NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay:
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

Ohio Hist. Soc.
Bishop Daniel A. Payne
Bishop Daniel A. Payne
Payne, Daniel Alexander, Recollections of Seventy Years, Nashville: A. M. E. Sunday School Union, 1888, excerpt [photographs added; not in Recollections].

Full text at Documenting the American South from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, at docsouth.unc.edu/church/payne70/menu.html

Ch. 26, In the East—Praying Bands (excerpt)

     I have mentioned the "Praying and Singing Bands" elsewhere. The strange delusion that many ignorant but well-meaning people labor under leads me to speak particularly of them. About this time I attended a "bush meeting," where I went to please the pastor whose circuit I was visiting. After the sermon they formed a ring, and with coats off sung, clapped their hands and stamped their feet in a most ridiculous and heathenish way. I requested the pastor to go and stop their dancing. At his request they stopped their dancing and clapping of hands, but remained singing and rocking their bodies to and fro.
Ring shout, St. Simon's Island, Georgia, ca. 1940
Ring shout, St. Simon's Island, Georgia, ca. 1940

This they did for about fifteen minutes. I then went, and taking their leader by the arm requested him to desist and to sit down and sing in a rational manner. I told him also that it was a heathenish way to worship and disgraceful to themselves, the race, and the Christian name. In that instance they broke up their ring; but would not sit down, and walked sullenly away. After the sermon in the afternoon, having another opportunity of speaking alone to this young leader of the singing and clapping ring, he said: "Sinners won't get converted unless there is a ring." Said I: "You might sing till you fell down dead, and you would fail to convert a single sinner, because nothing but the Spirit of God and the word of God can convert sinners." He replied: "The Spirit of God works upon people in different ways. At camp-meeting there must be a ring here, a ring there, a ring over yonder, or sinners will not get converted." This was his idea, and it is also that of many others. These "Bands" I have had to encounter in many places, and, as I have stated in regard to my early labors in Baltimore, I have been strongly censured because of my efforts to change the mode of worship or modify the extravagances indulged in by the people. In some cases all that I could do was to teach and preach the right, fit, and proper way of serving God. To the most thoughtful and intelligent I usually succeeded in making the "Band" disgusting; but by the ignorant masses, as in the case mentioned, it was regarded as the essence of religion. So much so was this the case that, like this man, they believed no conversion could occur without their agency, nor outside of their own ring could any be a genuine one. Among some of the songs of these "Rings," or "Fist and Heel Worshipers," as they have been called, I find a note of two in my journal, which were used in the instance mentioned. As will be seen, they consisted chiefly of what are known as "corn-field ditties:"

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
 If God won't have us, the devil must.

"I was way over there where the coffin fell;
 I heard that sinner as he screamed in hell."

     To indulge in such songs from eight to ten and half-past ten at night was the chief employment of these "Bands." Prayer was only a secondary thing, and this was rude and extravagant to the last degree. The man who had the most powerful pair of lungs was the one who made the best prayer, and he could be heard a square off. He who could sing loudest and longest led the "Band," having his loins girded and a handkerchief in hand with which he kept time, while his feet resounded on the floor like the drumsticks of a bass drum. In some places it was the custom to begin these dances after every night service and keep it up till midnight, sometimes singing and dancing alternately—a short prayer and a long dance. Some one has even called it the "Voudoo Dance." I have remonstrated with a number of pastors for permitting these practices, which vary somewhat in different localities, but have been invariably met with the response that he could not succeed in restraining them, and an attempt to compel them to cease would simply drive them away from our Church. I suppose that with the most stupid and headstrong it is an incurable religious disease, but it is with me a question whether it would not be better to let such people go out of the Church than remain in it to perpetuate their evil practice and thus do two things: disgrace the Christian name and corrupt others. Any one who knows human nature must infer the result after such midnight practices to be that the day after they are unfit for labor, and that at the end of the dance their exhaustion would render them an easy prey to Satan. These meetings must always be more damaging physically, morally, and religiously than beneficial. How needful it is to have an intelligent ministry to teach these people who hold to this ignorant mode of worship the true method of serving God. And my observations lead me to the conclusion that we need more than an intelligent ministry to cure this religious fanaticism. We need a host of Christian reformers like St. Paul, who will not only speak against these evils, but who will also resist them, even if excommunication be necessary. The time is at hand when the ministry of the A. M. E. Church must drive out this heathenish mode of worship or drive out all the intelligence, refinement, and practical Christians who may be in her bosom.

     So far from being in harmony with the religion of the Lord Jesus Christ, it antagonizes his holy religion. And what is most deplorable, some of our most popular and powerful preachers labor systematically to perpetuate this fanaticism. Such preachers never rest till they create an excitement that consists in shouting, jumping, and dancing. I say systematically do they preach to produce such results, and just as systematically do they avoid the trial of persons accused of swindling, drunkenness, embezzling, and the different forms of adultery. I deliberately record that which I know, and am prepared if necessary to prove.

     To these sensational and recreant preachers I recommend the careful and prayerful study of the text: "To the unknown God, whom ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you." (Acts xvii. 23.) The preachers against whom I make this record are intensely religious, but grossly immoral. "By their fruits ye shall know them."

» Return to essay:
African American Christianity, Pt. II: From the Civil War to the Great Migration, 1865-1920 (part 3)

TeacherServe Home Page
National Humanities Center Home Page
Revised: June 2004