I do not blame you if, when you think of the black church, you think of it as an emaciated and anemic institution. It would be an easy intellection to hold, especially when an entire book can be written about the state of black America (by people who would consider themselves allies of the black church) and the black church barely garners throwaway lines. But I met Jesus in a black church and that makes it an important and living organization, not only for me, but for millions.
I have written on this site about becoming a Presbyterian. Long before then, I was baptized in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church at a young age.
I was baptized again when my mom joined a Baptist church. I was eight. Pastor Montgomery insisted I had to be dunked since the Methodists only poured water on my head. I was nervous because I could not swim and I was not sure how long Pastor Montgomery was going to keep me under the water. He also appeared to me to be about 100 years old so I thought there was a chance he would be too weak to bring me up or forget to bring me out of the water. I was so anxious I forgot to take off my socks before I stepped into the baptismal pool. After the successful completion of the operation, I changed back into my church clothes and scampered to my seat in the pew holding my saturated, black dress socks. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face as she shook her head at me.
That anecdote sums up my experience in the black church. Every story I could tell you would contain those elements: hearing about Jesus; leaders caring about my spiritual formation; loving people who were patient in the face of my ignorance, blindness, immaturity, and fear. The names and churches would change but the underlying themes would not. That is why the periodic fulminations I hear about What’s Wrong With the Black Church and its literary cousin, Black Christians Need to Do Better do not hold interest for me.
I was a member of a black church until I was 28 years old (I am 54 now). The confidence I have in Christ is rooted in what I learned in black churches. The moral certainty I had to say “no” to certain avenues offered to me in the Los Angeles county drug wars of the 1980s came from the black church. The fact that I am writing this as a middle-class, married father without a criminal record is down to the expectations and guardrails set out for me in the black church.
Yes, I have heard wayward teaching and overtly racialized and politicized messages in black churches. Yes, many black churches are in thrall to the prosperity gospel. And, yes, there have been many cases of offerings being redirected for personal gain. I have to tell you as I have journeyed across the nation, across denominations, and across theologies, that those problems are not localized to only the black church. No one is going to get me onside in doomcasting the black church but I understand the concerns.
I just take a longer and more personal view. Let me tell you why
As it was in the Beginning
The black church is a wartime institution. That has made it conspicuous in a land of peace.
The existence of American blacks on this soil is the consequence of war, law, government and power unbound by morality. Our existence here has always been a political issue. We have been regulated and commodified. We have literally been fractionalized when otherwise sober men could not agree if we were chattel or human souls.
We were legislated into being. We have our own founding documents which consist of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the various civil rights laws which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We even have own recently federalized Independence Day now. We are a wartime people.
We serve as a unique heuristic into understanding what the foundational principles of America are. We also are an index for how America is measuring up to those principles.
Black Americans are also a Christian people. Unsurprisingly, that means black churches were born out of battle (ecclesiastical and judicial), as can be seen in the founding of the A.M.E. church.1
The black church is egalitarian, committed to the social gospel, and culturally conservative. Apart from a spectacular three–decade protest campaign in the South following World War II, it is a defensive organization. It watches, protects, and prepares.
It has been a partisan organization since day one.
Henry McNeal Turner was an A.M.E. pastor who, immediately after the Civil War, energetically planted A.M.E churches all over the state of Georgia. He also worked to establish the Republican Party in Georgia. Hand in hand with the church plants and Party work, he organized Union Leagues. The purpose of the Union Leagues was to build the Republican Party and increase civic education. They were oath bound societies. For the Union Leagues and for the fledgeling black churches, Reverend Turner wrote the first catechism for American blacks:
Q. Who freed the slaves of the South?
Abraham Lincoln, the Republican President, by proclamation.
Q. Who passed the Freedman’s Bureau Bill?
A. A Republican Congress by more than two-thirds vote over the veto of Andrew Johnson, the leader of the Democratic or conservative party.
Q. Who gave us the Civil Rights Bill?
The same Republican Congress.
Q. What party gave us the right to vote?
The Republican Party.
Q. With whom do the disloyal white men of the South desire the colored men to vote?
With the Democratic Party.
Q. Would not the Democrats take away all the negro’s rights?
Turner would go on to hold office in the Georgia Legislature. Here is a quote that typifies Turner’s ministry to the newly freed slaves of Georgia.
“Let us love the whites, and let bygones be bygones, neither taunt nor insult them for past grievances; respect them; honor them; work for them, but still let us be men. Let us show them we can be a people, respectable, virtuous, honest, and industrious . . . and with God for our father, we will all be brothers.” —January 1, 1866 “Emancipation Day Celebration Address”
Turner’s message was conciliatory and hopeful.
“The interests of white and black are one and the same—all are citizens in common. It therefore behooves both colors to cooperate, to join hands and to strive to the same goal.”
People rightly wonder where men like Turner and men who said things such as “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness” have gone.
Many a Conflict, Many a Doubt
The answer is they went where most of the black elites have gone—into the cul de sac of ideology. The good news is that I think events and circumstances are going to force them to turn back.
The black community has always been partisan but not ideological. First, as Reverend Turner’s catechism shows, we were Republican Party partisans. Now we stand almost unanimously with the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has become unhinged by its adherence to destructive feminist, sexual and racial creeds. (I hear you. I will get to the GOP another day. I have a word limit, folks. Be patient.)
I think this is a problem that will resolve itself. As the men in dresses come to dictate more and more of the Democratic Party’s priorities, it will become impossible for black pastors—the elite closest to the people—to maintain their place in the Democratic Party coalition. They will either have to abandon ship or be forced to walk the plank. The totalizing mania of the Woke Church will not allow other gods before it. Prominent pastors who want to stay on good terms with the mob will continue to appear on your television screen. They will spout the Critical Theory catechism word for word.
Thank God prominent pastors are not the only pastors.
The men of yesteryear still exist, I assure you, mostly in the obscurity of poor neighborhoods, dangerous big city enclaves, and rural towns. I have known more than a few. They are mocked now in black popular culture as clowns, thieves, and the most odious of sinners. They are portrayed as out of date and out of style. Most of them do not command large churches and they do not drive $120,000 cars. They are disregarded even as they continue to work on the front lines. The historic churches they pastor, such as Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, are torn down for football stadiums. No one writes op-eds or does cable news segments on the necessity of preserving historic black church buildings as being vital to our American heritage.
What these pastors could use are some strategic allies.
Edward Gibbon wrote of the early Church practicing a “generous intercourse of charity” that united the Church. The more “opulent” congregations cheerfully assisted smaller churches. He wrote that this charity was based in regard more to distress than merit.4
I think black churches would welcome a more generous intercourse of charity. I do not mean money. I mean friends. I mean Christians who will stand with them when the braying mobs come for the weakest churches. What black churches lack sometimes is not cash but influence with the right people. They need to know a guy who knows a guy.
I know a (white) pastor who was pained that he was uninformed about a matter of injustice the black pastors in town had brought before the city government for correction. He would have liked to have joined them. I asked about the local pastor councils. He said the theological divide in them was too great for him to be comfortable enough to attend the meetings. I knew he had a large Facebook circle. I asked him if he was Facebook friends with any of the black pastors in town (he was not). I suggested he start there. He could use social media to make low stakes connections that would allow him to find the areas of common ground he wanted to find.
I do not know if he followed my advice (few do). My advice to him is not exclusive though. I offer it to you, too—Black pastors and white pastors alike. It might have come to your notice that the culture is a tad more hostile to Christianity than it was a few years ago. The hostility is growing by the minute. Black churches and white churches need to find ways to stand together.
If the black church can only be discussed in the past tense, then American blacks have no future here and the mayhem we are witnessing in black neighborhoods is only a prologue to the carnage and collapse on the way. But I think the news of the black church’s death or impending demise is an exaggeration.
What made the black church a powerful institution is her prayers. It is her faith in God the Father Almighty as the Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. It is the conviction of her members that they belong body and soul, in life and in death, to their Lord Jesus Christ. Those beliefs and practices still endure. No church that holds to them will ever die.
©Wendell Talley. All Rights Reserved.
1. Richard Allen, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, (Philadelphia: Martin & Boden Printers, 1833), 10-11.
2. Gary Dorrien, The New Abolition, W.E.B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 44-45.
3. Ibid., 45.
4. Edward Gibbon, The Christians and The Fall of Rome, ed. David Womersley, 1994 from The History of the Decline of the Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1, (USA: Penguin Group, 2005), 65.
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