Henry Louis Gates Jr. on African-American Religion

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.

Gates himself is working within a biblical tradition. Remembrance lies at the heart of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In Deuteronomy, Moses says, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations.” At the Last Supper, Jesus said, simply, “Do this in remembrance of me” — a command, the Anglican monk Dom Gregory Dix once wrote, that’s arguably the most obeyed exhortation in history. To remember is orienting and illuminating, and we should always bear in mind that faith is an essential element of the nation’s story, for good and for ill. “It is … clear that the study of Negro religion is not only a vital part of the history of the Negro in America,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), “but no uninteresting part of American history.”

Relying heavily on the voices of myriad scholars and clergy members (often combined in the same person, like Kelly Brown Douglas or Jonathan L. Walton), Gates traces the story back even before Jamestown. “The foundation of the African-American spiritual journey,” he writes, “was formed out of fragments of faith that our ancestors brought with them to this continent starting 500 years ago” — not 400. He chronicles the Spanish New World and describes the strands of belief and practice — from Roman Catholicism to African religions to Islam — that created the basis for the Black church.

The stories of deliverance from the pharaoh and from sin held out that rarest of things for the enslaved: hope. “We have to give the church its due as a source of our ancestors’ unfathomable resiliency and perhaps the first formalized site for the collective fashioning and development of so many African-American aesthetic forms,” Gates argues. “Although Black people made spaces for secular expression, only the church afforded room for all of it to be practiced at the same time.”

At its best, biblical religion is about reversal and transformation — the most resonant of messages for Black people in a white-supremacist America. “Never confuse position with power,” the Rev. Otis Moss III, a Chicago pastor born in 1970, says in Gates’s epigraph. “Pharaoh had a position, but Moses had the power. Herod had a position, but John had the power. The cross had a position, but Jesus had the power. Lincoln had a position, but Douglass had the power. Woodrow Wilson had a position, but Ida B. Wells had the power. George Wallace had a position, but Rosa Parks had the power. Lyndon Baines Johnson had a position, but Martin Luther King had the power. We have the power. Don’t you ever forget.” Moss’s homiletic riff is rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus, too, used antithesis to urge listeners to build a new and better world.

The summons to close the gap between profession and practice, between love and hate, between freedom and slavery, lies at the heart of the troubled American journey. Framing the challenge to white Americans with fearlessness and clarity, Frederick Douglass said: “You profess to believe ‘that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth’ and hath commanded all men, everywhere, to love one another; yet you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred) all men whose skins are not colored like your own.” As Gates puts it, religious appeals, then, “gave them the moral authority to turn the mirror of religion back on their masters and to indict the nation for its original sin of allowing their enslavement to build up that ‘city upon a hill.’”

The critique of Christianity’s role cannot be ignored. To Malcolm X, for instance, religion had to be oriented toward action, not encourage passivity or justify a patient wait for justice. “When you have a philosophy or gospel,” Malcolm said, “I don’t care whether it’s the religious gospel or political gospel, an economic gospel or social gospel. If it’s not going to do something for you and me right here right now, to hell with that gospel.” King and Lewis would argue that nonviolence was about transformation on earth (and by the end of his life Malcolm had greater sympathy with the Southern movement), but the urgency Malcolm embodied bears attention — then and now. “Malcolm is as much a part of the Black religious experience as anybody else,” Calvin Butts, the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, told Gates. “He was a Muslim, but so what? He was a man empowered by God.”

In the era of Black Lives Matter and of continuing white-supremacist violence, the Black church faces a question that, as Augustine wrote, is ever ancient, ever new: What now? “Something has been let loose, and so religious folk must create a counternarrative to that,” Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, tells Gates. “And I think the teachings of Jesus are just as clear that Christian folk and Christian leaders cannot abide or countenance anybody’s supremacy over anybody else, white or anything, and cannot remain silent. Silence is consent.”

In a memorial tribute to the Rev. Andrew Bryan, who had been born into slavery and became the minister of the First Colored Church of Savannah — a church that had begun life as a praise house — an admirer quoted the Book of Daniel: “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars, forever and ever.” In Gates’s telling, the Black church, too, shines bright even as the nation itself moves uncertainly through the gloaming, seeking justice on earth — as it is in heaven.

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