FEATURE OF THE MONTH
Black Churches in America
Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing the ways in which the past and present interact by offering socially and historically relevant short articles, picture essays, and links that will guide the reader interested in knowing more. This month's feature focuses on African American churches and religious leaders, acknowledging some of the important institutions and individuals who have made African American religion into the vibrant force it is today.
Despite the large number of African slaves that began to arrive in America in the sixteenth century, the institution of slavery and the many differences between blacks and whites meant that few of the earliest African Americans belonged to Christian churches. This began to change over the course of the eighteenth century, as the religious enthusiasm of the First and Second Great Awakenings swept through the America, carrying with it an air of egalitarianism and the idea that both blacks and whites could achieve personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Religious revivals, the infectious power of the conversion experience, and white churches' growing acceptance of a more relaxed style of worship that included clapping and shouting led a growing number of blacks to join Methodist, Baptist, and other congregations as the century drew to a close. However, even as black church membership began to grow, racial prejudice and the practice of segregation drove many African Americans to establish their own churches where they could worship free of discrimination.
Today religion plays an important role in the lives of millions of African Americans, black men and women serve in positions of leadership in an array of different denominations, and churches are a powerful force for unity and progress in the black community. Black churches have served as sources of leadership and uplift since the time of slavery, through the trials of Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights, up to the present day. Whether helping to encourage education, to foster economic growth and urban renewal, or to fight for equal rights in a society that can be unfair and cruel, black churches remain a crucial part of the African American experience.
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The following articles have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about African American religion and about black churches in America. (These articles are available only to subscribers.)