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The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume IVThe Twentieth Century: Traditions in a Global Context$

Jehu J. Hanciles

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780199684045

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199684045.001.0001

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The Twentieth-Century Black Church

The Twentieth-Century Black Church

A Dissenting Tradition in a Global Context

Chapter:
(p.216) 10 The Twentieth-Century Black Church
Source:
The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume IV
Author(s):

David D. Daniels III

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780199684045.003.0011

Abstract and Keywords

Religious dissent within the Black Church focuses on defending the Christian gospel against the alliance of Christianity and the race order of white supremacy marks the contribution of the Black Church to the wider dissenting tradition. It engages in the religious delegitimation of the dominant racial order. While the White Church in the United States has historically replicated the dominant racial order of African American subordination, the religious dissent of the Black Church has resisted and subverted the dominant racial order in a way in which grace pre-empts race in the functional ecclesiology of the Black Church with Christian egalitarianism affirming the equality of the races, envisioning a church where grace structures ecclesial life rather than racism.

Keywords:   Black Church, religious dissent, racial subordination, Freedom Church, Black-led interracialism, Christian egalitarianism, civil disobedience, interracial inclusion, economic justice, White Supremacy

The Black Church in the United States is a movement within the Protestant Dissenting Tradition that originated in Great Britain during the post-Reformation era. The Black Church, with affiliated congregations and missions in over sixty countries throughout the Black Atlantic, has operated during the long twentieth century in two arenas: the United States and the Black Atlantic. It has sought to proclaim the Christian faith in such a manner that Christianity would be understood as a faith for all people, regardless of race or nationality. It has found ways to resist racial orders of segregation and colonialism, although its strategies were never monolithic.1

Religious dissent of the Black Church with its focus on defending the Christian gospel against being corrupted by the doctrine of racism marks the contribution of the Black Church to the wider dissenting tradition in the global context. It rejects the alliance of Christianity and the race order with its racial hierarchies. It engages in the religious delegitimation of the racial order of African American subordination and white supremacy. It espouses a Christian egalitarianism that affirms the equality of the races and envisions a church where grace structures ecclesial life rather than racism.2

Religious dissent of the Black Church can be placed on the landscape of religious dissent close to the anti-monarchist and anti-royalist currents that (p.217) rejected the alliance of the Church with the monarchy. Instead of being against the alliance of the Church and monarchy, the religious dissent tradition of the Black Church has been against the alliance of the Church and the racial order. As eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Evangelicalism rejected and delegitimated the alliance between the Anglican Church and the aristocracy of the Virginia Colony with their hierarchy of social classes which inscribed their hegemony in the church and society with the class politics of deference and subordination, the religious dissent of the Black Church rejected and delegitimized the alliance of White Christianity to the racial order of slavery.3 This chapter will explore the dissenting tradition of the Black Church in terms of Black Protestant denominations during the long twentieth century (1896–2008).

Black Church as a Construct and its Tradition of Religious Dissent

Three categories will be employed to organize a definition of the Black Church as an American and global ecclesial construct: history, witness, and global presence. In this chapter, the Black Church consists of Protestant congregations and denominations founded by African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African immigrants in the United States. The Black Church is an ecclesial innovation that was constructed to frame the diverse and contradictory religious experience of these Black Protestant communities in the United States and the Black Atlantic challenging the ‘White Church’ as an instrument of anti-black racism and European colonialism.

The Black Church emerges over-against the white alliance of race and Christianity in which race pre-empts grace in the functional ecclesiology of White Christianity and in the construction of a White Christian identity. In a sense, the Black Church is not, then, the counterpart to the White Church. While it appears on the surface that a Protestant denomination of African Americans mirrors a Protestant denomination of whites, it does not; the White Church replicates the dominant racial order of African American subordination and white supremacy while the Black Church resists and subverts the dominant racial order. The White Church is erected with the politics of racial exclusion whereas the Black Church is erected with the politics of racial inclusion; the Black Church functions as a ‘counter-public’ that is ‘distinct from and in conflict with the dominant white society and its (p.218) racist institutional structures’. Segregation operates within White Christianity as an instrument of the racial exclusion and subordination of African Americans; it replicates and re-enforces the structures of dominant racial order within the church and society. In resisting and subverting the dominant racial order, the separatist thrust of the Black Church works to create a church and society that transcends the racial order.

First, the Black Church as a term connects with the collective history of the denial of religious liberty to African Americans during the era of slavery, the experience of being treated as second-class Christians during the era of slavery and segregation, the racial oppression of African Americans, and the African American struggle against slavery as well as the battle against racial segregation and injustice within the church and society. Protestant denominations founded and led by African Americans rejected the exclusionary and discriminatory practices of dominant white Protestantism against African Americans, refusing to accept ‘segregation and second-class citizenship in Christian communions’. In colluding with the racial order of African American subordination, White Christianity treated African Americans as second-class Christians and members within the church. By practicing de jure and de facto racial segregation within the church, White Christianity offered justification for the treatment of African Americans as second-class citizens within the society. Many White-led and -majority denominations erected racial barriers to the bishopric, pastorate, ordination, lay membership, Eucharist, and even, baptism; they introduced ‘Negro pews’, ‘Negro balconies’, and Negro presbyteries. Through their actions and inactions, many White-led and -majority Protestant denominations supported, sustained, and shaped the racial order along with being shaped by the racial order of white supremacy.4

Rather than being second-class members within White-led congregations, African American Protestants organized their own congregations during the 1700s as an expression of religious dissent committed to racial egalitarianism. By the early 1800s, African American Protestants established Methodist denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and United American Methodist Episcopal; and they founded black Baptist associations such as Providence Baptist Association and the Woods River Baptist Association. Unable to find ecclesial space within established American or white majority denominations for a church polity that affirmed racial equality and proclaimed grace over race, African American Christians claimed the biblical right and secured the United States constitutional right to establish and govern their own denominations. (p.219) African Americans, drawing deeply from the egalitarian theologies of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Evangelicalism (Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist), created the Black Protestant denominations as an ecclesial space to envision grace over race, a church marked by racial equality. They campaigned for a racially inclusive church.5

The religious dissent of the Black Church also captured the imagination of African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. On the crux of the twentieth century, Afro-Cape Verdeans established congregations in Rhode Island and Providence, refusing to accept being second-class Christians in congregations led by ‘white’ Cape Verdeans. Afro-Caribbeans founded congregations in Florida and organized denominations in New York and Massachusetts. Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Canadians became leaders in historic black denominations founded by African Americans, including serving as bishops.6

This history of racial order sets the social context in which African Americans practiced Christian faith and defended the Christian gospel against racial corruption. An outcome and manifestation of black religious dissent is that throughout the twentieth century nearly 90 per cent of African American Christians have belonged to black Protestant denominations. During the early twentieth century, the Black Church served as a champion of Christian message of a church for all people and an agent of racial progress as it fought against legalized racial segregation.

Second, the Black Church as a term connects with the collective witness of African Americans as a religious people. The African American Protestant congregations specifically associated with the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements were called ‘Freedom Churches’, key founders of African American Protestant denominations were called ‘apostles of freedom’, and the dissenting message against the alliance of racism and Christianity was called the ‘gospel of freedom’. The religious dissent of the Black Church developed a Christianity that was ‘free’ from or independent of the church corruption by racism.7

Central to the collective witness of the Black Church is a ‘black sacred cosmos’ or religious worldview. The black sacred cosmos of African Americans constructed their religious worldview from the inherited practices and beliefs from their African heritage and adopted as well as adapted religious practices and beliefs from Europeans and First People in the North America. The black (p.220) sacred cosmos is a product of the ‘shared group experience’ of people of African descent in the United States that ‘shaped and influenced the cultural screens’ of the African American way of communicating and interpreting life and God’s engagement with the world. Different theological trajectories within the Black Church produced broad range Christian experiences among African Americans reflected in the diversity of pieties, liturgies, theologies, polities, and politics.8

The dissenting tradition of the Black Church sought to defend the Christian faith from the corruption of pro-slavery and pro-segregation theologies. It denounced doctrines that avowed the hierarchy of the races, white supremacy, and ‘Negro’ inferiority along with Anglo-Saxon superiority. It deemed as unbiblical and unChristian doctrines that espoused white purity and Negro impurity with the attendant demanded necessity of racial segregation with Negro subordination. It rejected White Christianity as normative with its theologies, polities, liturgies, and ethics that justified white supremacy explicitly or implicitly. It countered doctrines that patterned Christian identity and solidarity along racial lines. It exposed polities and politics that justified the white will to rule over African Americans in church and society. A connection was recognized between the ‘religious segregation’ of the races and social segregation of the races.

Theologically, grace outpaced race in ordering ecclesial and social life, confessing the ‘Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man’ as central to Christianity. Striving to be Christian communities of grace where all people were welcomed, many African American denominations became religious communities that were open to all; they promoted grace over race. The theological grounding for African American religious dissent was based on the doctrines of a common creation of all people, a common image of God in all people, a church for all people, and the ‘equality of the races’. Drawing on Bakhtin, the dissenting tradition of the Black Church can be seen to have birthed ‘a second world and second life outside officialdom’, outside the dominant racial order co-constituted by the church and State.9

Third, the Black Church as a global presence is clearly evident as it operates within Black Atlantic, a special term to connect the sites within the Atlantic communities where people of African descent reside in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. By operating in two contexts, the United States and the Black Atlantic, the Black Church has been shaped by and participated in the struggle for racial equality in the United States as well as the struggle against European colonialism in the Black Atlantic throughout the twentieth century. As a key (p.221) institution, the Black Church has created and sustained various networks in the Black Atlantic during the twentieth century in order to advance its views of the Christian faith.10

With European colonialism defining the church and society in the Black Atlantic, the Black Church in the United States became the forerunner of black religious independence globally, being one of the most independent, best funded, best organized, and black-governed institutions among people of African descent during the early twentieth century. By 1910, African American denominations included over 160 congregations and missions within nearly twenty countries in the Black Atlantic. These affiliated congregations and missions were located within Canada, Africa, and the Caribbean rim, crisscrossing the Anglophone, Francophone, and Spanish-speaking zones.11

During this period, a group of African-led congregations in West Africa and South Africa would join African American denominations; these congregations broke away from white Western missionary control. They joined African American denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, the National Baptist Convention, Inc., African Orthodox Church, and the Church of God in Christ. These congregations joined the Black Church in protesting ‘against white domination in power and culture over the church’ and advocating for black pastoral leadership and religious self-determination during the era of European colonialism. In southern Africa, some of these denominations would be accused by European missionaries and colonial authorities of being against colonialism as well as advocates of an ‘Africa for the Africans’ ideology.12

The African Methodist Episcopal Church especially was perceived by some European colonial leaders as a subversive group in southern Africa. With a vision that went beyond the Black Atlantic and extended to people of colour as well as white colonized communities, African Methodist Episcopal Church leaders outlined a religious agenda that called for the uniting of ‘the oppressed peoples’ of the West such as African Americans, Amerindians, Jews, and the Irish as well as ‘people of color’ in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines within the imperial grip of the United States along with those under European domination in Africa, India, and China. Others such as William Henry Sheppard, an African American Presbyterian missionary to the Congo, and (p.222) C. C. Boone, an African American Baptist missionary, specifically called for the political freedom of colonies such as the Congo.13

At these predominately white international ecumenical conferences during the early twentieth century, African American delegates voiced the religious dissent perspectives of the Black Church in their theological and moral objections to racial injustice. They protested ‘Anglo-Saxon domination’ in church and society. They sought an ecumenism grounded in all people sharing power, a unity based on ‘peoples of every nation, kindred, tribe and tongue’. They connected the racial struggle in the United States as part of the larger global struggle against white domination.14

Currents Within the Dissenting Tradition of the Black Church: 1896–1965

During the early twentieth century, African American Protestant religious dissent found expression in four key currents. These currents of religious dissent arose in response to solidifying alliance between White Christianity and the emerging racial order marked by the racial segregation of church and society. During the rise of race segregation, early twentieth-century Black Church leaders stated that they were ‘surprised and astonished at the recent attitude of the church’ which has adopted ‘racial prejudice’. They saw the dominant religion, White Protestantism, caved into white supremacy, elevating race over grace. They identified narrowing ‘the bounds of human brotherhood’ and segregating ‘black men [and women] in some outer sanctuary’ as a theological travesty. They judged the ecclesial restructuring of the church around race and not grace as ‘wrong, unchristian and disgraceful’. They sought ‘the co-operation of all men [and women] of all races’, especially Christians of all races, in the restructuring of the church and society around freedom and justice for all people, regardless of their race; they envisioned the restructuring of the church around grace, not race.15

(p.223) The four currents of dissenting traditions associated with the Black Church included the conservative religious dissent approach of critical racial accommodation, the progressive religious dissent approach of civil rights activism, the pragmatic religious dissent approach of critical racial accommodation and civil rights activism, and the radical religious dissent approach of black-led interracial organizing. First, the proponents of the conservative religious dissent approach of critical racial accommodation sought to adjust to the racial order of African American subordination by disavowing civil rights protest and civil disobedience as they worked to ‘prove’ through economic progress and the politics of respectability that African Americans in time were ‘fit’ for the rights of full citizenship; related to this would also be their demonstrating their ‘fitness’ for equality within the church. Second, the promoters of the progressive religious dissent approach of civil rights activism struggled to overthrow the racial order of African American subordination by securing civil rights for African Americans; they fought for racial and social equality through protest, boycotts, judicial rulings, and legislation. Third, the agents of the pragmatic religious dissent approach of accommodation and activism worked for ‘black progress’ within the system of the racial order; simultaneously, they worked to dismantled it. Fourth, advocates of the radical religious dissent approach of black-led interracial organizing erected an interracial ecclesial order in which African Americans were the leaders and most whites were the followers; this black-led interracial order inverted the racial order of black subordination, delegitimating the dominant racial order and erecting an alternative to the racial order of African American subordination.16

Since religion often legitimizes the dominant order, sanctioning the power structures, racial privileges, and racial inequalities, these dissenting traditions of the Black Church are ways that the Black Church has reimagined the role of Christianity in the era of the race segregation of church and society. While the dominant religion often offers interpretations and explanations of the racial realities which justify the dominant arrangement of the racial subordination of African Americans, these dissenting traditions opted to compose theological interpretations and explanations that challenged the racial order. The dissenting traditions of the Black Church designed approaches that countered racial exclusion and subordination, envisioned a church and society where grace trumps race in structuring the life of the church and society, and exposed the false theological and racial reasoning justifying legalized racial segregation.17

(p.224) As racial segregation increasingly defined the life of the church and society from 1896 to 1945, congregations and denominations were more and more divided by race, making it illegal for interracial congregations and denominations to exist in many parts of the southern United States as well as these interracial religious organizations being against the social norms in other regions of the country. The racial segregation of White Protestant denominations mirrored the racial segregation of society. Yet the Black Church envisioned and sought to erect a church that was for all people and races.

The Conservative Religious Dissent Tradition of Critical Racial Accommodation

The critical racial accommodationist approach was trumpeted by leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Amanda Berry Smith. The proponents of the critical racial accommodation approach resigned themselves in a sense to the intractability of the racial order of African American subordination. In their disavowing civil rights protest and civil disobedience, they opted for survival. As they resigned themselves to a long-term gradualist approach to secure full civil rights as African Americans in the future, they dedicated themselves to the task of earning racial equality and eventually being treated by whites as equals in the church and the society. They adjusted themselves and argued that all African Americans need to adopt to this short-term strategy and obey the law by accepting the separate development of African American society offered by the dominant society. During this period of preparation for civil rights, African Americans were to ‘learn’ the values and skills of industry as well as civilization. Since this racial adjustment was not a complete resignation to the racial order, there was space for African Americans to ‘reform’ race relations through the ‘politics of respectability’ as African Americans conformed to the preferred manners and culture that the dominant society mandated for African Americans. In the process, the Black Church was to shun electoral politics, limit Black Church resources solely to religious purposes, and restrict the duties of clergy exclusively to spiritual matters. There was to be a clear separation between church and politics.18

Even some leading African American newspapers denounced political use of Black Church facilities and the political activity of black congregations. According to The Broad Ax, a Chicago weekly newspaper, ‘The Negro race is the only race in the world to have their churches turned into political halls for faking preachers and the small-headed base White Republican politicians who contend that they can buy any “Darkey preacher and a whole church full of (p.225) N[egroes] for ten dollars”.’ In 1912, the Chicago Defender castigated Black churches for allowing their space to be used for political meetings. The editorial charged that political partisanship led to discrimination against Democratic candidates by Republican interest.19

As African Americans worked to ‘prove’ through economic progress related farming and manual labour, in time, they would be ‘fit’ to be granted the rights of full citizenship. This development would result in African Americans being deemed ‘fit’ for equality within the church and the society.

Pragmatic Religious Dissent Tradition of Critical Racial Accommodation and Civil Rights Activism

Second, the agents of the pragmatic religious dissent approach utilized accommodation and activism simultaneously. These leaders such as Bishop Alexander Walters, Nannie H. Burroughs, Revd Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Lucy Wilmot Smith, Sarah Willie Layten, and Dr Kelly Miller worked for ‘black progress’ within the system of the racial segregation as they worked hard to dismantle the system. The Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention, Inc. embodied this approach. Through the Women’s Convention, Black Baptist women mounted campaigns for racial justice that opted for the pragmatist approach, merging the accommodationism with activism as they challenged the alliance of White Christianity with the racial order of African American subordination; these women framed a platform that worked for ‘black progress’ within the system of the racial order as well as agitated for disassembling of the racial order.20

In 1913, the Women’s Convention approved a 7-Point Manifesto entitled: ‘What We Want and What We Must Have’. With its strident tone, it attacked the reigning racial order and demanded change. While the Manifesto temporarily accepted the doctrine of separate but equal, it aggressively sought ways to fight for equality within the confines of racial separation regarding specific issues. They demanded that the living standards within the segregated neighbourhoods of African American be drastically raised: ‘Well-built, sanitary dwellings’ were to become the norm along with clean, paved streets; segregated public schools for African Americans must receive funding equal to white public schools. The accommodations on public transportation must be the same for blacks and whites. The judicial system must treat African Americans (p.226) equal to whites. Penal institutions for African Americans must treat blacks humanely. Voting rights must be granted to all African Americans, albeit limited to African Americans who are ‘intelligent and industrious citizen[s]’. The Manifesto called for the end to the ‘convict lease system’ of the penal institution as well as the end to lynching. While these black Baptist women employed the ‘separate but equal doctrine’ to reform the racial order, they worked to improve the plight of African Americans. They fought to eradicate lynching and its horrific violence as well as the convict lease system with its system of economic exploitation. The aim of these reforms was to implode the racial order from within in order to transition to a society that embodied the ‘Parenthood of God and the Siblinghood of All People’.21

Radical Religious Dissent Tradition of Black-Led Interracial Organizing

The radical dissenting tradition of black-led interracial organizing could be seen as a third option. Advocates of this approach founded black-led interracial denominations where African Americans leaders had white followers; these black-led interracial organizations resisted, delegitimated, and subverted the racial order of black subordination by erecting an alternative to the dominant racial order. These black-led interracial denominations violated the custom and laws of the racial order marked by racial segregation, challenging the alliance of White Christianity and the racial order and creating faith communities where grace trumped race. The radical dissenting tradition of the Black Church framed denominations such as the Church of God in Christ, Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, the Holy Nazarene Church of the Apostolic Faith, and All Nations Pentecostal Assembly.22

These black-led interracial denominations were constituted by a set of transgressions related to race. Resisting the racial order with its hierarchy of races, in these black-led interracial denominations African Americans constituted the majority of the leadership and whites populated the ranks of the membership. The radical dissenting tradition of black-led interracial (p.227) denominations subverted the racial order of African American subordination and white supremacy by erecting ecclesial structures where white clergy and congregations were subject to the religious authority of African American clergy. For instance, the Church of God in Christ, between 1909 and 1924, consisted of four groups of white clergy, congregations, and associations which joined the black-led Church of God in Christ.23

Evangelical egalitarianism informed the radical dissenting tradition of black-led religious interracialism. An ecclesial statement that gave voice to Evangelical egalitarianism is the 1917 pronouncement on Christian unity and racial inclusion approved by the Church of God in Christ. The pronouncement articulated a robust vision of Christian unity in these terms: ‘Many denominations have made distinctions between their colored and white members.…The Church of God in Christ recognizes the fact that all believers are one in Christ Jesus and all its members have equal rights. Its Overseers, both colored and white, have equal power and authority in the church.’24

Racial equality as an ecclesial concept challenges the lodging of the church and its members into a hierarchy of the races. It also rejects setting criteria for full participation in the life of the church being framed by race. This theological manoeuvre deems all believers as having equal rights, all races being ‘equal in power and authority’, that were given each member, regardless of their race, by Christ.25 Established in 1907, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World by 1931 was governed by an African American presiding bishop and an interracial board of bishops: three African Americans and three white Americans. By creating a more racially mixed denomination through these ecclesial practices, they inverted the dominant racial order.26

The ecclesial innovations of the radical dissenting tradition of black-led religious interracialism subverted the racial order of segregation, African American subordination, and white supremacy. By disengaging from the dominant racial equation of white superiority and black inferiority, the radical dissenting tradition of black-led religious interracialism subverted the dominant racial order in which whites submitted to the authority of African American leaders, associated with African Americans as equals, borrowed from black Pentecostal culture, suspended white supremacy, and, together with African Americans and under African American leadership, crafted new (p.228) interracial communities and structures by levelling racial hierarchy into egalitarian structures.

Exercising social power in undermining the racial order of segregation, African American subordination, and white supremacy, the radical dissenting tradition of black-led religious interracialism interrupted the racial order and erected interracial sectors that subverted the racial order. It countered a way of organizing religion in the United States in which Christianity was allied to the racial order. It anticipated organizationally a post-segregation future by demonstrating that black-led interracialism was achievable.

Progressive Religious Dissent Trajectory of Civil Rights Activism

The fourth current within the dissenting tradition of the Black Church is civil rights activism. The promoters of the progressive religious dissent approach called for the abolition of the racial order of segregation. Leaders such as Ida B. Wells, Revd Reverdy Ransom, Carter G. Woodson, and W. E. B. DuBois worked to undermine the racial order of segregation by dismantling it internally through civil disobedience, protest, boycotts, judicial rulings, federal labour policy, and legislation.27

Central to the efforts towards racial justice, the Black Church organized and led many protests against racial injustice. Black activist clergy led and participated in boycotts of segregated streetcars in the early 1900s in cities such as Richmond (VA), Atlanta, Montgomery, Nashville, Jacksonville (FL), and New Orleans. These clergy along with black Protestant women leaders petitioned for racial justice.28

The Black Church selected electoral politics as a main avenue to advance the agenda for racial justice. Church and politics became partners in the Black Church’s struggle to dismantle legalized racial segregation and edged the society towards interracial inclusion. In a number of cities, Black clergy and leaders played an influential role in electoral politics, more often in the Republican Party and, by 1910, even in the Democratic Party. African Americans retained their voting rights in the Black towns of such states as Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The small number of Black elected officials in these cities and towns was supported by the Black Church across the United States. For the most part, African Americans (p.229) were excluded from direct involvement in electoral politics during the early twentieth century because of the disenfranchisement due to racial segregation: inability of black citizens to vote.29

Yet the political activity of clergy like Alexander Waters, Reverdy Ransom, Archibald J. Carey, Sr., E. R. Driver, Emma Cotton, and others set the course which activist clergy would pursue. This course did not create Black politics, but rather created a public space for the Black Church to play a pivotal role in the electoral process, a space where racial justice could be on the political agenda. Additionally, some local African American clergy associations passed resolutions to endorse specific political candidates during the early twentieth century. For instance, in 1914 the Chicago Colored Baptist Churches and the A. M. E. Preachers’ Union endorsed candidates.30

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, the civil rights activism tradition of religious dissent within the Black Church would experience success through targeted economic boycotts, building legal precedents within the judicial system and securing federal government policies that slowly dismantled legalized racial segregation. As early as 1929 and throughout 1941, leaders within the dissenting tradition of civil rights activism mounted with other activists black consumer advocacy for job movements. These movements advanced black economic prospects through double dollar campaigns also called ‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work’ or ‘Buy Where You Can Work’ or ‘Jobs for Negroes’. These campaigns crossed key American cities focusing on securing the hiring of ‘black clerks in white-owned department stores’, department stores that catered to African American clientele. On the picket lines were leading black pastors such as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr in New York City. For instance, the Woolworth’s store chain hired 300 African Americans in response to these economic boycotts in cities such as Chicago, Omaha, Cleveland and Toledo (Ohio), Detroit, New York City, Baltimore, and, Richmond and Newport News (Virginia).31

The progressive dissenting approach garnered a judicial victory in 1938 when the US Supreme Court conferred the right of consumers to picket businesses with the aim of securing the employment of African Americans in those targeted businesses rather than being deemed as interfering in free (p.230) trade. This countered the perspective of white business people expressed in the words of one businessperson: ‘You cannot force us to hire anybody that we don’t want to hire.’ Supreme Court Justice Owens J. Roberts wrote that consumers had the right to organize, picket, and boycott a business related to concerns that ‘arise with respect to discrimination in terms and conditions of employment based upon differences of race and color’. In other words, the assumed right of white employers to discriminate had been undermined. Perspectives campaigns like ‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work’ and the US Supreme Court possessed legal grounds even prior to the anti-discrimination laws being legislated.32

Mary McLeod Bethune was an active African American Protestant lay leader who was shaped by the progressive religious dissent tradition of civil rights activism. In addition to being the president of a college in Florida, she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1935. An influential member of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Negro Women’s Cabinet that advised the First Lady on issues from the black women’s perspective and headed the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration within the federal government, Bethune led the NCNW into being a vital activist organization. The membership of the Council included Protestant women from the leading black denominations, ranging from Baptist to Methodist to Pentecostal and functioned as ‘an umbrella organization of non-partisan groups—educational, sororities, business, and professional’ as well as religious organizations with 800,000 African American women as members by the 1940s. ‘At the center of the organization’s reformist agenda was the push for labor equality’, according to gloria-yvonne. Black women’s organizations were key to the quest for economic justice.33

Bethune as the head of the Negro Division for the National Youth Administration from a federal appointment from 1936 to 1944 was critical to employing increasing numbers of African American youth. During her tenure at NYA, the number of black youth who benefited from this programme exceeded 80,000; this number constituted more than 10 per cent of all youth hired by NYA. Bethune and other activists encouraged President Franklin (p.231) Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to increase the number of African Americans working for the federal government. During FDR’s administration, African American federal employees grew from 50,000 to 150,000, growing from 5 to 10 per cent of federal employees. Bethune and others convinced FDR to implement a policy of race proportionality as a forerunner of the affirmative action.34

A major strategy of the progressive dissenting approach challenges the racial order of African American subordination through public protest marches and rallies such as March on Washington Movement (MOWM). As a way to secure more federal jobs for African Americans as well as a means to diversify the range of these federal jobs the MOWM was supported by various African American organizations from the National Council of Negro Women to the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches to the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters, civil rights organizations, and black newspapers. During 1940, the NCNW along with NAACP, Urban League, and the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters ‘would shift their focus to equal opportunity in the defense industries’ and lobby for ‘a Federal non-discrimination policy’. NCNW compiled a set of labour demands that ranged from ‘job opportunities as clerical workers and in other white-collar positions’ to ‘black representation on the National Defense Board’. During 1941, a march was planned for the first of July of that year to occur in Washington, DC and other cities in the United States. NCNW supported the MOWM and used its clout with white and black women’s organizations—civic, religious, labour unions, social agencies—to pressure FDR to issue Executive Order 8802 in 1941 ‘that banned discriminatory hiring practices in industries with government war contracts and established what would become to be known as the Fair Employment Practices Commission’. When FDR’s White House agreed to sign an executive order that would ban ‘racial discrimination in government defense industries’ and create the Fair Employment Practices Commission ‘to enforce the law’, the March was called off; yet, local rallies were held in cities prior to and after the compromise with FDR. The local rallies and other activities of the MOWM were to keep pressure on FDR’s administration.35

In 1941, Bethune convened a conference at Howard University after FDR had issued Executive Order 8802. The conference explored ways to leverage this executive order to challenge racial discrimination in employment. The (p.232) conference passed a resolution calling ‘upon all Trade Unions, and their Women’s Auxiliaries’ to cease ‘discrimination against, particularly Negro women’. The resolution also advocated for ‘jobs for Negro Women in National Defense’. Bethune and others worked not only to expand black employment within the confines of the racial order; they sought to end racial discrimination in employment.36

The progressive religious dissent approach also engaged ecumenical agencies to challenge the racial order. The five largest African American Baptist and Methodist denominations were members of ecumenical bodies such as the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches and the Federal Council of Churches. The Federal Council was a white-led organization with a majority white membership with approximately thirty predominately white mainline denominations. The representatives of the five African American member denominations worked to find allies among white member denominations by the late 1930s who got the Federal Council to advocate for racial justice. In 1942, the Federal Council of Churches adopted a platform that included the call to end Western colonialism. By this act, these white American denominations joined some of the African American denominations in advocating the end of the European colonization of Africa and other continents. Black clergy-activists and Protestant lay leaders also spoke against European colonialism during committee meetings related to the founding of the United Nations in 1945. In 1946, the Federal Council adopted a statement renouncing racial segregation and calling for a ‘non-segregated Church and a non-segregated society’.37

Black activist clergy also channelled their political activism through the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches to challenge the legal system of racial segregation. The Fraternal Council of Negro Churches was a leading ecumenical organization of African American Protestant denominations and congregations that promoted racial justice prior to the rise of the modern civil rights campaign as a mass movement of the late 1950s and the 1960s. The Fraternal Council was founded in 1934, under the initiative of African Methodist Episcopal Zion clergyman Reverdy Ransom. Its membership included African American Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal denominations along with black congregations in predominately white denominations.38

(p.233) The progressive religious dissent tradition of civil rights activism launched the modern civil rights movement of 1955 to 1968. The progressive religious dissent tradition of the Black Church increasingly critiqued White Christianity’s embrace of racial segregation as a ‘scandal’ to the Christian Gospel and a ‘social sin’ warranting repentance, the rejection of racial segregation as a church practice. The Civil Rights movement of the era included a southern and northern campaign. The southern campaign received support from the clergy-dominated Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the lay-youth dominated Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, much of the activity was led by local leaders and activists, including black clergy and laypeople. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was organized in 1957 as a broad-based agency to coordinate the campaign in the South and in 1960 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded. The southern campaign attacked the legal system of racial segregation. Established civil rights organizations supported by black churches such as the NAACP played a pivotal role in the southern and northern campaigns. The northern campaign, however, centred around de facto racial segregation, a social system that was not codified into the law. The civil rights struggle in the North consisted of strong local initiatives by grassroots leaders and activists in cities like Chicago where the Coordinating Council on Community Organizations led the campaign as well as groups such as local chapters of national groups like the NAACP.39

The iconic leader of progressive religious dissent tradition of civil rights activism during the era of the modern civil rights movement was Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–68). King and other clergy and lay activists utilized the protest tradition of the religious dissent tradition of the Black Church. They reframed this tradition in terms of a commitment to non-violent active resistance. Identifying this commitment as integral to the Christian gospel, they sought to interrupt the alliance of White Christianity and the racial order of African American subordination; in the theological perspective, the church must be politically involved in campaigns for racial justice. Non-violent active resistance for these activists was a central instrument in the dismantling of the racial order of segregation. After the 1963 March on Washington, a watershed moment occurred within the Black Church and the civil rights movement, the progressive religious dissent tradition of civil rights activism in the Black Church gained the moral high ground in the church and society and was able to function as a significant agency of social change within the American society of the mid-1960s. The role of the Black Church in the civil rights movement must encompass more than the (p.234) involvement of clergy. As Aldon Morris and James M. Washington note the role of black Christian laypeople as well as the discourse, facilities, networks, and culture of the Black Church must be calculated in the assessment of the Black Church’s participation. The landmark phase of the civil rights movement concludes in 1968.40

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, the progressive religious dissent envisioned a church and society beyond the confines of legalized racial segregation. The civil rights movement, the Caribbean independence movement, and the African independence movement had successfully defeated their respective legal systems of racial subordination. The Black Church entered a new era that followed the legal dismantling of the racial order of segregation. The religious dissent tradition of the Black Church struggled to construct a ‘just’ church and ‘just’ society. The dissenting tradition crafted progressive political agendas that emphasized racial justice as a means of empowerment and liberation.

Post-Legalized Racial Segregation Era: The Black Church and New Theological Traditions of Religious Dissent

The modern Black Theology movement reframed the religious dissent of the Black Church during an era when legalized racial segregation was being disassembled. By 1966, the Black Church reframed religious dissent in its critique of the alliance between White Christianity and the racial order of African American subordination in terms of racial power dynamics. With the ‘doctrine of separate but equal’ being ruled as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court and outlawed through the passing of two key civil and voting rights constitutional amendments in 1964 and 1965 by the US Congress, the religious dissent of the Black Church shifted from critiquing White Christianity’s embrace of racial segregation with its attendant theological doctrines of African American inferiority as a ‘scandal’ and a ‘sin’ to the integrity of the Christian faith to the scandal and sin of racism being expressed in the power inequality between white and black Americans. The Poor (p.235) People’s Campaign with its call for economic justice for all races, especially poor people, registered this shift.41

Religious dissent of the Black Church deemed the mere outlawing of racial segregation as inadequate in achieving racial justice. Certain forms of integration were insufficient where the legal barriers to opportunities were lifted but whites still controlled the levers of power in the white majority denominations. To transition to a post-segregated society the racial order needed to be transformed: ‘A more equal sharing of power…is required as the precondition of authentic human interaction’ between the races.42

The gross imbalance of power between the races resulted in white males garnering more power than they could exercise in a just manner. Entrenched within the US power structures, ‘white power’ encountered limited ‘meaningful resistance’ from African Americans in tempering and restraining it in the cause of justice. Consequently, white males exerted inordinate amount of control over African American lives. Power had to be constrained by freedom, love, justice, and truth. Without power being constrained by freedom, love, justice, and truth, the African American ‘concern for justice was transmuted into a distorted form of love, which, in the absence of justice, becomes chaotic self-surrender’ on the part of African Americans; ‘powerlessness breeds a race of beggars’ who possess ‘conscience-less power’ and ‘powerless conscience’.43

Charity or philanthropy became the approach to address the plight of African Americans rather than empowerment. In the process, the image of God in African Americans is marred by the power dynamics of anti-black racism. In concrete ways, the media was used to foster ‘a national consensus’ on race that was informed by the multiple perspectives within each race on the other race as well as on national issues; the goal was for ‘a national consensus’ to be grounded in truth. To strengthen African Americans as an economic block, the economic inequality between the races needed to be rectified; economic equality between the races needed to become the norm so that ‘a more equal sharing of power’ could have a solid basis.44

Unchecked power distorted love and conscience within white Christians. Power itself became the ‘controlling element in power’ rather than love controlling power. Within White Christianity allied to a racial order of African American subordination, Christian love was unhitched from justice; White Christianity preferred to moralize love as a topic in reference to African Americans rather than understanding love and justice as intertwined; justice was key to controlling power in addition to love.45

(p.236) In challenging the alliance of White Christianity and the racial order of African American subordination and white supremacy, Black Theology as a movement of religious dissent also addressed various critiques of the Christian faith: Christianity as a ‘white man’s religion’ and African American Christianity as a tool of white racism. The challenge that Christianity was a white man’s religion came especially from African American Muslims. They contended that Christianity was the white man’s religion because of its historical development, legitimation of white supremacy, and delegitimation of humanity and self-determination of people of African descent. Christianity, according to these critics, had served as the ‘perfect slave religion’, as a religion that enslaved and pacified African peoples with its white Jesus and theology of submission; even, the Bible ‘in the white man’s hands and his interpretation of it’ had served as the ‘greatest ideological weapon for enslaving millions of non-white human beings’.46

The religious dissent crafted by these African American theologians responded to this critique in a variety of ways. As this chapter has presented, African American Christians had for a long time critiqued the role of Christian doctrine in legitimizing white supremacy and delegitimizing the struggle for African American self-determination and liberation. They had denounced these white theological inventions as distortions of the Christian faith. According to Cornel West, these theologians argued for the negation of these distortions of the gospel along with other white misinterpretations of the gospel, the preservation of the ‘perceived truths of the biblical texts’, and transformation of ‘past understandings of the gospel’ into interpretations of the gospel that were biblically sound and relevant to the struggle for liberation. They challenged the theological complicity of Christianity with white supremacy in the United States.47

A Christian apologetic espoused by modern black theologians contended that the Christian God objected to racism in addition to identifying with and standing in solidarity with the victims of racism, with the oppressed; the Christian God was the God of the oppressed. They asserted that the Christian gospel, as opposed to certain white Christian theologies, did not legitimate racism because the Gospel supported the emancipation of ‘black people from white racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people’.48

Consequently, Christianity was not a white man’s religion and African American Christianity was distinct from the form of Christianity that (p.237) white racism constructed; if anything Christianity was a black religion, an emancipatory religion of the oppressed. The God of the oppressed participated in the liberation struggle of all oppressed people, an act signalized by the cross and resurrection where victory was won where all can ‘inhabit the world beyond racial and theological…closure’ and ‘inhabit the world beyond the theological problem of whiteness’.49

As stated above, throughout the long twentieth century, the religious dissent tradition of the Black Church has found ways to resist the racial orders that it rejected, although it employed diverse strategies. It has sought to proclaim and embody the Christian faith in such a manner that Christianity emerged as a faith for all people, regardless of race or nationality.

Conclusion

As a movement within the Protestant Dissenting Tradition, the Black Church has resisted forms of Christianity that it understood as being against the Christian faith, envisioned a Church and society that embraced racial justice and political self-determination for the citizens of the Black Atlantic and other regions, and established a religious network that played a vital role in the Black Atlantic related to oppose colonialism. As the Black Church operated in the United States and the Black Atlantic, it proclaimed the Christian faith in such a manner that Christianity would be understood as a faith for all people, regardless of race or nationality.

The religious dissent of the Black Church with its focus on defending the Christian gospel against being corrupted by the doctrine of racism marks the contribution of the Black Church to the wider dissenting tradition in the global context. Rejecting the alliance of Christianity and the race order with its racial hierarchies, it engaged in the religious delegitimation of the racial order of African American subordination and white supremacy, espousing a Christian egalitarianism that affirms the equality of the races, and envisioning a church where grace structures ecclesial life rather than racism.

This chapter explored the dissenting tradition of the Black Church that challenged the alliance of White Christianity and the racial order, paralleling the anti-monarchist and anti-royalist currents of the post-Reformation era. It identified five aspects of the dissenting tradition: exposing the white alliance contorting Christianity into an instrument of anti-black racism and European colonialism, delegitimating the alliance between White Christianity as a corruption of Christianity, working to dismantle the racial order of segregation, (p.238) erecting ecclesial alternatives beyond the racial order, and privileging grace over race in the construction of Christian identity and communities. The dissenting tradition of the Black Church remained clear about the need for racial justice in constructing a just Church and just society. The Gospel, according to Black Theology, as a message of grace over race supported the emancipation of all races of people. The dissenting traditions of the Black Church hailed grace over race.

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Notes:

(1) See Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (New York, 2015); the African American denominations with the largest presence throughout the Black Atlantic are the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, and the National Baptist Convention, Inc.

(2) On the ‘double function’ of religion in legitimating and delegitimating the dominant social order see Dwight B. Billings and Shaunna L. Scott, ‘Religion and Political Legitimation’, Annual Review of Sociology, XX, 1 (1994), p. 173.

(7) See Newman, Freedom’s Prophet, and George, Segregated Sabbaths.

(9) Alistair Renfrew, Mikhail Bakhtin (New York; London, 2015), p. 131.

(12) Ogbu U. Kalu, Clio in a Sacred Garb: Essays on Christian Presence and African Responses, 1900–2000 (Trenton, NJ, 2008), pp. 169–74, 160.

(13) South African Native Affairs Commission, Minutes of Evidence, Vol. IV (Cape Town, 1903 and 1905), pp. 449, 466 cited in Robert A. Hill and Marcus Garvey, eds, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Africa for the Africans, 1923–1945, Vol. X (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA; London, 2006), p. 34; Lawrence S. Little, Disciples of Liberty: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Age of Imperialism, 1884–1916 (Knoxville, TN, 2000), pp. 82, 123; Sandy Dwayne Martin, Black Baptists and African Missions: The Origins of a Movement, 1880–1915 (Macon, GA, 1989), p. 198.

(14) Negro Year Book, (1922), p. 229.

(15) ‘The Church’ in ‘The Niagara Movement: Declaration of Principles 1905’ (accessed 16 May 2016. scua.library.umass.edu/digital/dubois/312.2.839-01-07.pdf.

(17) Marcela Cristi, From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 2001), p. 79.

(18) Dorrien, The New Abolition, p. 5.

(19) Ralph Nelson Davis, The Negro Newspaper in Chicago, MA Thesis, University of Chicago, (1939), p. 59, cited in St Clair Drake, Churches and Voluntary Associations in the Chicago Negro Community ([Chicago], 1940), p. 110; Chicago Defender (22 July 1913), p. 7, cited in Joseph A. Logsdon, The Rev. Archibald J. Carey and the Negro in Chicago Politics, MA Thesis, University of Chicago (1961), p. 30.

(20) Dorrien, The New Abolition, p. 7; also see Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent.

(23) Ibid., pp. 56–8.

(24) William B. Holt, compiler, A Brief Historical and Doctrinal Statement and Rules for Government of the Church of God in Christ (c.1917), p. 9.

(25) Ibid., p. 9.

(26) Morris E. Golder, History of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (Indianapolis; reprint, Birmingham, AL, 1973; 1993), pp. 58–9, 70–2, 85; note that in 1937 almost all the African Americans who left PAoW in 1932 returned back to the denomination; also see Daniels, ‘Navigating the Territory’, pp. 56–7.

(30) On Chicago’s Black Baptist Clergy and AME Preachers’ Union endorsing political candidates see, The Broad Ax (28 Nov. 1914), cited in Drake, Churches and Voluntary Associations in the Chicago Negro Community, p. 111. Cf. Miles Mark Fisher, The History of the Olivet Baptist Church of Chicago, MA Thesis, University of Chicago, (1922), p. 92.

(31) Gary Jerome Hunter, ‘Don’t Buy from Where You Can’t Work’: Black Urban Boycott Movements During the Depression, 1929–1941, PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, (1977).

(34) gloria-yvonne, ‘Mary Mcleod Bethune, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Prewar Push for Equal Opportunity in Defense Projects’, pp. 22–3.

(35) Ibid., pp. 22–5, 29; Rhonda Jones, ‘A. Philip Randolph, Early Pioneer: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, National Negro Congress, and the March on Washington Movement’, in Michael Ezra, ed., The Economic Civil Rights Movement: African Americans and the Struggle for Economic Power (New York; London, 2013), p. 14; Unfortunately, FDR’s ‘transference of FEPC oversight to Congress’ undercut the efforts toward fair employment practices because Congress was harder to pressure and lobby than FDR’s White House.

(36) gloria-yvonne, ‘Mary Mcleod Bethune, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Prewar Push for Equal Opportunity in Defense Projects’, p. 30.

(42) ‘Statement by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen, July 31, 1966’, p. 25.

(43) Ibid., pp. 23–4.

(44) Ibid., pp. 28, 23.

(45) Ibid., p. 26.

(46) Alistair Kee, The Rise and Demise of Black Theology (London, 2008 edn), p. 41; also see by Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York, 2011).

(48) National Committee of Black Churchmen, Black Theology (13 June 1969), quoted in James H. Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (Maryknoll, NY, 1984), p. 53.