I have found that one of the striking features society associates with black people is our religiosity. Now, being pious is usually associated with being good. Society assumes these people praise their God or higher being weekly, practice good morals, and read their holy text religiously. However, it seems that historically, society and the media have regarded black religiosity as over the top, phony or improper. This portrayal of the black church as a place of hysterics is often used to humor audiences. The typical image of the elderly black woman running in circles around the church and eventually “passing out” is present in most representations of black churches. But rather than laugh at the over the top images, I wanted to understand these practices in a historical sense.
It is first important to note that under slavery, white masters often tried to prevent black preachers from speaking – although this was sometimes unsuccessful. Whites feared that the fervor that broke out during church might mean the slaves were plotting against the slaveholders. Thus, whites tried to prevent such religious activities from going on, causing many slaves to hold secret meetings in which they could practice the way they wanted to, without a white preacher who they regarded as unsatisfactory. The slaves believed that without what was called a ring shout, when slaves formed a circle and ecstatically stomped their feet and clapped their hands, they could not be saved. These moments of transcendence provided moments of escape from the conditions of slavery.
Following the Civil War in the period of Reconstruction, the 13th amendment of 1865 abolished slavery and black men and women became legal citizens under the 14th amendment of 1868. Newly freed blacks now had the opportunity to practice their religion the way they wanted to and in their own churches. I can’t even fathom what it must have felt like for blacks to now be able to freely practice their religion without the watchful eye of whites over them. Blacks were also very eager to learn to read as under slavery, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. In 1860, it was reported that 90% of blacks in the United States were illiterate. Blacks countered the white notion that we were lazy and incompetent through our desire to learn and especially to read the words of God.
At this point, churches began establishing schools where the newly freed could learn to read from black and Northern white teachers. The church also served as a place for politics when disputes could not be settled between two parties. According to AME minister Charles H. Pearce from Florida, it was “impossible” to separate religion and politics. These ministers and political leaders believed the Bible, which was familiar among all people, literate and illiterate, was a “point of reference for understanding public events”.
These facts cannot be forgotten even when considering religious blacks today in America. The church provided a strong sense of security in black society and gave much more than just religious support – it extended to political, social and educational support. Learning about the roots of the African American church in class caused me to rethink the way I view the role of religion in black communities. As I pointed out, it is easy to laugh about the fervor exhibited in some Baptist churches, but in actuality, such practices and excitement boil down to something much greater than we can understand in a 2 hour black comedy movie.