Henry Louis Gates Jr. on African-American ReligionHistorians in the News
tags: religion, Christianity, African American history, Henry Louis Gates, Black Church
THE BLACK CHURCH
This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
In the beginning there were the “praise houses” — rudimentary sanctuaries constructed in places like Silver Bluff, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Petersburg, Va. Products of the Great Awakening of the 18th century, the growing churches were built by — and for — enslaved people. “As the machinery of slavery churned on with no end in sight,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in “The Black Church,” his engaging companion volume to a new PBS series, “enslaved Black people found their first glimpse of heaven on earth in the praise house.”
The lifting of souls, though, was not limited to the spirit but also helped shape society. “In slavery, you couldn’t go down the road and visit anyone,” the scholar Mary Rivers Legree tells Gates. “Gathering here, they not only prayed, but after the services were over, they could talk to each other about who might have had a baby up the road, who might have died, who was sold.” The church father Tertullian insisted that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Roman Catholic Church. To Gates, the Black church is the soil in which Black culture and political action flowered.
It is a commonplace but not uncontroversial argument. A tragic irony of the American experience is that faith has been deployed to suppress as well as to liberate; to exclude as well as to include; to control as well as to free. To tell the story of the Black church is something of a risk even to a scholar as secure as Gates, for voices in the arena of racial justice have long diminished religion as overly safe and accommodationist. Roughly put, the Bible is fine, but “Black power” is what’s needed; sermons have their place, but they are no substitute for revolution. Martin Luther King Jr. was dismissed as “Da Lawd” by younger activists, and as the 1960s wore on, John Lewis was sometimes seen as a Sunday-school pacifist whose commitment to Christian nonviolence was too old-fashioned.
Yet Gates writes here as a historian, and the historian can chronicle progress, assess its origins and commemorate its course while noting its incompleteness. “Violent insurrection would have been a form of racial suicide; insurrection meant death,” Gates writes. So Black Americans used what was at hand (faith and religiously based appeals and action) in the struggle for freedom.
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