Humanities › History & Culture The Black Church: Religious Culture and Social Movement Share Flipboard Email Print The Black Freedom Struggle Introduction Slave Revolts, Abolition, and the Underground Railroad Nat Turner's Rebellion How Slaves Resisted Abolitionist Pamphlet Campaigns The Underground Railroad The Fugitive Slave Act Women Abolitionists The Missouri Compromise and Dred Scott John Brown and His Raid Slavery and the Civil War Emancipation Reconstruction Resistance to Black Codes Radical Reconstruction The Black Church Opposition to Reconstruction: The Rise of the KKK and Other Hate Groups Early 20th Century Rise of Pan-Africanism The Harlem Renaissance Black Soldiers in WWI and WWII Understanding the Jim Crow South The Black Press and Jim Crow The National Association of Colored Women The Southern Civil Rights Movement The SCLC SNCC The Black Panthers 1950s 1960 - 1964 1965 - 1969 Freedom Songs Black Power Politics and Race in Late 20th Century Redlining and Housing Segregation Black Representation in Government: Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisolm, and more Affirmative Action Resisting Racism in Policing and the Justice System Rodney King The War on Drugs The Million Man March Police Racism, Violence, and Black Lives Matter Resisting Racism Today A Black church in a corn field, Manning, South Carolina, 1939. Marion Post Wolcott / Buyenlarge / Getty Images By Vanessa Taylor Updated November 29, 2017 The term “Black church” is used to describe Protestant churches that have predominately Black congregations. More broadly, the Black church is both a specific religious culture and a socio-religious force that has shaped protest movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Origins of the Black Church The Black church in the United States can be traced back to the enslavement of Black people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Enslaved African people brought to the Americas by force came with a variety of religions, including traditional spiritual practices. But the system of enslavement was built on the dehumanization and exploitation of people, and this could only be achieved by depriving those enslaved of meaningful connections to land, ancestry, and identity. The dominant White culture of the time accomplished this through a system of forced acculturation, which included forced religious conversion. Missionaries would also use promises of freedom to convert enslaved African people. Many of those enslaved were told they could return to Africa as missionaries themselves if they converted. While it was easier for polytheistic beliefs to merge with Catholicism, which ruled in areas such as the Spanish colonies, than the Protestant Christian denominations that dominated early America, enslaved populations constantly read their own narratives into Christian texts and incorporated elements of their previous faiths into Christian frameworks. Out of this cultural and religious acculturation, early versions of the Black church were born. Exodus, The Curse of Ham and Black Theodicy Black pastors and their congregations maintained their autonomy and identify by reading their own histories into Christian texts, unlocking new routes for self-realization. For example, many Black churches identified with the Book of Exodus’s story of the prophet Moses leading the Israelites escape from enslavement in Egypt. The story of Moses and his people spoke to hope, promise, and the benevolence of a God which was otherwise absent in the systematic and oppressive structure of enslavement. White Christians worked to justify enslavement through the employment of a White savior complex, which in addition to dehumanizing Black people, infantilized them. Some went so far as to claim that Black people had been cursed and enslavement was the necessary, God-intended punishment. Seeking to maintain their own religious authority and identity, Black scholars developed their own branch of theology. Black theodicy refers specifically to theology that answers for the reality of anti-Blackness and the suffering of our ancestors. This is done in a number of ways, but primarily by re-examining suffering, the concept of free-will, and God’s omnibenevolence. Specifically, they examined the following question: If there is nothing that God does that is not good in and of itself, why would he inflict such immense pain and suffering on Black people? Questions like this one presented by Black theodicy led to the development of another type of theology, which was still rooted in accounting for the suffering of Black people. It is perhaps the most popular branch of Black theology, even if its name is not always well known: Black Liberation Theology. Black Liberation Theology and Civil Rights Black Liberation Theology strove to incorporate Christian thought into the Black community’s legacy as a “protest people.” By recognizing the social power of the church, along with the safety it offered within its four walls, the Black community was able to explicitly bring God into the daily liberation struggle. This was famously done within the Civil Rights Movement. Although Martin Luther King Jr. is most often associated with the Black church in the context of civil rights, there were many organizations and leaders during that time who leveraged the church’s political power. And although King and other early civil rights leaders are now famous for their nonviolent, religiously-rooted tactics, not every member of the church embraced nonviolent resistance. On July 10, 1964, a group of Black men led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick founded The Deacons For Defense and Justice in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The purpose of their organization? To protect members of the Congress For Racial Equity (CORE) against violence from the Ku Klux Klan. The Deacons became one of the first visible self-defense forces in the South. Although self defense was not new, the Deacons were one of the first groups to embrace it as part of their mission. The power of Black Liberation Theology within the Black church did not go unnoticed. The church itself came to serve as a place of strategy, development, and reprieve. It has also been a target of attacks by numerous hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. The history of the Black church is a long one. The church continues to redefine itself to meet the demands of new generations; there are those within its ranks who work to remove factors of social conservatism and align it with new movements. No matter what position it takes in the future, it cannot be denied that the Black church has been a pivotal force within Black American communities for hundreds of years and that these generational memories are not likely to fade.