The new American nation was predominantly composed of Protestant denominations. The evangelical revivals of the 1780s and 1790s converted thousands of black and white Americans to the Methodist and Baptist denominations. Evangelicals saw themselves as a people apart. They rejected fancy dress, ornamental speech, and worldly amusements. They valued repentance and grace. The more established Protestant sects, such as the Presbyterians, Episcopal (Church of England), and Congregational churches found it necessary to compete with evangelicalism by adopting more emotional sermons and a more personalized religion of the heart.
For a brief period in the 1780s and 1790s, Baptist and Methodist conferences declared themselves to be antislavery. In this period, a number of slaves were freed by their masters for motives which appeared to mix revolutionary principles of liberty with religious principles. However, by the early nineteenth century, both groups had retreated from their positions and their yearly conferences made the ownership of slaves an issue of individual conscience. Soon a divergence over slavery began between northern and southern churches of the same denomination. In the 1840s, denominations began to divide into separate northern and southern branches. Southern theologians began to develop a proslavery argument. Northern churches often, but not always, became at least nominally antislavery.
The first African-American churches in North America emerged in the 1750s, two on plantations in Virginia and Georgia and one in Williamsburg, Virginia. Black preachers and exhorters were not uncommon among the “brothers” and “sisters” of the early congregations that had both black and white members, but white leadership began to prevail by the early nineteenth century. Black Christians believed in a very present God who was acting in their lives and would watch over them, as He had watched over the ancient Israelites in bondage in Egypt. Black religion also centered more on collective celebration than did white religion. Communal dances, often called “ring shouts,” camp meetings, revivals, the secretive brush arbor meetings, and the more public general conferences all helped to develop a sense of African-American identity and destiny well-suited to aid runaways from slavery.
In the North, the growth of separate black churches was abetted by the less-than-equal status endured by black members. The most important move away from integrated religious services happened when Richard Allen and other blacks left the segregated seating of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1792 to found Mother Bethel, the first African Methodist Episcopal church and the forerunner of many independent black churches in the northern states. The independent black churches in the north became the center of abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity.
The black church was usually the political and social center of any black community. Its ministers, at least in the North, were both political and spiritual leaders. In the South, it was more difficult for the free blacks and slaves who formed the black churches to escape white surveillance. Southern laws prohibited blacks from gathering for any purpose. for the urban black churches, preaching was illegal without a white presence or, often, an appointed white minister. Despite these restrictions, southern urban churches, such as those in Charleston, Richmond, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., were well organized to aid their black members through burial societies, fraternal orders, women’s organizations and other groups. Occasionally southern black churches found themselves, accidentally or purposely, aiding a fugitive, but this was an activity that had to be undertaken with extreme caution.
In the antebellum decades, the northern black churches aided runaways by providing food, clothing, shelter and information. Escapees from slavery sought out black churches if they wanted to stay and seek employment in a northern city. They sought out the churches for concealment and a form of sanctuary before moving on. They also sought out the churches when they were in need. Black churches were the best-organized black institutions to aid fugitives. These churches provided the majority of the day-to-day assistance. Despite the surveillance of suspicious whites, black churches in the north and south managed to stay in touch with each other. They exchanged members, wrote letters of recommendation, and sometimes passed along news of escaped members and their methods of escape.
1. What type of lifestyle did the evangelical churches shun?
a. simpleb.elaboratec. remorsefuld.plain
2. In the early nineteenth century many of the churches considered slavery to be
a. an important issue.b.a regional question.c. an individual’s choice.d.a governmental concern.
3. Why did Richard Allen help to create the first African Methodist Episcopal Church?
a. He simply wanted to have his own church and there was no other opportunity.
b. The white churches did not practice “ring shouts” or hold communal meetings.
c. Richard Allen wanted to use his church for his own political purposes.
d. The white churches neither welcomed blacks nor treated them equally.
4. Why were black churches the greatest source of help to fugitives?
a. They were the centers of the black community.
b. The ministers could aid runaways without suspicion.
c. The whites were afraid of the black congregations.
d. The black churches were well funded by abolitionists.
5. Based on this reading, report how the black churches aided the slaves spiritually. Include two examples from the text in your answer.