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African American Christianity, Pt. II: From the Civil War to the Great Migration, 1865-1920
Laurie Maffly-Kipp
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
©National Humanities Center
 
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(part 2 of 3)

Religious Variety and the Holiness/Pentecostal Movement
UGA Lib.
Baptism, Georgia, late 1800s
Baptism, Georgia,
late 1800s

Parrish
Ring shout, St. Simon's Island, Georgia, ca. 1940
Ring shout, St. Simon's Island, Georgia, ca. 1940

Freedom also brought with it opportunities for self-improvement and "getting ahead," and differences of class and location also fostered different kinds of religious practices and beliefs. Gradually, southern religious life became as variegated as that in the north, with Protestant churches to suit a variety of styles. Generally, poorer and more rural churches tended to cling more tenaciously to older customs, and to more experiential forms of worship, and since the vast majority of southern blacks remained in rural areas, many of the traditions inherited from the "hush harbors" of slavery—including root work, chanted preaching, and particularly musical styles—remained a part of church life. In southern cities, as the numbers of educated and middle-class African Americans grew, so too did the interest in a more rationalized and uniform religious experience like that of the north.


Intl. Pentecostal Holiness Church Archives
Live Coals of Fire, Publication of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Association, 1900
Publication of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Association, 1900

Several momentous religious developments emerged out of these changes in southern life by the 1880s. First was the emergence of a "holiness" movement, a trend that emphasized the possibility of Christian perfection through a series of religious experiences of "sanctification." Initially a biracial movement within Methodist churches, holiness ideals fit well with the emphasis on intense religious experience and separation from the world already practiced in southern African American churches. Eventually holiness advocates drew followers and adherents from within other denominations as well. At camp meetings and revivals throughout the south and midwest, black and white Christians met and sang, preached, and testified together in a spirit-filled style reminiscent of earlier African American patterns. Ultimately organized into "Holiness" churches, this development would, after World War I, find its way back to the north and would reinject a new religious style into African American urban worship.

Azusa Street Like As of Fire
First issue of Azusa St. Mission newspaper, September 1906
First issue of Azusa St. Mission newspaper
September 1906

By 1906, the loosely organized holiness movement gave birth to an offshoot, pentecostalism, that would become tremendously important in subsequent decades. That year, during a holiness revival at a Los Angeles church, worshippers were said to have received the gifts of the spirit (speaking and interpreting "tongues," among others) bestowed upon Christís followers at Pentecost. This feature came to be a hallmark of pentecostal worship. Although like holiness, pentecostalism began as a multiracial movement that emphasized equality before Christ, by World War I racial lines had formed, and separate black Pentecostal denominations had organized after being shut out by their white counterparts. By the late twentieth century, black Pentecostal denominations, led by the large and influential Church of God in Christ, would become an important component of black religious variety throughout the United States.


Slideshow
Urban Centers

Meanwhile, African American religion in urban areas of the north and south also changed dramatically, particularly after the 1880s. Here, issues of class predominated, as middle-class blacks began to build a religious life much like that of their white counterparts. The AME Church, in particular, was noted for its large, formal churches, its educational network of schools and colleges, and its vast publishing arm that included several publications by the end of the century. Black religious leaders became involved in some of the interdenominational institutions, such as the YMCA and the Sunday School movement, that were the bulwarks of evangelical life at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet unlike white evangelical leaders of the day, who were also engaged in theological battles about biblical history and interpretation, middle-class blacks kept their eyes trained toward the basic social injustices wrought by American racism. This battle, which had steadily worsened after the 1870s, promoted a degree of political unity among black Protestant groups that, at times, outweighed their many differences.

UNC Libraries
A.M.E. Women's Parent Mite Missionary Society, 1915
A.M.E. Women's Parent Mite
Missionary Society, 1915
reports
Officers of A.M.E. women's missionary societies, mid 1910s

Yet there were some internal tensions. With the emergence of middle-class membership came issues about women's participation in the church, as some black women now had the relative leisure to look beyond the immediacies of life. Several female leaders in this era raised the issue of women's ordination, only to be rebuffed by the male hierarchy. Instead, women formed missionary societies to address all manner of local and international needs, from the support of job training in their communities to funding for African American missionaries to Africa. They worked on urban ills, established reading groups, and advocated for better living conditions. They also wrote for religious periodicals, promoting quite traditional ideals of Victorian womanhood, respectability, and racial uplift. Women also continued work among their less fortunate counterparts in the rural south, in what continued to be an uneasy alliance. Like male religious leaders, too, they protested the creeping effects of Jim Crow laws and the systematic violence of lynching.

In sum, the divisions between north and south that began the era had changed dramatically by the eve of World War I. Slavery was no longer the single point of contrast. Southern cities, by that time, looked much more like their northern counterparts, and instead rural/urban differences emerged. Class distinctions took hold as educational and professional opportunities for African Americans increased. And middle-class women were also challenging traditional patterns of male leadership. All of these issues were made manifest in—and were often encouraged by—organized religious life. Yet black Protestants also solidly stood against the growing tide of racism in America, using the church as a tool of protest and a harbor in the storm. Still at the center of black experience, the church embodied both the unity and the divisions among African Americans.

"Rural/urban differences emerged. Class distinctions
took hold . . . . The church embodied both the unity
and the divisions among African Americans."


St. Paul A.M.E. Church
Jacksonville, Florida, 1889
St. Paul A.M.E. Church, Jacksonville, Florida, 1889
Florida State Achives

A.M.E. Metropolitan Church
Washington, D.C., ca. 1900
A.M.E. Metropolitan Church, Washington, D.C., ca. 1900
Library of Congress


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The Foreign Missionary Movement | American Jewish Experience through the 19th Century | Mormonism and the American Mainstream | Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening | Evangelicalism as a Social Movement | American Abolitionism and Religion
Religion in the Civil War: The Southern Perspective | Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective
| African American Christianity, Pt. I | African American Christianity, Pt. II |
Roman Catholics and Immigration in 19th Century America |
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