. Dr. William S. White: ‘He was invited into their houses, sat with their families, took part in their social worship, sometimes leading the prayer at the family altar. Many of the most intelligent people attended upon his ministry and listened to his sermons with great delight. Indeed, previous to the year 1825, he was considered by the best judges to be the best preacher in that county. His opinions were respected, his advice followed, and yet he never betrayed the least symptoms of arrogance or self-conceit. His dwelling was a rude log cabin, his apparel of the plainest and coarsest materials.’ This was because he wished to be fully identified with his class. He refused gifts of better clothing saying ‘These clothes are a great deal better than are generally worn by people of my color, and besides if I wear them I find shall be obliged to think about them even at meeting’.”

All this has to do with organized religion. But back of all this and behind the half childish theology of formal religion there has run in the heart of black folk the greatest of human achievements, love and sympathy, even for their enemies, for those who despised them and hurt them and did them nameless ill. They have nursed the sick and closed the staring eyes of the dead. They have given friendship to the friendless, they have shared the pittance of their poverty with the outcast and nameless; they have been good and true and pitiful to the bad and false and pitiless and in this lies the real grandeur of their simple religion, the mightiest gift of black to white America.

Above all looms the figure of the Black Mammy, one of the most pitiful of the world’s Christs. Whether drab and dirty drudge or dark and gentle lady she played her part in the uplift of the South. She was an embodied Sorrow, an anomaly crucified on the cross of her own neglected children for the sake of the children of masters who bought and sold her as they bought and sold cattle. Whatever she had of slovenliness or neatness, of degradation or of education she surrendered it to those who lived to lynch her sons and ravish her daughters. From her great full breast walked forth governors and judges, ladies of wealth and fashions, merchants and scoundrels who lead the South. And the rest gave her memory the reverence of silence. But a few snobs have lately sought to advertise her sacrifice and degradation and enhance their own cheap success by building on the blood of her riven heart a load of stone miscalled a monument.

In religion as in democracy, the Negro has been a peculiar test of white profession. The American church, both Catholic and Protestant, has been kept from any temptation to over-righteousness and empty formalism by the fact that just as Democracy in America was tested by the Negro, so American religion has always been tested by slavery and color prejudice. It has kept before America’s truer souls the spirit of meekness and self abasement, it has compelled American religion again and again to search its heart and cry “I have sinned;” and until the day comes when color caste falls before reason and economic opportunity the black American will stand as the last and terrible test of the ethics of Jesus Christ.

Beyond this the black man has brought to America a sense of meekness and humility which America never has recognized and perhaps never will. If there is anybody in this land who thoroughly believes that the meek shall inherit the earth they have not often let their presence be known. On the other hand it has become almost characteristic of America to look upon position, self assertion, determination to go forward at all odds, as typifying the American spirit. This is natural. It is at once the rebound from European oppression and the encouragement which America offers physically, economically and socially to the human spirit. But on the other hand, it is in many of its aspects a dangerous and awful thing. It hardens and hurts our souls, it contradicts our philanthropy and religion; and here it is that the honesty of the black race, its hesitancy and heart searching, its submission to authority and its deep sympathy with the wishes of the other man comes forward as a tremendous, even though despised corrective. It is not always going to remain; even now we see signs of its disappearance before contempt, lawlessnessand lynching. But it is still here, it still works and one of the most magnificent anomalies in modern human history is the labor and fighting of a half-million black men and two million whites for the freedom of four million slaves and these same slaves, dumbly but faithfully and not wholly unconsciously, protecting the mothers, wives and children of the very white men who fought to make their slavery perpetual.

This then is the Gift of Black Folk to the new world. Thus in singular and fine sense the slave became master, the bond servant became free and the meek not only inherited the earth but made that heritage a thing of questing for eternal youth, of fruitful labor, of joy and music, of the free spirit and of the ministering hand, of wide and poignant sympathy with men in their struggle to live and love which is, after all, the end of being.

  1. Charles C. Jones, Religious Instruction of the Negroes, Savannah, 1842.
  2. M. H. Kingsley, West African Studies.
  3. 3 Atlanta University Publications, The Negro Church, 1903.
  4. Richard Allen, Life, Experience and Gospel Labors, Philadelphia, 1880.
  5. Cf. Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church, Washington, D. C., 1921; Atlanta University Publications, The Negro Church; and J. E. Bassett, Slavery in North Carolina.
  6. Bassett, pp. 58-9.