Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
Black Churches in America
[p.1]Understanding African-American Mormons requires an understanding of the broader history of black churches in the United States. Blacks organized the first separate congregations during the late eighteenth century. These churches remained separate for a century until the 1960s civil rights movement made religious discrimination an issue.
AMERICAN RELIGION IN CONTEXT
During the colonial and federalist periods, the American landscape seemed vast enough for a multitude of religious dreams alongside the many political and social scenarios. Although settlers colonized Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, and New Mexico primarily for economic reasons, New England immigrants sought religious freedom, a benefit Pilgrims denied later arrivals. Some of these, including Roger Williams, went west to form new colonies. Eventually Catholics of all nationalities, many Protestants, and groups of Jews from throughout Europe flocked to the New World and established communities. Each set of immigrants brought its own culture, and religious participation was an important part of ethnic identity. New American denominations and adaptations of European denominations increased the variety. Martin E. Marty, a historian specializing in religions, refers to the “bewildering pluralism” of American belief. 1
[p.2]Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries evangelical churches kept Americans on the “strait and narrow” with series of revivals. Despite unremitting laments from orthodox leaders that religion was dying, visitors to the United States saw religion as an important part of American vitality. In 1820 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “There is no country in this world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”2 Organized religion in America underlaid many educational and civic improvements and cultural events from the seventeenth century to the present.
Many groups proselyted, even among believing neighbors, but they paid special attention to “savage” native Americans and “heathen” Africans. How best to deal with blacks led to differences. In 1844 Methodist-Episcopal churches split over the issue of slavery; the next year the same question forced a division in the Baptist church. Though the Civil Wax ended slavery, the churches did not reunite.3
Based on models from other countries, one might predict that urbanization and industrialization would contribute to a decline in church participation,4 but that did not happen in the United States. Theological distinctions faded until sociologist Max Weber observed in 1904, “The kind of denomination in American religion is rather irrelevant.”5 Marty commented, “What was remarkable about the scene in 1904 is that, while erosion of denominational separateness declined, denominations themselves survived, proliferated, and often prospered when secularization was supposed to be doing its undercutting.”6
[p.3]Religion retained importance and sometimes prickly boundary-guarding through such twentieth-century challenges as organic evolution, World War I, prohibition, the economic depression of the 1930s, and World War II. During the post-war prosperity and the zeal of the Cold War of the 1950s, religious faith again surged. As historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom put it, “During the [Dwight] Eisenhower years [evangelists such as Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham] could link hands, as it were, and preside over an Indian summer of confident living and renewed religious interest …. Beneath the affluence and the abundant piety, however, a vast range of unresolved issues remained.”7
During the 1960s old ways were challenged,8 and traditional denominations were hit especially hard. According to Marty, “Mainline churches… suffer in times of cultural crisis and disintegration.” He continued, “They receive blame for what goes wrong in society [and] are bypassed when people look for new ways to achieve social identity and location.” In short, mainline churches looked as bad in the 1970s as they had looked good in the 1950s.9
The founding of black churches occupies a peculiar niche in American religious history. Partially because of their desire to share the message of Jesus, northerners and southerners agreed that African slaves needed to be converted to Christianity. In addition, Christianity bred docility by promising a better afterlife and encouraging acceptance of their current existence. But where and how blacks should worship also concerned whites. Owners encouraged slaves to hold services on plantations under their personal supervision, using “orthodox” Christian forms of worship. However, slaves often met in secret, combining Christianity with native religion.
When a significant number of blacks were freed in the North in the 1780s, they sought churches where they could continue to worship Jesus but found they were not welcome in white churches. As a result they organized their own. The first became known as the African [p.4]Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Richard Allen, a freed black, joined the Methodist church in Delaware around 1780 and preached as a “licensed exhorter” in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1786 and attempted to establish a separate meeting place for blacks, but white Methodists objected.10 Instead African-Americans attended services at St. George Methodist Episcopal church with whites until, in Allen’s words, “the colored people began to get numerous.” Then the whites moved the blacks “from the seats [they] usually sat on, and placed [them] around the wall.”
One Sunday in 1787 a black attempted to kneel during prayer in one of the galleries, and whites objected. A confrontation developed, and the conflict was resolved when the blacks “all went out of the church in a body, and they [the whites] were no longer plagued with us in the church.” Allen no doubt reflected the feelings of many blacks when he bitterly noted that “we had subscribed largely towards finishing St. George’s church …. Just as the house was made comfortable, we were turned out from enjoying the comforts of worshipping there.” As a result, he continued, “We hired a store-room and held worship ourselves. Here we were pursued by threats of being disowned, and read publicly out of meeting if we did continue to worship in the place we had hired; but we believed the Lord would be our friend.”11
Other churches developed in much the same way, with only reluctant sponsorship or downright hostility from parent congregations. In nearly all cases black Christians initiated these separatist organizations in response to white limitations. African-American historians summarized, “The move toward racially separate churches was not a matter of doctrinal disagreement, but a protest against unequal and restrictive treatment.”12
Initially black congregations shared denominational alliances with whites. For example, black Baptists were affiliated with white Baptist conventions from 1815 to 1880 though they were not accepted as [p.5]equal parishes and usually assigned to the African Baptist Missionary Society 13 White Alabama Baptists stated that blacks should “stay absolutely in [their] own sphere, and let us manfully, religiously and patriotically maintain our dignity, supremacy and social status in our own sphere.”14 When blacks decided to organize their own American National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., in 1901 to preserve the “integrity of the black church,” the Southern Baptist Committee on Missions to the Colored People was “relieved,” according to Marty. Southern Baptist bishops were pleased, expecting separation would prevent “needless jealousies and irritating and damaging complications,” and the “mention of blacks largely disappeared in white Baptist church convention proceedings.”15 The result was an early “separate but equal” policy.
Several black churches had already formed their own associations prior to the Southern Baptists. After corresponding about mutual concerns, black Methodist Episcopal congregations, including Allen’s Philadelphia group, met in 1816 to organize the African Methodist Episcopal church.16 The African Methodist Episcopal Zion church (AMEZ) began in 1821 as a union of black congregations in New York City. Although these churches refused to join Allen’s group and sought a separate identity, they also called themselves AME until 1848 when they added “Zion” to distinguish themselves from the Philadelphia movement.17 The AME and the AMEZ initially affiliated with Northern Methodist Episcopalians, who had split from a Southern group over slavery in 1844. Some black Methodist Episcopalians stayed with the Southerners, but after the Civil War officials of the Methodist Episcopal South convention told blacks they could remain only on pre-war terms. According to historians, the convention was “unprepared to revise radically its conception of the proper place of [p.6] blacks” and blacks “would continue in an inferior and subordinate relation.”18 Many black congregations refused to accept this status and looked for another conference affiliation. Both the AME and the AMEZ sent missionaries to the South, resulting in “intense rivalry” and disputes over how to split the property previously held by the Methodist Episcopal South congregations. In 1866 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal South agreed to a petition by blacks allowing them to withdraw. The Colored Methodist Episcopal church (CME) was officially organized in 1870; the name was changed to Christian Methodist Episcopal church in 1954.19
In contrast to these separatist black churches, the Pentecostal movement was started and led by a black minister, William J. Seymour, who held revivals in Los Angeles between 1906 and 1909. Pentecostals traced their origins to Methodism through a subgroup, the National Camp Meeting Association of the Promotion of Holiness, organized in 1867 and later named the National Holiness Association. It stressed the principle of sanctification, held interdenominational camp meetings, and “sought to purify and preserve the faith believed to have been corrupted by the increasingly middle-class churches.”20 As historians C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya point out, “Both Holiness and Pentecostalism gained momentum in reaction to liberal tendencies at the turn of the century expressed in Darwinism, the ecumenical emphasis, and the Social Gospel movement.” These “antiliberal” views eventually led to “separatist white denominations.”21 Marty explained that the split took place when Pentecostals “turned respectable”—in other words when it stopped being a radical sect and became a mainline religion. Following the split the black movement continued to grow. The largest black Pentecostal group today is the Church of God in Christ.22
THE SOCIAL ROLE OF BLACK CHURCHES
Whatever the denomination, black churches developed a theology [p.7] based on social needs. Ministers preached that despite life’s trials, the Lord would “deliver” his people from oppression just as he had saved Daniel and the Hebrews.23 The need for consolation encouraged an emphasis on Jesus as savior, and black churches still look to him for deliverance, salvation, and holiness.24
Yet as Lincoln and Mamiya explain, “Past studies have overemphasized the other worldly views of black churches.”25 Their revisionist 1991 work shows how black churches have provided a “prophetic critique” of society and met the social, political, and economic needs of their members.26 According to sociologists Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, “Early on, the black church emerged as an important institution, second only to the family, as a symbol and embodiment of racial solidarity and the quest for freedom and justice.”27
After the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision providing for integrated schools, blacks moved forward aggressively to obtain long-denied civil rights. The movement was, assert Lincoln and Mamiya, “anchored in the Black Church, organized by black ministers and laity, and supported financially by black church members.”28 Historian Benjamin Mays claims that “the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham and Selma marches, the battle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, [and] the non-violent march on Washington in 1963 were mainly the results of black people led by black preachers.”29
Because black churches have been social, cultural, and political communities as well as religious groups, African-Americans have been reluctant to enter white congregations. Doris Marie Wilson, a black [p.8] Latter-day Saint from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, belonged to the Bethal AME church before she became a Mormon in 1981. “There is a cultural thing with the black churches,” she explained. “If you leave the black church, you are also leaving the culture.”30 Another black Latter-day Saint, Reginald Allen, grew up in Harlem during the 1940s and attended St. Mark’s Methodist church, one of the larger black churches in the area. For him church was a place for blacks to learn their “heritage” and to meet “prominent black leaders”31 who combined political leadership with ministerial responsibilities.
The passage of Civil Rights laws during the 1960s gave blacks greater options in education, housing, and employment. Some had always been part of the middle class, but now more had real access to status. Black religious sociologist E. Franklin Frazier had predicted as early as the 1950s that blacks’ upward mobility would take them out of black churches into white ones, at least “partly… to confirm their new status.”32 Instead, the 1960s “black is beautiful” movement kept most African-Americans in black churches. The new middle class attended “elite” black churches or supported commuter churches, driving from middle-class suburbs to inner-city churches.33
Contemporary “black churches are, on the whole, still healthy and vibrant institutions,” according to Lincoln and Mamiya. Despite some erosion, “particularly among unchurched underclass black youth and some college educated, middle-class young adults, black churches still remain the central institutional sector in most black communities.”34 Yet increased options resulted in increased diversity, and a split developed between the middle and lower classes and between rural and urban blacks.35 As Lincoln and Mamiya explain, “The gradual [p.9] emergence of two fairly distinct black Americas along class lines—of two nations within a nation—has raised a serious challenge to the Black Church.” Historically black denominations were composed of the lower middle-class whose pastors “have had a difficult time in attempting to reach the hard-core urban poor, the black underclass.” They conclude, “If the traditional Black Church fails in its attempt to include the urban poor, the possibility of a Black Church of the poor may emerge, consisting largely of independent, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal storefront churches.”36
BLACKS IN WHITE CHURCHES
Some blacks have always belonged to traditionally white churches. Following the Civil War the Northern Methodist Episcopal church sent missionaries to the South, and by 1896 nearly 250,000 blacks had joined.37 In 1900 they appealed to the national convention for black bishops, but the general conference did not respond. According to Marty, those who remained in the Methodist Episcopal church were essentially assigned to a “world-within-a-world,” and were never fully accepted.38 In 1939 the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, and Methodist Protestant churches combined to create new divisions based on geography. All blacks, however, were placed in a separate black unit known as Central Jurisdiction. Under this arrangement blacks could elect their own bishops. This separate unit remained until 1966 when the church eliminated Central Jurisdiction. Even then complete integration failed to take place, and as a result, according to Lincoln and Mamiya, “The ambiguity of being neither members in an independent church nor full participants in a truly inclusive church was a factor in the organizing of Black Methodists for Church Renewal in 1968” to push for greater assimilation in the United Methodist church.39
Other churches also accepted black members only with strict limits. When northern Presbyterians and Cumberland Presbyterians of the mid-South discussed a merger in 1900, race was an issue. [p.10] According to Marty, “Cumberlanders said that the northerners recognized the absolute necessity of a separation of the races in the South.” Although a church publication, the Africa-American Presbyterian, denounced segregation as having no “just ground… in law, morals or Christianity,” the Special Committee on the Territorial Limits of Presbyteries adopted a policy that blacks were “inferior to the whites in culture, mental and moral development” and needed “the stronger race for help and guidance.”40
Catholics were also segregated or limited from full participation.41 The church ordained few blacks to the priesthood until the 1920s, and those who were installed encountered prejudice and misunderstanding. Some dioceses voted against ordaining “colored” priests. Others, according to Dorothy Liptak’s history of Catholic immigrants, simply had “an unwritten policy concerning the preparation of black men for the priesthood.” She explains, “Had it not been for the commissioning in the 1920s of the Society of the Divine Word… specifically to train blacks for the priesthood (the first black priest trained by the society was ordained in 1934), there might not have been a single opportunity for Afro-Americans to advance ordination within the American Catholic church during the first half of the twentieth century.” Black women who joined religious orders were segregated and allowed to work only with blacks.42
Some Catholics supported civil rights actions during the 1930s and 1940s. For example, John LaFarge, a Jesuit who worked with black missions in Maryland, became leader of the Federation of Colored Catholics. At first some blacks did not want whites included in the federation because they feared a white take-over. After two years of discussions, the Catholic Interracial Council was launched on 6 June 1934, and by 1959 there were thirty-five affiliates in the North and South.43 [p.11]
Liptak summarized the history of black Catholics after the Civil War in these terms:
A golden harvest had been predicted in 1866; a black layman looked with expectation toward what the Church offered his people in the 1890s; and the Federation of Colored Catholics rekindled the hopes of blacks in the period of the 1920s renascence. Yet, even in the mid-twentieth century, all too little seemed to have resulted …. Only when American society as a whole was forced to take up the question of racial justice in the 1960s did American Catholics seem to listen more seriously to the concerns of black Catholics.44
The Catholic and mainline Protestant experiences are not unique. Smaller denominations did not become entirely integrated until after the civil rights upheaval. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), one of several groups that recognize Joseph Smith as their founding prophet, is not atypical. The RLDS church did not adopt a formal policy of priesthood restriction as did the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but its relationship with blacks was characterized by the conflicting ideals of universal brotherhood and de facto segregation. Historian Roger D. Launius concluded that the Reorganized church “was largely unwilling to move beyond the bounds of polite American ideas on the race question; it was wedded to the social norm, whatever it happened to be at the time.”45
Joseph Smith III, president of the RLDS church beginning in 1860, spoke out against slavery and encouraged missionary work to blacks.46 He presented a revelation to the church’s general conference in 1865 in which the Lord stated, “It is expedient in me that you ordain priests unto me, of every race who receive the teachings of my law.” But the revelation contained a restrictive clause, “There are some who are chosen instruments to be ministers to their own race.”47
Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, the RLDS church struggled with racial issues. While it expressed a commitment to send [p.12] missionaries to blacks, limited resources, concern about race relations, and a limited black membership led to only “moderate success” among black Americans. The few who did join showed by “their willingness to unite with an unpopular, small, and basically Caucasian church” their willingness to “sacrifice” for what they believed.48
In 1866 the RLDS Quorum of Twelve Apostles decided blacks should worship with whites, declaring, “As the Author of Life and Salvation does not discriminate among His rational creatures on account of Color neither does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”49 This idealistic policy, however, ran into practical difficulties in a world divided by segregation. In the South RLDS blacks had separate congregations. Joseph Smith III conceded in 1893: “Custom and the natural barriers in the way must have their weight. … Any attempt to urge the unrestrained intercourse of all classes, races, and conditions will stir up strife and contention far more dangerous to the welfare and unity of the church, than the principle contended for will justify.”50
This concession to custom guided RLDS policy through much of the twentieth century. In a 1943 article in the church’s Saints’ Herald magazine, the Presiding Patriarch called for an improved racial policy in the United States but restated the church’s views, “If and when we make a real effort to proselyte among colored people we will find it wiser to keep congregations separated according to their color until there comes better general adjustment.”51
An adjustment came during the Civil Rights movement. A church resolution passed in 1956 after Brown v. the Board of Education called for integrated congregations but did not dissolve the already segregated branches.52 An official declaration in 1963 called for equal rights for blacks but gave no support to the civil rights movement. It downplayed difficulties, stating, “The internal racial problems in our church have been very minor.”53 In 1968 the church passed one [p.13] resolution in support of Martin Luther King and another entitled “Gospel to Racial and Ethnic Groups” which, according to Launius, “affirmed, once again, the traditional position of racial equality.”54
Since 1970 the RLDS church has continued to re-define racial relationships. The RLDS Black Ministries Coalition, for example, attempted to create networking between black members by publishing a newsletter and sponsoring summer reunions. Church leadership continued to be faced with the problem of separate versus integrated congregations. There are still reasons for some separation to promote leadership and heritage. Yet there is also the desire to allow all Saints to worship together.55 The RLDS church’s dilemma, of course, is not unique. All religious organizations with minority members struggle with the same predicament.
Much has been written about the history of churches in the United States and the roles blacks have played. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was an important watershed which not only gave greater political equality to blacks but also provided an opportunity for all Americans to reexamine their racial feelings. During the 1980s both black and white Americans turned to conservative values. Progressive mainline churches lost members and “marginal” churches grew. In the black community, the greatest growth was in Pentecostal churches. One of the white churches which grew rapidly during this period was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Handicapped in dealing with racial problems by a policy that barred black men from priesthood ordination until 1978, it now has a worldwide multi-racial membership and the contemporary challenge of how to assimilate members of different cultures.
Quote from Marty, Modern American Religion, 102-103.
30. Doris Marie Wilson, Oral History, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1986, 7, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereinafter cited as LDS Afro-American).